Government's plan for FSU aliya said to be deeply flawed

MK Elkin: Reliance on census figures grossly underestimates eligible population.

Zeev Elkin 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Zeev Elkin 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The government initiative seeking to increase aliya from the former Soviet Union and improve Jewish education there - announced last week at the weekly cabinet meeting - is based on inaccurate demographic figures, a poor understanding of Russian-speaking Jewry and a lack of serious planning, Kadima MK Zeev Elkin said Sunday. The initiative was announced to much fanfare last week. It includes establishment of a committee that would examine ways of restoring FSU aliya that has dwindled in the past seven years by 80 percent, from nearly 34,000 in 2001 to 6,700 in 2007. According to government figures, about 900,000 people in the FSU are eligible for aliya, of which some 470,000 are Jewish according to Halacha; an estimated 80% of the latter are intermarried. The population is also relatively old, with 70% of those eligible for aliya aged over 45. These alarming figures, however, are misleading, said Elkin, a former adviser to the director-general of the Jewish Agency's Education Department, ex-head of the agency's planning committee for education policy for Russian-speaking Jews, and a former director-general of Bnei Akiva in the FSU. Elkin, 37, was born in Kharkov, Ukraine, and made aliya in 1990. "The numbers are based on recent Russian and Ukrainian censuses, where people were simply asked how they define themselves," he said. "Anyone who said they're Jews is part of the 'core population' of 470,000, and those who just lived with a Jew were added to [reach] the 900,000 figure." But, said Elkin, intermarried FSU Jews "don't usually define themselves as Jewish. They only tell the census they're Jewish if they're completely Jewish on all sides of the family, or if they have a strong Jewish identity and are involved in the community." For example, he added, a woman whose mother is Jewish and father is Russian "will almost never say she's Jewish, particularly since ethnic identity in Russia tends to run through the father. Neither she nor her children will be listed as either Jewish or aliya-eligible, but the entire group is halachicly Jewish. So there's no connection between this census and the questions that interest Israel - who is halachicly Jewish and who is eligible for aliya?" The solution, said Elkin, "is to conduct a proper demographic study. Russian Jewish sociologists have been begging Nativ, the Jewish Agency, the JDC, everybody, for such a study for many years. But instead everyone relies on census data, so they end up talking about the future of Russian Jewry without actually knowing what they're talking about." The poor understanding of Russian-speaking Jewry also leads to a misunderstanding of what the census figures signify, he said. "They say 80% of FSU Jews are intermarried, but it's also true that between 60% and 80% of the children of these intermarriages marry each other," said Elkin. "In other words, while these are intermarriages in a halachic sense, these intermarried families function as a relatively closed community. And it's precisely the children of these intermarried families who are the main consumers of Jewish activities in FSU countries. This all seems paradoxical at first glance, but those who know what's happening on the ground in the FSU understand this." Finally, Elkin blasted the policy suggestions for increasing aliya, particularly outgoing Immigrant Absorption Minister Ya'acov Edri's plan to increase the basket of absorption benefits by 50%. "It's important to expand the basket, but this isn't the deal-breaker for most people. The government's own figures bear this out. If most of the community is over 45, they're worried more about their pension than about temporary aliya benefits. Israel has to make sure they don't lose their pension when they make aliya, and we're not prepared for this situation. If you're 45 or 50, you're better off working in Moscow until you're 65 and coming to Israel as a pensioner. In effect, our pension rules, and the lack of pension agreements with FSU countries, means that we're encouraging people not to come until they're past working age." There are several ideas for correcting this lacuna, including instituting long-term tax deductions to allow olim to earn pensions faster, and creating new state-aided pension plans, Elkin said. Taken together, the "shallow analysis" behind the new initiative amounts to "nothing more than an attempt to grab immediate headlines," Elkin believes. Reached for comment, a cabinet representative would only say that the government's figures came from Nativ's research department and that Elkin had rushed to criticize before a coherent policy had even been presented.