When Ze'ev Boim peers over the wide desk in his corner office at the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, he stares directly at a picture of his past. On the wall hangs an enlarged photograph, taken in 1952, celebrating the "bar mitzva" - or 13th anniversary - of Nahalat Jabotinsky, a neighborhood in Binyamina that his parents helped found soon after coming to Israel from Poland.
The placement of the snapshot is appropriate, since history serves as a strong point of personal and professional reference for the 63-year-old Boim. A history major at university, Boim became a history teacher and wrote two history texts - a book on America during the Cold War and a three-volume chronicle of the Jewish people - during his ascent from the principal's office of the Kiryat Gat Comprehensive High School, through his becoming the mayor of the southern development town, to his current post.
He uses historical allusions when relating to Israel's current immigration issues - whether it's emigrating Israelis or Ethiopian absorption - and he draws on his past experiences in his new role.
Serving as mayor of Kiryat Gat, a town with a significant immigrant population, was "a very good university," he says. (He also gained some familiarity with the aliya process while serving as an educational emissary to Mexico, where he was the principal of a Jewish school.)
Boim's personal history, too, has a lot to do with his present undertaking. Among those gathered in his framed photo are the Olmerts, who were also founders of Nahalat Jabotinsky. Boim's political career has risen along with that of his lifelong friend and close confidant, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Like Olmert, Boim quickly jumped from the Likud to Kadima when former PM Ariel Sharon created it in November.
Though Sharon, under whom Boim served as deputy defense minister, tried to reward him for his support on disengagement with a ministry of his own, it was only under Olmert that it happened. Then acting premier, Olmert appointed Boim Minister of Housing and Construction, as well as Agriculture and Rural Development, in January.
In the current government, Boim had to settle for only one ministry, though for a while he seemed bound to go without a cabinet post at all, in order to serve as the Knesset speaker. The desirable assignment ended up going to former Laborite Dalia Itzik, with the unpopular absorption ministry widely seen as a consolation prize. Boim has dismissed that assertion, as well as rumors that he might be tapped to replace current Israeli ambassador to the US Danny Ayalon when the latter's term ends in September.
Boim declares that "aliya is the oxygen of the State of Israel," and he wants to make sure the country has no trouble breathing - so that it isn't viewed only in historical perspective.
You've emphasized the fact that some 700,000 Israelis are living permanently abroad and that a focus of your administration will be to bring them back. Why do you think they have left, and what can you do to attract them to Israel?
When you read about the famous Second Aliya in the beginning of the 20th century, you get the impression that this aliya was the only one. I mean, they established and prepared the infrastructure of the State of Israel, they were ideological people and they believed in Zionism. [But] 90 percent of this aliya returned to their countries of origin. Ninety percent! So the relations between Israel and the Diaspora, between this country and the Jewish communities overseas - it's aliya and yerida, coming and going. And it didn't start with modern Jewish history. We inherited this kind of movement from ancient times. In the Second Temple era there was the center, Jerusalem, and the state of the Hashmonaim, and around it there were Jewish communities in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, in Babylon. Some of them were so strong in Jewish culture, they claimed priority over the Jewish center.
Most of the Israelis who left Israel in the last three decades left for two main reasons. One was their financial situation. It was difficult for them to find jobs, so they went to the United States and Canada and other wealthier countries. The other was that there was a very bad feeling - of frustration and disappointment - because of the lack of leadership in Israel after the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The society had witnessed the huge victory of the Six Day War. The [atmosphere surrounding the]Yom Kippur War was a big comedown [from that].
After 30 years, most of these people improved their economic situation. [But] they have children and grandchildren who didn't integrate into their new society - not into Christian society and not even into the Jewish communities. Generally when you come to Boston or to Cleveland, you can't find Israelis among the leadership of the Jewish federations. Most of them aren't taking part in congregational or communal activities. They isolate themselves and stay as Israeli communities. The average Israeli looks not for Jews, not for others, but tries to associate with Israelis. In daily life they live like Israelis. Their feelings center on Israel.
Does this mean that they're ready to return to Israel?
