Exclusive: Absorption minister says "immigration of choice" in serious decline.
By AMIR MIZROCH
There is a gradual yet accelerating decline in immigration to Israel, and if the current trends in aliya hold true over the next few years, the Jewish state will be facing an immigration crisis, Immigrant Absorption Minister Ze'ev Boim told The Jerusalem Post this week.
"We haven't reached that stage, yet, where there are more people leaving than coming to Israel," he said. "But if the trends continue, it will happen, and this should worry us."
Boim was referring to press reports this week that for the first time in more than 20 years, there are more people leaving Israel than immigrating here. While denying the veracity of the numbers, which posit a negative net migration rate for the first time since 1984, Boim said "immigration of choice" was in serious decline.
Boim said approximately 19,000 new immigrants arrived in Israel last year. That was down compared to the past three years, in which there were between 21,000 to 22,000 immigrants annually.
This was a worrying trend, Boim said, because there was "no immediate physical danger to any Jewish community abroad. So we do not see the same reasons for making aliya as we did in the last century. Almost all of the worldwide Jewish communities live under democratic regimes. Most of these regimes are fighting anti-Semitism, including France.
"The situation now for Jews all over the world has never been better. But then again, that was the case in Weimar Germany, and the Holocaust dropped on [European Jewry] from out of the blue."
Aliya in the future would be "aliya of choice," Boim said, and fewer Jews were making the choice to live in Israel. "This is a big challenge to the State of Israel, and we have to determine how to deal with it," he said.
Boim said there had been a slight increase in aliya from England and France. Certain anti-Semitic sentiments in those countries, he said, which were mostly under the surface, were not the main issue pushing Jewish immigrants to move to Israel.
"There is no immediate physical pressure on them, but there is an atmosphere of it, and in England we see an increasing preparedness by Jews to immigrate," Boim said. "You see an increase in home purchases in Israel by British and French Jews."
The Jewish Agency, however, sees no immigration crisis. It says aliya is steady at approximately 22,000 olim annually, and is expected to stay that way for at least another decade.
According to the Agency, there has been a steady stream of new immigrants to Israel - between 22,000 to 24,000 annually - since 2000. This rate is expected to hold steady until the end of this decade, agency spokesperson Michael Jankelowitz told the Post. What happens in the second decade of the 21st Century is anyone's guess, he said.
One thing that can be said for sure, Jankelowitz said, is that the departure of more than 2 million Jews from the Former Soviet Union and other countries over the past two decades has led to the drying up of the immigration reservoir, and "you cannot expect the same immigration numbers now as was the case when the Iron Curtain first came down."
While Boim believes that a dearth in immigration could represent a "crisis," the Jewish Agency sees the current immigration trend to Israel as a reflection of the worldwide decline in Jewish demographics. Boim is pessimistic, but the Agency is optimistic, saying "aliya of choice" from countries like the United States, France, England and South Africa is increasing.
"There is nothing to show that the numbers are drying up," Jankelowitz said.
The disparity between the two world views - Boim's versus the Agency's - may have, at its source, the different definitions of who is an immigrant.
"The Jewish Agency has no immigration policy that conforms strictly to Halacha, but rather to the State of Israel's Law of Return," Jankelowitz said.
Both the Jewish Agency and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry understand the need for Jewish renewal in the Diaspora. They do not begrudge the fact that Jewish communities abroad are starting to spend a lot more money on continuity projects and less on Israel.
Despite Boim's contention that the decline in immigration can be attributed to the "good situation" of many Diaspora Jews, and to the "drying up of the immigration reservoir," the Jewish Agency believes it can achieve a level of 21,000 new immigrants annually.
"Twenty-one thousand immigrants per year is a realistic," Jankelowitz said. "Aliya in the '80s averaged 12,000 olim a year. Once the gates opened after the former USSR fell, it was near 100,000. Aliya leveled off due to the numbers of immigrants from the USSR. There is no aliya crisis, and we are optimistic."
Regardless of whether there is an immigration crisis, Boim aims to make it easier for immigrants to integrate into Israel. One of the most pressing issues on his agenda is conversion.
