Israel will observe Aliya Day, a national holiday celebrating immigration, for the first time on Tuesday.
This follows a law passed by the Knesset in June instituting the holiday on the seventh of the Hebrew month of Heshvan, coinciding with the reading of the Torah portion in which Abraham is told to leave his home to go to the promised land.
On Aliya Day, schools will teach about the contributions immigrants made to Israel, the Knesset will hold special meetings, and ceremonies will be held by the President’s Residence, the IDF and Israel Police.
The Immigration and Absorption Ministry will host a ceremony to mark the day at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center on Tuesday night. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Immigration and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky are to attend the gathering, which will include a festive concert honoring various stages of aliya from different countries.
“Thirty-seven years ago I made aliya due to the desire to build my home here and raise a family,” Landver said ahead of the event.
“Like me, hundreds of thousands of olim arrive in Israel every year because of the same sense of connection to the homeland.”
“I am proud and excited that for the first time, a day to mark aliya is being held in Israel,” she said.
“All those immigrants, from the first aliya to the fifth, to operations Moses and Solomon and to the new olim, everyone makes up the kibbutz galuyot [ingathering of exiles], which is called the State of Israel.”
In addition to being a day of celebration, the occasion also provides an opportunity to reflect upon issues and challenges faced by immigrants already in the country.
Qualita, an umbrella organization of NGOs supporting French olim, said that despite government efforts in the area of immigrant absorption, French aliya is in decline. While in 2015 some 8,000 immigrants came from France, the estimated total number for 2016 is 4,500.
“The figures are alarming and the decline in the number of immigrants from France follows several years of steady increase in the number of immigrants from France,” Qualita CEO Ariel Kandel said. He called on the Israeli government to advance a special absorption strategy which meets the specific needs of the French population.
According to a recent study in France, 43% of French Jews – which comprises more than 200,000 people – said they want to move to Israel.
“In order to enable them to realize their dreams, the State of Israel must promote a strategy which will include elements of housing, education and, most importantly, employment,” Kandel said. “Without prospects for career development, most Jews who want to move won’t be able to do so.”
One issue faced by French olim is that Israel doesn’t recognize certain academic degrees and professional qualifications, such as nursing.
Additionally, language barriers and bureaucratic difficulties are other factors that drive olim back to France, or to other countries they deem better suited to their absorption.
Kandel warns that not only do these issues cause olim to leave Israel, but they also reach France, deterring potential immigrants from making the move. “If the situation does not change, the State of Israel will continue to lose many immigrants to other countries which offer better absorption conditions, and we will all lose out,” he said.
Finding suitable employment is a challenge faced by many olim, from all countries. Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN), which facilitates aliya for Jews from North America, Canada and the UK, recently created its own jobs board to make the job hunt easier for English-speaking olim.
“We show some 300 new jobs every week and we try to help olim prepare before aliya,” NBN executive vice president Zev Gershinsky told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
“As they sit in their homes in North America, they can see what jobs are out there and apply.”
He mentioned a program in the Negev where NBN, in collaboration with NGO Gvahim, brought 10 families to the Negev, having arranged their employment prior to aliya. “We are focusing on employment for olim because we understand it’s the biggest challenge for young couples and singles,” he said.
As 2017 approaches, NBN is developing a new strategy to reach audiences that have been “quiet” in recent years, with regard to aliya.
“We want to see if we can stir their interest,” Gershinsky said. Young families in modern Orthodox communities comprise one target audience, and the children of Israelis who left to America are another.
NBN strives to “raise a voice” in these communities and to put aliya on the table, he said.
In addition to the organization’s annual Aliya Mega Event in New York City, it will also offer more seminars, as well as more intimate gatherings. “A seminar might be intimidating for young families – a conversation in the living room with six other couples might be more appealing,” Gershinsky said.
The Jewish Agency also has its sights set on young adults. “We believe the future of Israel is in young aliya,” said Yehuda Sharf, director of aliya and absorption at the Jewish Agency. “After they come, their parents follow,” he added.
The agency hopes to triple the amount of olim coming through the Garin Tzabar program and will create new absorption centers for the young soldiers, one in Ibim in 2017 and another in Beersheba in 2018, in addition to the one that already exists in Ra’anana. “We don’t leave them [young olim] after a year or two,” he said. “We keep in contact with them.”
Sharf said the agency is not surprised by the decline of French aliya, explaining that the majority of French olim who came before were those who had the means to buy or rent property in Israel. Since many French citizens live in social housing in their home country, the housing situation in Israel is all the more difficult for them, according to Sharf.
“In order to absorb them, Israel needs to make a strategic housing plan,” he said, adding that the housing situation is a problem for all Israelis. When a reasonable housing plan is in place, Sharf believes there will be mass aliya from France.
“These are the two main things – housing and employment – and it’s first and foremost the responsibility of the Israeli government,” Sharf said. With regard to the problem of non-transferable qualifications for nurses and optometrists from France to Israel, he said the Health Ministry is expected to resolve the problem soon.
Meanwhile, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) continues to identify areas where it can add value. “Aliya really should be one of highest priorities of Israel, but as long as it’s not getting the attention it needs, the fellowship will fill in the gaps,” said executive vice president and CEO of IFCJ in Israel, Jeff Kaye.
The organization began bringing Jews from around the world to Israel in 2012, and Kaye asserted that it will invest even more in aliya in 2017. “We’re pleased that there is Aliya Day, but for us every day is Aliya Day,” he said. “It’s one of the dangers when something like this becomes official, that for the rest of the year it’s not important.
“We are always looking to see where we are needed,” Kaye said.
“We went into direct aliya operations in the first place because we felt we could do more to help them make aliya and help them absorb – not to replace the Jewish Agency or NBN but to add to them.”
IFCJ specifically seeks to aid people who would not be able to make aliya without help, due to a lack of financial means, and sometimes a lack of information. IFCJ believes it is essential to take into consideration the different needs of olim from each country and to have a presence on the ground to take the olim step-by-step through the aliya process.
“There shouldn’t be a one-size fits all,” Kaye said. “You need to look at each customer and work as a retailer rather than a wholesaler. No one gets on a plane in order to come back, and if they’re not succeeding here it’s not their failure, but our failure.” According to IFCJ, the key to a successful absorption lies with the local authorities, who Kaye sees as more interested and effective at absorbing olim than the government.
“We don’t believe that numbers of olim are as important as the number of those successfully integrated,” he said. “The government doesn’t monitor how many people leave in the first two years – we have specific statistics about those who come with us, and we judge ourselves by the number of those who stay.”
Netanyahu commended immigrants for their contributions to Israel in a Likud faction meeting Monday.
“This has been a massive contribution in every area of our lives and the life of our nation, starting with the waves of immigration in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s,” he said. “The big aliya from the Former Soviet Union, from Russia and Ukraine, from Ethiopia, from France that we see now, and many other countries. Their contribution is so great and so varied.”
Netanyahu said aliya is “the basic purpose of the Jewish State and the realization of Biblical prophesies about the ingathering of exiles and the return of the Jewish people to its homeland. The Jewish people are returning to the Land of Israel and building in it the State of Israel. This is a great holiday for all Israeli citizens, new and old.”
Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.