We are talking about more than three decades. There are huge difference in them, but there are huge differences in Israel itself. From an economic point of view, Israel today is totally different from the Israel they left. They see American companies that do businesses here, and they don't invest money for charity but for profit. They [Israelis abroad] think, now that they are in a good economic shape, why not try to do exactly what the Americans and Europeans are doing, like looking for Israeli hi-tech start ups? They have some advantages, of Hebrew, understanding the mentality, etc.
Some of them left Israel because of frustration after the war, when they couldn't see a light at the end of the tunnel. At the moment, we face some security problems with Hamas. But when you look over the course of time, even though Israel hasn't achieved total peace with its neighbors, we have managed to achieve peace with Egypt. We have a peace agreement with Jordan. We started a peace process with the Palestinians. We have ups and downs, and now we are down. But I think these kinds of events and developments are good reasons to call the boys home.
Their [children] are not educated in Jewish schools but American public schools, and the parents should ask themselves - and I'm sure they are asking themselves - what is the future of my children and grandchildren as Jews and Israelis? What about Israeli culture? Jewish culture? It should bother them, and we should appeal to this niche of Israelis who have left and try to convince them to try Israel again.
Do you think the Orthodox monopoly discourages aliya for Jews who come from places with a more pluralistic approach?
First, there are groups and communities of immigrants that are Orthodox. Take French Jewry, the vast majority of whom lives according to the Orthodox way of life and has no problem.
In the United States you have all the streams of Judaism. For the Orthodox, there's no problem. Then there's Conservative and Reform. The Reform have a problem [here], but for [Jews from] the United States it shouldn't be that difficult. Nobody asks you if you are Reform or Conservative or Orthodox. There are Israelis who are none of the above.
I'm masorti, but what is masorti? Maybe it's Conservative. Fine. There are people who are atheists and they can live in the Jewish state. Nobody's going to ask them about it, and they're not going to face problems.
We have to understand that problems - and there are problems - belong mostly to those in mixed marriages and for [converts]. It is a major problem for those who come to Israel under the Law of Return [which grants automatic citizenship to anyone who has at least one Jewish grandparent] but are not Jews and have to convert to become Jews. Here they face problems. In the United States, if you are converted by a Reform rabbi, you are recognized in Israel as Jewish. The bitter disagreement here is that the Reform movement wants to change the situation in Israel. And in Israel, conversion is only done the Orthodox way.
There's also the lack of civil marriage.
We assume that there about 300,000 Russians who are non-Jews. When they want to get married, they face problems. So we have to find a legislative solution [for] people who can't be married according to Jewish law.
There are some initiatives for legislation in the Knesset, including from Orthodox MKs, to find a solution. I hope that the current Knesset and government passes a law that provides one.
Do you think the difficulties presented by the Orthodox monopoly are preventing the absorption of these people?
No. When you undertake to absorb and integrate new immigrants, you don't check whether one's a Jew or a non-Jew, whether his wife or his mother is a Jew. You don't know. On a day-to-day basis, it's not a problem. In one's lifetime, there are junctures at which the issue arises and becomes an obstacle, such as marriage. So we need to find the right solution - one that takes traditional Orthodoxy into consideration on the one hand, yet allows for thousands of people who have been prevented from getting married to do so on the other.
Are you concerned about a schism between American Jewry and the Israeli government on the issue of bringing in the Falash Mura, Ethiopians who converted to Christianity under duress and have now returned to Judaism?
The argument today is about how many Jews will make aliya each month. The first government decision was 300 immigrants per month. As part of that decision, several things had to be undertaken in Ethiopia. Chief among them was to complete the registration of those eligible for aliya - those who are from the Seed of Abraham, according to the Halacha determined by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.
First of all, this work hasn't finished. Secondly, there was another decision in 2005 by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to double the number to 600. And here is where there is a disagreement. In practice, it hasn't yet been carried out. A few weeks ago, in a committee meeting dedicated to the issue of the Falash Mura under the auspices of the Interior Ministry, the Finance Minister said, "Wait, by the end of July, the government will decide on the 2007 budget. Let's take that into consideration, because there are fiscal aspects to this issue."
Taking care of Ethiopian immigrants at the current pace costs NIS 2.3 billion each year. If you increase the number even by half, to 450 - there was a suggestion like that - it's another NIS 1 billion. That's a lot of money. The Americans started a special campaign to raise $100 million. This is very nice and we're very happy about it. But you have to keep it in proportion. The Americans are pressuring the government to stand by Sharon's commitment [to raise the immigration rate], but they have to understand that it's also financially difficult for the government. For their part, they have yet to raise those $100 million.
