(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Immigrant Absorption Ministry has faced several consecutive years
of declining budgets as the massive immigration wave of the 1990s
ground down to a trickle.
With aliya hovering at the levels of
ordinary world migration figures, and recent governments committing to
strict budgetary discipline and efficiency, the ministry has been
desperately searching for ways to pay for new programs that might
reverse the downward trend of aliya.
The vast majority of the
ministry’s NIS 1.4 billion annual budget is “hard” – funds promised to
immigrants by law that the ministry cannot touch. Only some NIS 200
million is “flexible,” or available for effecting programs or policies
beyond what is mandatory.
Work training vouchers, community
aliya programs, the Tzabar program for children of expats who return to
Israel to serve in the IDF – all these are funded out of that flexible
Just under one-quarter of that sum, or some NIS 43m.,
goes to encouraging increased immigration from abroad. Of that, NIS
30m. goes to Nefesh B’Nefesh and its operations to bring aliya from
North America and Britain, leaving just NIS 13m. available for the
remainder of the world’s Jewish communities.
Even with the help
of the Jewish Agency, which contributes several million shekels
annually to improve the absorption conditions of new immigrants, only a
miniscule sum of money is left over for program that might increase
aliya – and justify the ministry’s continued existence.
response to this harsh reality, the Absorption Ministry has decided to
turn the problem on its head. In recent weeks, it has been turning to
local governments throughout the country with a simple message: You
want more immigrants? Help pay for them.
“We believe in aliya
and Zionism. But this is a world of interests, of economics,” says
ministry director-general Dmitry Apartsev. “We are a country that has
nothing – not oil, not gas. All we have is people.” In recent years, he
says, “local governments have started to realize this. And they’ve
started to understand that immigrants are a net asset. It is a
historical fact that every period of economic expansions and prosperity
coincided exactly with a major wave of aliya. They generate taxes,
jobs, population growth. They saw the good that immigrants brought to
Carmiel and Haifa and other places, and they wanted some of that for
As local governments come to understand the
economic opportunities represented by absorbing new immigrants, the
ministry has discovered a new lever for fundraising.
olim is becoming a privilege” in this newly-discovered marketplace,
Apartsev says. “Nowadays I find myself sitting down with a local
council head and saying, ‘I have money, I have population. What are you
prepared to put in? What are you prepared to offer these immigrants?’ I
won’t work with councils that aren’t willing to put their own money in
the pot as an investment in their future.” Making the councils fight –
and pay – for their immigrants also increases the value of the
immigrants in the eye of local governments, assuring that they will
continue to care for their new residents after the initial absorption
basket wears out.
As the phenomenon expands, Apartsev looks
forward to a future in which an immigrant’s absorption is entirely
handled by his local government.
“Our vision for the future is
for the ministry to become entirely a regulatory body. The
implementation will come from the local government, and the aliya
assistance and encouragement will be handled by private organizations
[like Nefesh B’Nefesh], who can talk to immigrants in their own
Apartsev believes a new era is dawning in immigration policy worldwide.
and integration is a global challenge, and we’re lucky that we are
ahead of the curve in terms of desiring and assisting immigrants. But
we’ve lost some of that feeling,” he laments. “We need to return to our
roots, to being a state that’s thirsty for immigration.”
blames the media in part for what he sees as a national disenchantment
with the aliya enterprise, and thus indirectly for the Absorption
Ministry’s budget crunch.
The media’s coverage of immigrant crime, he says, is “terrible and
disproportionate. After last year’s murder of the Oshrenko family [by
Russian immigrant Damian Karlik], did any reporter check the percentage
of criminals among the immigrant population before the newspapers
screamed for stricter control on aliya?” An Absorption Ministry study,
he says, has concluded that crime is actually lower among immigrants
than among the general Israeli public.
“Immigration has lost its idealism, and even become a dirty word
sometimes. And that’s wrong. Aliya is the founding purpose of this
country, and it’s a powerful lever for prosperity. Maybe the media
should start taking notice of that.”