The cabinet, responding to a deteriorating security situation for the continent’s Jews, approved two measures to increase European immigration to Israel on Sunday.
The first, an inter-ministerial committee tasked with seeking solutions to ease the transition for immigrants, will look at ways of removing barriers to employment and integrating new arrivals into the workforce. The second initiative, a corporation for the promotion of immigration to be jointly owned by the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization, marks the government’s indirect entrance into territory previously the exclusive domain of the agency.
The cabinet’s approval of the two measures came as members of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors gathered in Jerusalem for their four-monthly meeting, during which agency chairman Natan Sharansky boasted of a significant increase in immigration from both France and Ukraine.
“Never in the history of the State of Israel has there been a Jewish community in the free world that has sent such a large proportion of its Jews to Israel,” Sharansky told the board. “We cannot take responsibility for the fact that so many Jews and so many young French people in general are leaving France, but the fact that Israel has become the number one destination for young French Jews is a testament to our success in connecting them to the Jewish state.”
Sharansky stated that a full one percent of French Jews, five thousand people, is expected to move to Israel this year.
According to Sharansky, while young leaders in Europe have been reluctant to say that they have no future on the continent, they were likewise reticent to admit to any confidence that there was one. The rise of the far Right, a feeling that Israel is being delegitimized, increasing Islamic violence, and several attempts to ban Jewish rituals such as circumcision and ritual slaughter, have all contributed to a feeling among many European Jews that their future is precarious at best.
While immigration is on the rise from Ukraine as well, mostly as a result of the civil war brewing in its eastern territories bordering Russia, most of that country’s remaining Jews will not move to Israel, said Roman Polonsky, the director of the agency’s Unit for Russian-Speaking Jewry.
It is therefore critical, Polonsky said, that the agency work to support local communities. A twenty four hour-a-day hotline has been established to field inquiries regarding aliya from prospective immigrants there, he added.
Given the difficulties that many educated professionals moving from Europe face when arriving in Israel, the cabinet voted to create a team comprised of representatives of the Ministry of Immigration Absorption, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Economy, and other governmental bodies to look into the issues. It will have two months to present its recommendations on how to remove barriers facing those wishing to transfer professional certifications and licenses as well as those looking to enter the civil service.
The corporation being established to deal with European immigration will be granted a budget of NIS 30 million for fiscal years 2014-2015, while a further thirty million shekels will be budgeted for the Ministry of Immigration Absorption to spend on organizations that promote immigration in Europe.
Work undertaken in countries of the former Soviet Union will be managed in coordination with Nativ, an agency under the aegis of the Prime Minister’s Office that was tasked with promoting immigration during the communist period.
Legal constraints connected to foreign governments encouraging citizens of sovereign states to emigrate, prevent Israel from directly appealing to Jews in the Diaspora to make aliya. This role has traditionally been the exclusive bastion of the Jewish Agency, meaning that the corporation will of necessity be owned by JAFI and the WZO, which are non-governmental organizations.
Both organizations will jointly choose the head of the corporation, but oversight of its operations and budget will be handled by a joint committee including government representatives.
This steering committee will be comprised of two representatives of JAFI, two from the WZO, one from United Israel Appeal and five from the Ministry of Immigration Absorption. The director-general of the ministry will be the chairman of the body and will have the right to break any tie during voting.
An initial version of the plan listed the Jewish National Fund as one of the owners of the corporation and stated that it would be providing the funding, a claim that the JNF vigorously denied.
The Jewish Federations of North America, which was listed in the plan passed today as one of the bodies authorized to raise funds for the new endeavor along with United Israel Appeal and the Jewish Agency, expressed its opposition to the new plan earlier this month, stating that it would imperil the Jewish Agency’s status as the “exclusive body to deal with aliya.”
Sharansky, however, was more sanguine, writing to members of his board that the new plan would “not affect any of our current aliya responsibilities or the government’s relationship with us, as responsible for aliya worldwide.”
One source close to the matter said that he saw the program as giving the government a bigger say in how the Jewish Agency spends money on promoting immigration and that “the Jewish Agency is being stripped.”
Another source with inside knowledge of Israel’s immigration policy, disagreed however, telling The Jerusalem Post that he feels that while it is possible that the Ministry of Immigration Absorption is trying to gain control of territory previously thought of as belonging exclusively to the agency, given that almost all of the available manpower and infrastructure on the ground belongs to JAFI, such attempts are only providing the agency with a larger budget, albeit indirectly.
Speaking with the Post, one official from the ministry welcomed what he called the “new cooperation,” saying it would change the way that Israel oversees and acts on one of the government’s main purposes, which is to encourage aliya.
Israel is a “country of immigrants,” Minister of Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver said in response to the vote, calling the government decision a lighthouse showing immigrants the way to their national home.
“We welcome the decision of the Israeli government to help the efforts of the Jewish Agency in encouraging immigration and absorption.
Every year the Jewish Agency invests more than $50 million in Immigrant Absorption and since the beginning of the year, we have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of immigrants from France and Ukraine. The Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption are working in full coordination with regard to immigration from France,” Sharansky said.