“I definitely want to put all of my efforts into the absorption of more immigrants from the Western countries, mainly the US and France,” Aliyah and Integration Minister Ofir Sofer told The Jerusalem Post this week, in his first interview to an English-speaking news outlet.
“I definitely want to put all of my efforts into the absorption of more immigrants from the Western countries, mainly the US and France.”Ofir Sofer
Sitting in his ministry office across the street from the Knesset, Sofer emphasized that “at the end of the day, I want to be the minister of aliyah and integration for olim from all countries.” Even so, there is a “but” in this intention.
Sofer, a member of the Religious Zionist Party, is a bit different from his party members. He is quiet, isn’t looking for headlines and hasn’t spoken harshly about issues of religion and state.
Helping immigrants from Western countries
One of the main changes expected in the Aliyah and Integration Ministry under Sofer’s leadership could have already been noticed in the coalition agreements between the parties. As published a month ago, the RZP demanded a NIS 350 million budget for the ministry, which would be dedicated to aliyah from the US and France. After decades in which the ministry was ruled by Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu Party, which is composed mainly of olim from the former Soviet Union, with a break of a few years when the ministry was run by the Blue and White Party, Sofer intends to put an emphasis on aliyah from Western countries, mainly, as mentioned, the US and France.
Sofer, as do many olim from Western countries, feels that olim outside the FSU were deprived of the rights they deserve.
“There is an assumption that olim from financially established countries don’t need any support or assistance. That isn’t true. The challenges of absorption are difficult for everyone. Many times [olim] have to live a less comfortable life, compromise in the jobs that they take and at times suffer from personal and social issues.”
“There is an assumption that olim from financially established countries don’t need any support or assistance. That isn’t true. The challenges of absorption are difficult for everyone. Many times [olim] have to live a less comfortable life, compromise in the jobs that they take and at times suffer from personal and social issues.”Ofir Sofer
He disclosed that he’s been in constant discussions with aliyah organizations such as the Jewish Agency (“our main partners”), Nefesh B’Nefesh (the official entity that deals with aliyah from North America) and Qualita, the umbrella organization for olim from French-speaking countries.
Sofer wouldn’t disclose all of his big plans for aliyah from these countries, but he outlined his intentions. “I believe that olim from France and the US integrate better when they arrive and live in communities with immigrants from similar backgrounds. They are all in for a few difficult years, and it can be so much easier for them to have a support network of people who come from the same area or mentality.”
He mentioned neighborhoods such as Buchman in Modi’in that have a large group of English-speaking olim living there. “You hear lots of English when you visit Buchman, and that’s okay. We don’t want people to have to make such dramatic changes in their lives.”
Sofer is thinking as far as actually promoting companies to build houses and apartments in a style that French olim or American olim are used to.
“If Israeli companies know how to build unique apartment buildings targeted for the ultra-Orthodox population, there is no reason we can’t do the same for olim from the US and France,” Sofer said.
“If Israeli companies know how to build unique apartment buildings targeted for the ultra-Orthodox population, there is no reason we can’t do the same for olim from the US and France.”Ofir Sofer
He said that all of these examples are “long-term processes,” but “these are processes that should begin already.”
Asked what he intends to do with the huge budget for these olim and how he intends to increase their number, Sofer said that he first of all needs to make sure that he receives these funds during the budget negotiations that are to take place in the next few weeks.
The minister explained that there is a huge opportunity to attract olim between the ages of 18 to 29, since they are more flexible during these years of their lives.
“Their expenses are substantially lower than people in their later years,” he explained. “In terms of productivity, at this age they are also able to work harder and longer hours.... It is easier to treat and encourage the absorption of young olim – all of the research proves this.”
Sofer, the father of seven children, added that he, of course, “won’t neglect the aliyah of families.”
Tackling financial barriers for making aliyah
Because of the high cost of living and high real estate prices, it has become more and more difficult for Jews from outside of Israel to make aliyah.
“I hope to change the way we assist, with the sum for rent to be distributed in two years instead of five,” Sofer said. “I also think that the sum should be higher.” He confided that he knows he isn’t the first minister to try to change this rule, “but I hope to be the minister who actually succeeds.”
The “absorption basket” – the funds and financial assistance that olim receive after their aliyah – hasn’t been updated since 2015, and Sofer thinks that this is a scandal. “It needs to be updated,” he said of the basket.
“It’s fascinating,” Sofer said of his first month as minister. “I’m trying to think, together with my team, about what actions can potentially increase the aliyah and integration of olim in a better and more significant way.”
Sofer said that 2022 was a “very complex” year since more than 75,000 olim arrived, about 55,000 of them from Russia and Ukraine. The number of olim arriving in Israel in 2022 is the highest it has been for decades.
“During the past years, the ministry employees worked very hard in order to facilitate the emergency aliyah and to create entities such as our one-stop shop in Israel that allows them to receive all of the relevant services from the different government ministries and bodies.”
Sofer said that if he and the ministry will succeed, “we’ll see optimal integration in Israel,” yet if they don’t succeed, “unfortunately many of the olim will need welfare assistance and develop situations of at-risk youth.”