The State of Israel never took economics into consideration when it came to Jews making aliya. The problem is that the Falash Mura are not exactly Jews. They are not entering the country according to the Law of Return, but rather according to the Law of Entry [which confers citizenship on non-Jews]. Why? Because they undergo conversion in Israel. This means that there are problems with their Jewishness. And therefore, at the moment, the government also needs to weigh other considerations.
Some say there is racism in how Ethiopians are treated and in Israel's delay in bringing the Falash Mura despite the government's 2003 decision to do so immediately.
There is no racism on the government level. If there were, we wouldn't bring them. The question is whether it is permissible for the government to ask - since they aren't exactly Jews - how much effort needs to be invested in bringing people whose Jewishness isn't proven. This is a question that isn't asked in relation to any Jew in the world. Israel never prevented aliya because of economic problems. Even during the most difficult times, at the founding of the state when there were 600,000 people here, and in a year-and-a-half we had to absorb two million people. The government didn't have money for anything then. Those immigrants lived in tents and ate rationed food. I was there. I remember.
It's possible that the Ethiopians experience special problems in Israel because of the color of their skin. I won't tell you that there aren't racist elements in our society. People with prejudices. But they are also prejudiced about other people. It's not good. It really interferes with the progress of the Ethiopians. But I think that Israeli society is strong and mature enough to take in the Ethiopians.
There are wonderful activities and volunteer projects to aid in their absorption, and this is the example for Israelis to follow. It wipes out prejudice, and gives the Ethiopian youth hope.
Today, 20 years after coming to Israel through Operation Moses, some of the kids are now teachers and college graduates, who are helping new immigrants with their own absorption process. When you see this, it gives you hope. There's a future in this, and it's worth investing in. Therefore, I'm going to try to influence the government to increase the rate [of Falash Mura] and be done with it.
But the Jews in the United States, with all due respect, need to understand the difficulties here. I told the Americans directly that there are those among us - I'm not saying the majority - who think that the pressure of the Americans to take care of the Falash Mura is a very nice, even noble, philanthropic move, but who does this [the absorption]? 'Let the Israelis take care of it. Not in My Backyard.' NIMBY. And there are even those who say that this solves the problem [Jewish] Americans have with African-Americans. I've heard this from American leaders. We had a congress of the Jewish Agency here now, and some told me so, quietly.
What about Americans who have made aliya? They're small in number, but what do you think their significance is to the country as a whole?
Aliya is the oxygen of the State of Israel. Now, nobody can imagine what the nature and picture of the Israeli state would have been without 1.2 million newcomers from the Former Soviet Union. So we understand the importance of aliya to Israel. When you look at the world Jewish communities, the next aliya to Israel should come mainly from the United States, from Western countries. The United States, Canada, Australia, Europe, France. It will be an aliya of choice, because we are talking about democracies, pluralistic regions and systems, liberal societies, rich countries. Nobody's running from there. Nobody's pushing them out - yet, thank God - though you could say that according to our bad history, you never know. But still, Israel should be attractive to these big Jewish communities in the Western world, mainly the United States. This is the major effort that we should take: to convince American Jewry to come and make aliya to Israel. There are good programs, like Nefesh B' Nefesh, and in France the parallel program Ami, birthright, Masa, which have started something that's going to flourish and bear fruit in the future.
By major effort, do you mean it should be the priority to bring this population?
Ariel Sharon talked about one million newcomers in the next generation, let's say 15 years. We should decide and underline that in the next two years, by 2008 - the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel - we will have 60,000 newcomers, from all kinds of [countries]. But the main efforts [are] towards the United States because it is the major Jewish community, and they face major problems, mainly assimilation and mixed marriage. They themselves understand that they should be asking very serious questions about their identity and their future as Jewish people.
But from Israel's point of view, we have had only 22,000 immigrants each year for the last two years. We have to change course and start to raise the numbers of new immigrants in two phases: in 2007 to try to have 35,000 or 40,000, and then in 2008 to start to have 60,000 new immigrants every year. It's not only a vision. I think we can make it a reality.