"Any Jew, regardless of denomination, should have no problems coming to Israel, as long as they are halachicly Jewish," Boim said. "Those who aren't are the ones who have a problem. Many people do not want to make aliya because if their Judaism is not recognized, the conversion process is too difficult, and this deters prospective immigrants."
Boim has established a committee to deal with the conversion process with the goal of "softening" it. But he acknowledges that the task may not be achievable since Orthodox Jewry's position of power is not likely to be broken any time soon.
To change the conversion process would require political power, he said, adding that he encourages "the majority of American Jews, who are not Orthodox, to immigrate to Israel and influence things here politically. The policies of Orthodoxy are a direct result of their political power. Such is the way of life. The effect of a move here by the majority of American Jews would translate into political power. There is no other way."
Boim hopes the Rabbinate's conversion courts will be set up differently in the future.
"Right now these courts are made up of the Orthodox hard core," he said, "But it doesn't say anywhere in Halacha that a conversion court has to be made up of dayanim. The possible solution might be to establish rabbinic conversion courts made up of experts who understand the complexities of the issues, who are more flexible and not necessarily rabbis who belong to the Orthodox mainstream."
Boim said conversions would still be carried out according to Halacha. Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar, he said, knows that "there are people in the conversion courts who need to be replaced. He is sensitive to the problems of new olim."
Boim's wish to see the Chief Rabbinate establish conversion courts that will be "manned by more flexible staffers" is unlikely to be granted any time soon.
The problems and stigma of conversion in Israel scare away potential olim from non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, said Immigrant Absorption Ministry director-general Erez Halfon, who heads the committee looking at ways to smooth conversion issues. He said he meets regularly with representatives of the Rabbinate, the Education Ministry and other groups to discuss progress, although no breakthroughs have occurred, or are expected.
"We know that the issue of conversion scares away many potential olim," Halfon said. "We've checked this, and we know that many of them are apprehensive to even embark on this process. They ask why they should even get into it, because of the time it takes and the tough criteria imposed by the rabbinical courts. This is a very sensitive issue, and it stands very high up on our agenda."
According to informed observers, the committee, which has only met twice, may, in the most optimistic scenario, manage to deal with certain individual cases that won't harm the status and beliefs of the Orthodox establishment. Halfon said the committee wants to reach an agreement with the Orthodox establishment to relax certain restrictions on conversions, without antagonizing the rabbis.
"We ask the rabbis to fill out forms relating to their treatment of new olim who come for conversions: What questions do they ask them, what demands are placed on them," he said. "We want to know what they mean when they tell immigrants that they must continue living a religious life after their conversion. Many immigrants, who don't want to live religiously after their conversion, tell us that they are not willing to lie to the rabbinic authorities, but feel like they are required to do so [to keep their conversion and absorption process going]."
Meanwhile, Boim's ministry has embarked on a plan to return Israeli migr s home.
"The third largest Jewish community worldwide is Israeli emigres - approximately 700,000 people, of whom 600,000 still hold their Israeli citizenship," Boim said. "We tried to seek an answer to the question, What is keeping these Israelis from returning home? Things like medical insurance, making a living, taxes and sending the kids to the army. We are working to answer their questions on all of these issues."
Boim has come to an understanding with the IDF to ensure that the Military Police won't be at the airport to welcome a returning Israeli of military age.
Regarding taxation of wealth accumulated abroad, Boim is in talks with the Treasury.
"Someone has lived in America for 20 years and has accumulated a fortune - he pays taxes to the IRS - and once he sets foot in Israel he has to pay taxes to the government for his business dealings in America," he said. "So I asked the Finance Ministry, 'What for? If he decides to not come here because of your policy, do you get a cent from that?' And they said to me, 'If he comes here, what do we get then?' And I replied, 'From his business in America you won't get anything. But when he gets here he'll buy an apartment, so you can get property tax. He will eat here, he may buy a vehicle here, he might even go to the theater here. From all these things you will get taxes. It's much more than what you would get if, because of you, he stayed in Manhattan.'"
Halfon said some arrangements were agreed upon with Tax Authority officials. But some of those officials, he said, are now under investigation in the largest tax fraud scandal in Israel's history, and are not in a position to implement anything.
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