Largest French aliya flight of the summer lands in Israel, July 20, 2016.
(photo credit: TAMARA ZIEVE)
For the first time since its establishment, Israel marked Aliya Day, a national holiday devoted to celebrating the contributions of immigrants and raising awareness about the importance of future immigration.
The day of the year chosen – the seventh of the Hebrew month of Heshvan – coincides with the reading of the Torah portion in which the patriarch Abraham is told to leave his home for the promised land.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted in conjunction with Aliya Day, that immigration is “the basic purpose of the Jewish state and the realization of Biblical prophecies about the ingathering of exiles and the return of the Jewish people to its homeland... This is a great holiday for all Israeli citizens, new and old.”
But if aliya is so central to Zionism, why did it take nearly seven decades to set aside a day to celebrate it? Part of the reason has to do with the fact that in the first decades after the establishment of the State of Israel it hardly made sense to distinguish between new immigrants and those who weren’t. The vast majority of Israeli citizens were Jews who were newcomers to the Jewish state. There was nothing special about being a new immigrant. Those who had been born in Israel – “the Sabras” – were an elite minority.
Today, after Israel has successfully absorbed millions of immigrants in a miraculous return of a people to its historic homeland after being exiled for nearly two millennia, the time has come to set aside a day to celebrate the past and contemplate the future of aliya.
The concept of aliya has changed radically since the first decades of Israel’s establishment. Once upon a time, refugees made up the bulk of olim, whether they were Jews abandoning Europe before during or after the Holocaust, or Jews from Muslim lands leaving host countries no longer hospitable to them after the revival of Jewish nationalism.
Today’s immigrants are for the most part not refugees.
Their choice to make Israel home is often based on a desire to upgrade their quality of life. Israel’s dynamic economy offers olim opportunities for career advancement that rival options available in the Diaspora.
Tight-knit communities provide a warm environment to raise a family. And there is a strong feeling of belonging among Jews in Israel that is often lacking in the Diaspora. And all this is added to Israel’s high standard of living.
However, the changing face of aliya presents new challenges. Qualita, an umbrella organization of NGOs supporting French aliya, said that despite government efforts in the area of immigrant absorption, French aliya is on the decline.
Despite wild estimates of a major influx of French olim in the wake of rising antisemitism and terrorist attacks directed against French Jews, the number of immigrants expected to arrive in Israel from France during 2016 is 4,500, significantly lower than the 8,000 immigrants who came to Israel in 2015.
Qualita CEO Ariel Kandel told The Jerusalem Post’s Tamara Zieve that Israel needs to adopt special absorption strategies that answer the needs of French Jewry, particularly in the field of employment.
“Without prospects for career development most Jews who want to move won’t be able to do so,” Kandel said.
Of particular concern is the difficulty that French olim run into when trying to receive recognition for certain academic degrees and professional qualifications for nurses, pharmacists, optometrists and other para-medical professions.
Another major obstacle to immigration is the dearth of affordable housing, according to Yehuda Sharf, director of aliya and absorption at the Jewish Agency.
Many French Jews are prevented from immigrating due to prohibitively high housing costs, a problem that affects Israelis as well.
A large percentage of French Jewry would make aliya if the employment and housing environments permitted it. One study found that 43% of French Jewry or around 200,000 people want to move to Israel.
Aliya Day should be a time not only to celebrate the contributions of past immigrants, it should also be an opportunity to implement policies that tap into the potential for future aliya.