He explained that there are certain municipalities that have absorbed the largest numbers of immigrants in the past year, among them Haifa, Nof Hagalil, Eilat, Tiberias and Karmiel.
“The city with the most immigrants to Israel in the past year is Haifa, with almost 10,000 olim,” he said.
SOFER, 47, is married, has seven children and lives in Tefahot, a religious moshav in the North. He is of Tunisian-Jewish descent, and his grandfather made aliyah from Libya. He was born in the Galilee and said he feels very attached to the area.
He served in the IDF till his early 30s. He was critically wounded in 1996 during a battle at Joseph’s Tomb. He needed two years of rehabilitation and was affected mainly in his head and eye. He later returned to the army as a commander. He served as a deputy commander in the 202nd Paratroopers Battalion.
“I loved the army, and still do,” he said.
As an MK, he established a committee that focused on people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. His father died half a year before his bar mitzvah, and he said that it affected him immensely.
Sofer’s eldest son is in the army, and the youngest boy is six. “In between, we have five daughters,” he said proudly.
Before joining the Knesset in 2019, he was the director of the National Union Party for four years, which rebranded and is now the Religious Zionist Party.
Sofer, who served as an officer in the IDF for many years, thinks that there also needs to be a reform in the way new olim are drafted. His idea is to make it possible for olim with unique professions or academic backgrounds to serve in the IDF in their fields of expertise, or through internships in their fields of study. “Both these young Diaspora Jews and the army will benefit from this type of connection.”
Asked if he intends to lower the age of exemption from military service for olim, which is 27 for single men and women nowadays, Sofer answered that “I am open to everything,” but that “it needs to be done in a responsible way that everyone will benefit from.”
AN ISSUE that Sofer wasn’t very enthusiastic to discuss was the “grandchild clause” in the Law of Return, which allows grandchildren of Jews to make aliyah, even though they themselves may not be Jewish.
Many senior government officials have said this week, in confidentiality, that the Law of Return will probably not be amended, and that it isn’t on anyone’s agenda in the near future.
“During this period, a political campaign is being waged against this government, and, among other things, it has also created headlines overseas,” the minister stated.
“Our party has existed in the Knesset for more than 20 years, under different names, contributing to Zionism and the settlement of the land. Bezalel [Smotrich] has already served as a minister, and I have been in the Knesset for many years. We are not new to politics and governing. I am fully aware of the challenges that the “grandchild clause” or the derivatives of the “grandchild clause” have created, mainly in the context of immigration from the FSU. In the context of Israel’s Jewish identity, it is definitely on this government’s agenda.
“For me personally, it is important to be the aliyah and integration – not the obstacle – minister. It is important to me that every Jew feels that Israel is their home. I would of course be happy for as many Jews as possible to make aliyah, but when they [Diaspora Jews] choose to immigrate, they need to know that they have a home here in the Land of Israel, the State of Israel.
“I am aware of the sensitivities, and when the amendment is made, it will be done in a very sensitive way, with a lot of listening to Diaspora Jewry and a broad public discourse.”
Asked why he hasn’t already started consulting with Diaspora Jews on this matter, Sofer explained that “we just established this government, and are currently promoting the judicial reform. I want to, first of all, make sure that aliyah and integration are run in a stable and good way, and it will take time till we get to this issue.
“I have already met with some of the leaders from the Diaspora while they visited Israel, and I hope to visit the US soon in order to learn, meet and discuss. All discussions on the issue of the Law of Return will be in dialogue with President Isaac Herzog. We will talk with the leaders of the organized Jewish communities in the Diaspora.”
Asked what his personal preference is for the Law of Return, Sofer said that “we will need to reach a solution, and there are integrative solutions. There are many creative solutions that can be looked into. I believe that a solution can be found.” He wouldn’t specify any of these “creative” solutions to the Post.
“I plan to increase the number of campers participating in the summer programs in Israel,” Sofer revealed. “I intend to invest in existing summer programs, such as [those of] Bnei Akiva and the Orthodox Union, as well as other organizations, in order to make sure that there are more and more teenagers who spend a substantial amount of time in Israel. I want them to understand Hebrew, and if they live here for enough time, they will have the opportunity to meet and get to know young Israelis.”
In addition, he hopes to encourage more doctors to make aliyah. “Israel needs about 2,000 new doctors a year, and we are far from close to fulfilling this number. Just in 2022, about 1,000 doctors made aliyah, which is a huge boost to the medical industry.”
He explained that there are many difficulties that doctors from countries such as France deal with when they want to work in Israel, and said that these obstacles need to be overcome.
Asked whether organizations will be able to promote and take care of aliyah from other countries, as Nefesh B’Nefesh does on behalf of the Israeli government in North America, Sofer said, “I’m looking into it. The decision will only be related to what will make aliyah better. I think that a competition between organizations on the number of olim is better, since it will cause the organizations to work harder, but the immigrants should not be confused by such competitiveness. I will push in this direction, but will make sure we have the right balance.”