Preparing for a new wave of olim in the wake of COVID-19

IMMIGRATION and ABSORPTION AFFAIRS: Signs point to increased aliyah, but will it happen and how can the government help?

A FAMILY OF ‘olim’ arrive from the US during the coronavirus crisis last week. (photo credit: YONIT SCHILLER)
A FAMILY OF ‘olim’ arrive from the US during the coronavirus crisis last week.
(photo credit: YONIT SCHILLER)
Last week, Esti Brookheim, aged 28, left her home, family and friends in Houston, Texas, to make aliyah and embark on a new life in the Jewish state,
She flew 11,000 km. to Tel Aviv, unknowingly shared a plane with someone infected with COVID-19, and is spending the first two weeks of her life as an Israeli in quarantine, by herself, in an apartment in Petah Tikva.
Brookheim is one of more than 6,300 people who have immigrated to Israel in 2020 despite the uncertainty and difficulties that have been caused by the global pandemic.
Despite all the complications that the unprecedented public health crisis has caused around the world, and in some instances because of them, record-breaking numbers of people in the Diaspora are now applying to make aliyah.
In France, some 2,000 people opened up aliyah files with the Jewish Agency in May this year, compared to just 200 in May 2019.
In the US, 561 people began the aliyah application process through Nefesh B’Nefesh in June 2019, and so far this June 1,328 have begun the process this year.
The Nativ body which organizes and coordinates aliyah from the former Soviet Union says that it believes there are 60,000 people interested in aliyah, 40,000 of whom might actually make aliyah in the short to medium term.
Indeed, Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata said on Wednesday that the ministry expects some 90,000 new immigrants by the end of 2021, based on the average past conversion rate of applications to actual aliyah and what it says is an overall increase of 50% in aliyah applications.
Jewish immigration and the “ingathering of the exiles” are one of the foundational principles of the State of Israel, and so these high estimates are heady numbers indeed for the Jewish state.
But are they obtainable and, if so, what can be done to make sure the opportunity to bring tens of thousands of Jews to Israel is not squandered?
Here it is instructive to look at what is now largely thought to be a lost opportunity to bring about a mass aliyah in recent years.
FOLLOWING THE series of ISIS terrorist attacks in France in January 2015, one of which targeted a kosher supermarket, the interest of French Jews in aliyah spiked significantly.
According to a poll commissioned by the French government and carried out by a reputed polling firm, 43% of Jews were interested at the time in immigrating to Israel and 13% said they were ready to do so immediately.
Given that there are some 500,000 Jews in France, the poll indicated there were some 65,000 French Jews ready to up sticks and move to Israel.
In reality, only around 15,000 French Jews have made aliyah since 2015.
Ariel Kandel, head of the Qualita organization which helps French Jewish immigrants in their integration into Israel, says that one of the greatest failings that led to this lost opportunity was the failure to sufficiently assist and escort potential immigrants along the aliyah process.
Moving to a different country is an especially arduous and complex process and, for Jews from the West, such as France, requires significant assistance for immigrants in terms of bureaucracy, housing, language and, most importantly, employment, says Kandel.
The government and the Aliyah and Integration Ministry never adopted a firm plan for the mass aliyah of French Jews and never provided that close-up guidance that could have assuaged the doubts and concerns of potential immigrants.
Kandel insists that it is still possible to bring the 50,000 French Jews who never came, but says that it is critical the government and ministry come up with a formal, consolidated plan for how to do so.
More than four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has still yet to do so, he notes, although Tamano-Shata said on Wednesday that she ordered such a plan to be drawn up.
Kandel adds that the other critical component in successfully bringing potential immigrants to Israel is proactive guidance from the ministry, the agency and other government bodies for each and every one.
Assistance for new immigrants to find work, get recognition of professional qualifications, find appropriate housing, and bridge the gaps between education systems of Israel and foreign countries are all critical in encouraging aliyah, as is a program to inform people about the availability of the assistance itself, he says.
“You can’t think it will happen by itself; it doesn’t work like that,” Kandel says. “We have a lot of hope in the new minister, and we hope that the government understands the need for a concrete plan. It won’t happen without it.”
Marc Rosenberg, Nefesh B’Nefesh’s vice president of Diaspora partnerships, echoes much of Kandel’s assertions regarding the importance of assisting new immigrants as much as possible.
But he is also optimistic that the massive boost in interest in aliyah will be converted into actual immigrants.
He notes that not only are new applications up, but so, too, are the number of applications being completed, which requires performing time-consuming bureaucratic processes and securing the requisite documentation.
In May this year, 816 applications were completed – double the 404 completions of May 2019. Some 800 have been completed so far this June, compared to 399 in all of June 2019.
Rosenberg says that, on average, 40% of those who start an application process end up making aliyah, so if that average holds, Israel can indeed expect a significant increase in aliyah from the US.
“People are looking for their birth certificates, doing the bureaucracy, and making real plans,” he says.
Part of the reason for the spike in numbers is, he believes, due to the increasing prevalence of remote working due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the realization that it is more and more feasible to keep one’s US-based job and do it from Israel.
There are, however, difficulties raised by the global health crisis that need to be overcome. The lockdowns in Israel and many other countries, including the US, meant that many bureaucratic processes for immigration could not be completed.
International commercial flights, through which the overwhelming number of immigrants arrive, have been reduced to a trickle, compared to their former flow, making the physical arrival of immigrants more difficult.
Officials in the agency acknowledge these problems and state that should the pandemic persist or come back strongly in a second wave, it will make increasing aliyah difficult, despite the apparent increase in demand.
Indeed, aliyah this year is significantly down due to COVID-19 complications, with 6,368 new immigrants arriving in the country, compared to 9,899 in the same period last year, a decrease of some 36%.
Should conditions ease up, there is a significant possibility to convert potential immigrants into Israeli citizens in 2021, officials in the agency believe.
To assist with this, the body has been conducting the required aliyah interviews by videoconference call instead of in person, and conducting interviews before receiving all the requisite documentation.
The agency is also preparing to arrange so-called rescue flights to bring large groups of new immigrants on special flights to the country, in the event that the low number of commercial flights restricts the number of immigrants who can arrive.
The agency already conducted one such flight from the Ukraine earlier this month.
There is no doubt that there are many obstacles ahead in bringing to fruition the aliyah of tens of thousands of Jews from around the world who could make the big leap and move to Israel due to the changing circumstances wrought by COVID-19.
But we have been here before and failed to sufficiently take advantage of circumstances that were favorable to one of the most important principles of the State of Israel.
With a new government finally in place, the measures needed to take advantage of this rare opportunity for the Jewish state can now be taken.