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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Is the Immigrant Absorption Ministry trying to poach Maccabiah athletes from their home countries by luring them with appealing absorption baskets?
The ministry announced on Sunday that it was launching an incentive program to encourage competitors in the 18th Maccabiah Games to make aliya. The program includes scholarships to study here, NIS 4,000 to buy sports equipment, and a one- or two-year grant toward the wages of professional sports coaches working in Israel. Each incentive is in addition to the regular benefits immigrants receive.
The Maccabiah Games brings together 5,700 Israeli and Jewish athletes from over 60 countries. The ministry urges participants to explore Israel while they're here, and to strengthen their relationship with Israelis and discover their heritage.
However, Ron Carner, general chairman of the US delegation to the Maccabiah Games, said participants were coming to Israel as representatives of their home countries, and one of the purposes of the Maccabiah Games was to preserve national and communal pride.
Each team member has the competition as their core focus. For this reason, Carner explained that while "the US Maccabiah team will not actively discourage participants" from being enticed by the ministry's basket of incentives, Maccabiah organizers "cannot encourage" such plans, either.
The ministry has introduced similar incentive plans in the past. However, it now wants to increase the number of participants making aliya. Besides the NIS 4,000 for sports equipment and clothes or to participate in sports training camps, competitors are being offered scholarships of NIS 1,200 a month, for nine months, during their first year of school in Israel.
The funding for wages of professional athletic coaches would be partially provided by the ministry for the first 12 to 24 months, making it more attractive for employers to take on new immigrants in the sports industry.
Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver said of the move, "The Immigrant Absorption Ministry welcomes the thousands of athletes who came to Israel to participate in the Maccabiah. Today each man represents his country, but I hope that in the coming competitions, many of them will march under one flag, the flag of the State of Israel, and will be an integral part of Israel's Olympic delegation. And I say to the athletes themselves: Don't be satisfied with the saying, 'Next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem'; come now already and realize the vision."
Reactions to the program from Maccabiah delegates and competitors have been mixed. Some are skeptical about the Games being used to entice competitors who are representing their home communities to consider a new allegiance and move to Israel.
Particular concern was voiced by Carner, who explained it was not the Maccabiah's agenda to encourage aliya, and that if the Maccabiah organizers supported the ministry's proposals, it would present the wrong image to those back home. In particular, young competitors might be too easily persuaded to make a life-changing decision without their parents' support, he said.
During past Maccabiah competitions, several participants have made aliya. However, each participant had planned to do so before coming to the games, a ministry spokesperson said.
Henry Benjamin, head delegate of the Australian Maccabiah team, said he was extremely excited this year to have one participant immigrating to Israel straight after the games. However, Benjamin also noted that each case must be taken on its own merit. Making aliya is a difficult decision, the consequences of which must be carefully thought out, he added.
However, Martin Berliner, chief executive of the UK Maccabiah team, explained that younger competitors who had not visited Israel before were unlikely to be encouraged to make aliya after just one trip. He said older participants in the over-35 and over-45 categories were more likely to be enticed to make aliya. Similarly team coaches nearing retirement age were more willing to consider starting their retirement here.
US Maccabiah team president Toni Wortman had only positive things to say about the program. She said the incentive to make aliya presented "a terrific opportunity."
The program's success remains to be seen, as everyone is currently caught up in the competitive spirit of the games. Unless already planning to do so, few are able to give serious consideration to making aliya for now. However, if the program does become successful in the following months, national Maccabiah teams might become even more selective about whom they send with their delegations, for fear of losing their star athletes.