Gov't to develop ‘immigration marketplace'

Absorption Ministry yearns for thirst for aliah.

By HAVIV RETTIG GUR
May 6, 2010 23:12
3 minute read.
new immigrants

olim311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

The Immigrant Absorption Ministry has faced several consecutive years of declining budgets as the massive immigration wave of the 1990s ground down to a trickle.

With aliya hovering at the levels of ordinary world migration figures, and recent governments committing to strict budgetary discipline and efficiency, the ministry has been desperately searching for ways to pay for new programs that might reverse the downward trend of aliya.

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The vast majority of the ministry’s NIS 1.4 billion annual budget is “hard” – funds promised to immigrants by law that the ministry cannot touch. Only some NIS 200 million is “flexible,” or available for effecting programs or policies beyond what is mandatory.

Work training vouchers, community aliya programs, the Tzabar program for children of expats who return to Israel to serve in the IDF – all these are funded out of that flexible budget.

Just under one-quarter of that sum, or some NIS 43m., goes to encouraging increased immigration from abroad. Of that, NIS 30m. goes to Nefesh B’Nefesh and its operations to bring aliya from North America and Britain, leaving just NIS 13m. available for the remainder of the world’s Jewish communities.

Even with the help of the Jewish Agency, which contributes several million shekels annually to improve the absorption conditions of new immigrants, only a miniscule sum of money is left over for program that might increase aliya – and justify the ministry’s continued existence.

In response to this harsh reality, the Absorption Ministry has decided to turn the problem on its head. In recent weeks, it has been turning to local governments throughout the country with a simple message: You want more immigrants? Help pay for them.

“We believe in aliya and Zionism. But this is a world of interests, of economics,” says ministry director-general Dmitry Apartsev. “We are a country that has nothing – not oil, not gas. All we have is people.” In recent years, he says, “local governments have started to realize this. And they’ve started to understand that immigrants are a net asset. It is a historical fact that every period of economic expansions and prosperity coincided exactly with a major wave of aliya. They generate taxes, jobs, population growth. They saw the good that immigrants brought to Carmiel and Haifa and other places, and they wanted some of that for themselves.”

As local governments come to understand the economic opportunities represented by absorbing new immigrants, the ministry has discovered a new lever for fundraising.

“Absorbing olim is becoming a privilege” in this newly-discovered marketplace, Apartsev says. “Nowadays I find myself sitting down with a local council head and saying, ‘I have money, I have population. What are you prepared to put in? What are you prepared to offer these immigrants?’ I won’t work with councils that aren’t willing to put their own money in the pot as an investment in their future.” Making the councils fight – and pay – for their immigrants also increases the value of the immigrants in the eye of local governments, assuring that they will continue to care for their new residents after the initial absorption basket wears out.

As the phenomenon expands, Apartsev looks forward to a future in which an immigrant’s absorption is entirely handled by his local government.

“Our vision for the future is for the ministry to become entirely a regulatory body. The implementation will come from the local government, and the aliya assistance and encouragement will be handled by private organizations [like Nefesh B’Nefesh], who can talk to immigrants in their own language.”

Apartsev believes a new era is dawning in immigration policy worldwide.

“Absorption and integration is a global challenge, and we’re lucky that we are ahead of the curve in terms of desiring and assisting immigrants. But we’ve lost some of that feeling,” he laments. “We need to return to our roots, to being a state that’s thirsty for immigration.”

Apartsev blames the media in part for what he sees as a national disenchantment with the aliya enterprise, and thus indirectly for the Absorption Ministry’s budget crunch.

The media’s coverage of immigrant crime, he says, is “terrible and disproportionate. After last year’s murder of the Oshrenko family [by Russian immigrant Damian Karlik], did any reporter check the percentage of criminals among the immigrant population before the newspapers screamed for stricter control on aliya?” An Absorption Ministry study, he says, has concluded that crime is actually lower among immigrants than among the general Israeli public.

“Immigration has lost its idealism, and even become a dirty word sometimes. And that’s wrong. Aliya is the founding purpose of this country, and it’s a powerful lever for prosperity. Maybe the media should start taking notice of that.”


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