Campaign to bring back expats sparks fierce Knesset debate

Despite program’s success, some MKs say more should be spent on improving conditions for students and professionals already here.

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November 11, 2010 06:29
3 minute read.
Campaign to bring back expats sparks fierce Knesset debate

sofa landver. (photo credit: Courtesy)

A new campaign aimed at reversing the brain drain and bringing Israelis living in the Diaspora back to Israel was unveiled Wednesday by Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver during a meeting of the Knesset Aliya, Absorption and Diaspora Committee.

The hearing, the first one chaired by new committee head MK Danny Danon (Likud), turned into a stormy discussion over whether the state should be paying to bring Israeli scientists, researchers, doctors and academics back to Israel or focusing on improving the current reality for professionals already working here, who earn typically low salaries for their fields, and those in training for such careers, who struggle to find work.

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“It’s not just about bringing Israelis back to Israel, there needs to be an improvement in living conditions and the quality of life that surrounds them,” stated Kadima MK Yulia Shamolov Berkovich, who kicked off a debate in the session with Landver and Danon about the justification of such campaigns.

“A million programs for aliya or for encouraging Israelis to return will not help if there are already so many Israelis leaving the country and doctors working here who are earning only NIS 21 an hour,” chided Shamolov Berkovich, highlighting the National Insurance Institute poverty report published this week that saw 120,000 people joining the poor in 2009.

“They will only end up leaving again,” she told The Jerusalem Post, following the meeting.

Shamolov Berkovich suggested that perhaps a better way of persuading expats to return to Israel or encouraging aliya was by improving living standards and increasing opportunities.

Questions were also raised regarding ministry statistics that showed a drop in the number of Israelis returning home from 11,157 in 2009 – the first year that such a campaign was launched – to 7,112 people this year.

However, both Danon and Landver discounted the negative observations, with Danon stating: “Israel is the best place in the world for Jews to live.”

“We want Israelis to return here,” Landver told the Post. “We do not care what their reasons were for leaving and we do not care why they want to come back, we just want them to know that they have a place here at home.”

She added: “There are hardships and poverty in every country, but we have to invest in this program as a way of tackling that. [Politicians] that are in the opposition do not seem to realize that we in a global economic recession but luckily Israel is investing in its economy.”

Landver said the program, which includes various tax breaks and other benefits similar to those afforded to new immigrants, already had returns of NIS 2 billion – in taxes paid by the returnees and in the businesses they have opened – on an annual government investment of NIS 80 million.

This renewed program, which will also include a reimbursement for the health tax imposed on returning Israelis and a personal coach to help ease the return, will be funded to the tune of NIS 100m. over the next two years.

Immigrant Absorption Ministry Director- General Dimitry Apartsev told the committee that within the previous two days, since the campaign was announced on its website, some 5,000 people had already viewed the promotional material and up to 90 people had started filling out the online paperwork to receive more information.

The committee also heard from Moshe Vigdor, director of the Council for Higher Education about the government’s goal of creating up to 30 “centers of excellence” in the coming years to absorb the returning Israelis, some of whom are at the top of their professional fields in science and medicine.

A government tender for four of the new centers has already been issued, and they will be running by mid-March, Vigdor told the committee.

“We want people to come back here because there is no other country that is better to live in and raise children in,” said Landver, adding that she was hopeful up to 20,000 Israelis would return home in the coming year.

Representatives of the ministry will be heading to communities of expat Israelis living in the US, Britain, France and Russia in the coming weeks. Notices about the campaign have appeared in the media and on the ministry’s website, www.moia.gov.il, Landver said.


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