Many Israelis living abroad mull returning home

New "Absorption Ministry campaign targets 650,000 emigrants, 60% of whom live in North America.

October 29, 2006 22:00
4 minute read.
zeev boim 88

zeev boim88. (photo credit: )


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Haim Keren and his family have been living in the US for more than 10 years. With two children, a house and a good, stable job in upstate New York, returning to Israel is a tough choice. And yet Keren, like many other Israelis living abroad, is considering taking the leap. Even after a decade away, Israel remains home, he said. But Keren and his family have yet to make a final decision, mostly because of concerns about money. That's what brought him and his son Yoav, who recently earned a master's degree in computer science at the University of Vermont, to a recent convention in New York City sponsored by the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption. The day-long meetings, which are also scheduled to take place in other US cities, are part of a campaign designed to woo Israelis living abroad to return home. The conventions focus on jobs. Ten years ago, Keren was transferred to the US by an Israeli hi-tech company, Opal, supposedly for three years. But in 1997 the company was taken over by an American firm, Applied Materials, and since then Keren's stay in the US has seemed more permanent. "We don't want to be in a situation in Israel where we will regret going back," Keren said. The ministry estimates that there are 650,000 Israelis living abroad: 60 percent in North America, 25% in Europe and 15% elsewhere. Like many Israeli expatriates, Keren, 52, has come to appreciate many aspects of American life. He likes that his house is separated from his neighbors' by at least 100 yards, and that Americans tend to respect one's privacy. When he goes to the bank, he wants "only four ears listening - his and the bank teller's," not those of the man behind him in line. And he appreciates it when people hold the door open for him instead of letting it slam in his face. Keren knows that moving back to Israel will mean giving up many comforts. But he is willing to live without these luxuries if he can be assured a job and relative financial security. He is looking to open a small automotive business if he returns, but for logistical reasons he said this remains "up in the air." He came to the convention in New York with a list of questions about certification and licensing. Job security fears are often the deciding factor in the decision whether to return to Israel and the new campaign by the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption reflects this. A recent survey by the ministry reported that 46% of Israelis living abroad said job security took precedence over concerns regarding their children and housing in decisions to return. Though Israel unemployment rate is 8.9%, roughly twice that of the United States, the ministry points to an economy with a growth rate at 4.6%. Immigration and Absorption Minister Ze'ev Boim and several ministry officials are traveling with representatives from three companies - Intel, Teva and Manpower - to six North American cities with high numbers of Israelis, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami, to push the message that Israel wants its citizens to return, and that jobs await them. Israel has not always had this attitude toward yordim - Israeli expatriates. "The attitude toward people who left was as if they betrayed the country," said Arye Mekel, Israel's consul-general in New York. "The word 'yordim' means going down spiritually." There has been a gradual change in attitude and policy, and Mekel said the current effort was "unprecedented." He attributes the change to several factors, including the massive wave of immigration to Israel during the 1990s and globalization. Gabriel Stern, an Israeli who is now living in the US for a second time, remembers living in California during the 1980s, when there were no services available to Israelis living abroad. Stern said he was part of early efforts to open the doors of Jewish Federation to Israelis. "Now the Israeli government is much smarter," he said. "They know that Israelis abroad are still Israeli and many of them will come back. They did a smart thing by coming here and approaching Israelis like brothers." The current efforts to convince Israelis to return home are on a greater scale than ever before, according to Nadia Prigat, director of the Division for Returning Israelis in the Immigration and Absorption Ministry. The efforts are part of the larger campaign for aliya. Israel expects to get 3,000 new immigrants from North America in 2006, and roughly twice as many returning Israelis. "It is less of an effort to bring [Israelis] back," Prigat said. "They are familiar with the culture and can start working from the first day; they don't need preparations." It is estimated that nearly 50% of Israelis living abroad return within two to six years. However new technology and globalization have made it easier for Israelis to stay abroad. Like many immigrants, Israelis are known for forming enclaves wherever they go. Now, more than ever, they have easy access to Israeli television and news, and phoning home has become almost as inexpensive as calling within the US. "We know that the Israelis who come here don't want to be Americans, and they definitely don't want to be American Jews," Mekel said. "They want to be Israelis in America." Keren has integrated himself into American life - he has many American friends - but one reasons he is considering returning is to ensure that his daughter regains her Israeli identity, which has not survived the many years in the US. "I don't want her to lose her roots," Keren said. "We are not practicing Jews but I still believe the center of the Jewish people is in Israel."

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