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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
More emphasis should be placed on improving Israel's aliya and absorption process, with all immigration outreach - for both new and former residents - united under the auspices of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, the ministry's outgoing director-general told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview this week.
"The future of the State of Israel is dependent on the arrival of new immigrants," Erez Halfon told the Post. "And from my point of view the Immigrant Absorption Ministry should be considered one of the most important, if not the most important, government offices."
According to Halfon, who steps down from office at the end of this month, the ministry responsible for easing the integration of thousands of new immigrants into Israel each year should have its funding increased and its responsibilities expanded to include pre-aliya programs such as those currently run today by birthright israel and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
"Just as aliya organizations like Nefesh B'Nefesh and AMI have come under our roof, the Jewish Agency's MASA program, which is designed to prepare people for aliya, and even birthright should also be the ministry's responsibility," said Halfon, adding, "Everyday a different person or organization comes with a new initiative and there is a real mix of programs with no central address designated to manage it."
He continued: "The Immigrant Absorption Ministry has to be strengthened, with all resources for aliya and absorption being put under one roof. Only reorganization of the entire system will provide new immigrants with a successful aliya."
Halfon said that his ideal would be a ministry dealing with all issues related to aliya, absorption and the Diaspora.
"I think it is important that there is a Diaspora Affairs Ministry, but really, there should be one office - the Ministry of Aliya, Absorption, Returning Israelis and Diaspora,'" he stated.
Halfon blamed the sharp dip in aliya figures over the past decade - following the large arrival of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s - as the reason for his ministry's stagnation and the government's lack of interest in investing in and improving immigrant absorption.
"There was a period when this ministry was the one that no politician wanted to head; it was taken on by ministers only as a last resort because there were no other government offices left for them. But I hope that I have managed to change that image. I believe this is a new era, with politicians who really want to manage the office," Halfon said, highlighting this week's showdown between MKs Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor) and Lia Shemtov (Israel Beiteinu), who both wanted to champion immigration causes via the Knesset Committee on Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs. On Wednesday, Shemtov was appointed committee chair.
"In the past three years, I really think that I have managed to give this ministry a complete overhaul and I have made changes in nearly every department and field that deals with new immigrants," said Halfon, who claims among his accomplisments the launching of an immigration program that includes a basket of benefits and tax breaks for returning Israelis (some 12,000 former residents have returned so far), easing of tax regulations for all new immigrants and the outline of a plan to bring in more than 1 million immigrants over the next 15 years.
Halfon's proposal, called "The Next Million," which has been running as a pilot over the past several months in the FSU, is a combined effort with the Jewish Agency to increase and improve the marketing of Israel to potential olim. If successful, it will be expanded to include countries such as South Africa, France and the US. The plan also includes widening the basket of benefits provided to immigrants.
"The United States, for example, is facing a very difficult economic situation and it's time for us to take advantage of the situation there to encourage Jews to come here," said Halfon. "In general, Israel has to make more of an effort to strengthen aliya because, at the end of the day, returning Israelis and new immigrants are the future of the State of Israel."