Analysis: A chance to rediscover aliya

The Absorption Ministry in Israel Beiteinu's hands comes with opportunity to increase aliya from West.

sofa landver (photo credit: Courtesy)
sofa landver
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With Israel Beiteinu now holding the aliya portfolio in the developing cabinet, there are hopeful signs the new government will pay greater attention to the task of increasing aliya. First, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry will now be in the hands of a party with a major immigrant constituency. Second, the new coalition agreement between the Likud and Israel Beiteinu designates some NIS 80 million for encouraging aliya around the world, calls for a cabinet-level committee to address aliya and absorption and defines 2009 to 2010 as a period in which government policy will focus on aliya expansion. The new lease on life for government efforts aimed at Jewish immigration comes after a lackluster decade that saw aliya drop to 30-year lows. Almost no Jews now live under repressive regimes, a fact that transforms the challenge of aliya from a problem of absorbing refugees to one of attracting satisfied citizens of other lands. Few people now in government know how to do this, or even pretend to know. In the absence of effective leadership from above, aliya policy has been spearheaded in recent years by able technocrats who have essentially thrown money at the problem. To bring a westerner to Israel, they reasoned, one must cut red tape and expand the financial benefits package to remove as many obstacles as possible from the process. Thus, a program of hundreds of millions of shekels is now in place, offering unprecedented tax breaks for expatriate Israelis who come back to the country. Similar programs are planned for immigrants from the former Soviet Union, South Africa, Australia and the United States. But the greatest barrier to aliya today is not financial, it's cultural. Two-thirds of the Diaspora - American Jewry - lives in a world of personal choices, belonging simultaneously to a myriad of real and virtual communities, with the ability to move between them. Israel needs to learn how to speak to these Jews in ways in which they can understand and identify. An American Jew cannot be convinced to make aliya merely by removing financial or bureaucratic obstacles from the move. He or she must possess a cultural identification with Israeli society, a personal and meaningful reason to cross the cultural divide into Israel. Israeli government bureaucrats are not chosen for their abilities as preachers and teachers, but for their efficiency and skill in management. Unfortunately, the political leadership of the Absorption Ministry has not exhibited these abilities. The ministers have not provided an overarching vision or strategy for encouraging Western Jews to make new lives here. Sometimes nicknamed the "cemetery" of government service, the Absorption Ministry has rarely been a desirable branch of service for aspiring politicians. Much of its budget is spoken for in mandatory benefits to new arrivals, so the minister actually has very little funding with which to work. And without a dramatic vision for expanding aliya or refashioning the Israel-Diaspora relationship, there is little reason to take on the job. Thus, we have witnessed a quick succession of ministers passing through the ministry on their way to "better" postings. The next absorption minister, most likely Israel Beiteinu's Sofa Landver, will be the eighth in 10 years. Three went through the job in the last government alone. Not one can be said to have left a mark on the position. Even the immigrant-focused Israel Beiteinu did not include the ministry on its wish-list at the start of coalition negotiations with the Likud, The Jerusalem Post has learned. The party only accepted the ministry as a result of the convoluted negotiations that resulted in the surrender of the Justice Ministry. If Israel is to switch from passive absorption to the active attraction of Jewish immigration, it must rediscover its power to inspire. This will be the deep challenge faced by the new minister, and we wish her much success.