For a country which enjoys perhaps the strongest and most organized Diaspora among all the world’s nation-states, Israel has a surprisingly difficult time thinking clearly about how to interact with it.
The latest figures on a massive drop-off of returning Israelis in 2010 is a stark reminder of this reality. The years 2008 and 2009 saw a steep rise in returnees, from under 1,000 in 2007 to almost 11,000 in 2009 according to Absorption Ministry figures.
Yet these figures also show that, based on a slow first quarter of 2010, only 3,000 will come in 2010. The spike thus corresponds exactly to the world financial downturn and to a generous benefits package offered by the government to returnees during these two years.
Does this mean that Israelis return only when it is financially lucrative to do so? Are they, in any meaningful sense, “returning?” And can we afford to “buy back” hundreds of thousands of our best and brightest who have made their homes and lives overseas, many of them in the much wealthier United States?
Of course, the same question applies to olim. With aliya limping along at under 20,000 per year worldwide, and a minuscule 3,000 arriving from the five-million-strong American Jewish community (2009 saw a spike to 4,000, but again, during the worst economic recession America has seen since the 1930s), can we honestly speak of aliya as a significant phenomenon in today’s Jewish world?
It is a fact that the vast majority of olim throughout Israel’s history, like the returning expats of today, have been driven more by economic benefit than ideological commitment. Only a tiny percentage of the three million olim who have come to this country in its 62 years did so because they were “pulled” by the allure of Israel. The vast majority were “pushed” by violence, prejudice, mass-murder or extreme poverty in their countries of origin.
Today, too, people rarely sacrifice financial stability and well-being for the sake of affiliation.
Thankfully, nearly all the world’s Jews today live in relative comfort and safety, especially in the English-speaking world, which is home to some 90% of the Diaspora. Yet however grateful we may be that Jews are no longer in danger, we face a serious challenge in terms of generating aliya and affiliation from the free world.
Faced with this unprecedented challenge, the Israeli government has responded with... what?
The “Returning Home” program of 2008-2009 was the brainchild of former Absorption Ministry director-general Erez Halfon. By all accounts, it successfully positioned Israel to take advantage of the temporary imbalance created by the financial meltdown in the US.
But the program’s success is clearly temporary, and pales in comparison with the disastrous brain drain that Israel suffers in the opposite direction. One Israeli academic in every five leaves for the US, according to the research of renowned Israeli economist Dan Ben-David –that’s six times higher than the worst-affected European countries, Italy and Holland, whose academic loss to the US is less than one in 20.
They do this not because they dislike Israel, but simply because the US offers higher salaries, easier advancement and better research opportunities.
If Israel really hopes to attract its hundreds of thousands of overseas expats, or to bring home a statistically significant number of olim, it has to give them a reason to come. To do that, it has to develop some new capacities.
Today, Israel has no consistent and deep interaction with the Diaspora – whether Jewish or Israeli – and no capacity to shape the relationship. Its schoolchildren do not learn about the millions of Jews around the world, and Diaspora schools teach relatively little about the complex, changing society in Israel.
Israel does not have any serious policy planning mechanism that even asks these questions, whether in the National Security Council, the Foreign Ministry or elsewhere.
More importantly, Israel does not speak about itself in ways that are
meaningful to the world’s Jews – or that align with the idealistic
image it wishes to project in Diaspora communities.
An almost defunded Diaspora Affairs Ministry, a temporary absorption
benefit for returnees, a Foreign Ministry department dealing with
anti-Semitism that is virtually unmanned – these are not the
ingredients of a serious Diaspora policy.
Instead of wasting over two hours discussing the predictable drop-off
in returnees, it’s time for cabinet meetings to bring up the much more
important reality: World Jewry is drifting away from Israeli society.
Aliya is near zero. Even Israelis living abroad find little reason to
What are we going to do about it?
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