Gov't to develop ‘immigration marketplace'

Absorption Ministry yearns for thirst for aliah.

olim311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Immigrant Absorption Ministry has faced several consecutive yearsof declining budgets as the massive immigration wave of the 1990sground down to a trickle.
With aliya hovering at the levels ofordinary world migration figures, and recent governments committing tostrict budgetary discipline and efficiency, the ministry has beendesperately searching for ways to pay for new programs that mightreverse the downward trend of aliya.
The vast majority of theministry’s NIS 1.4 billion annual budget is “hard” – funds promised toimmigrants by law that the ministry cannot touch. Only some NIS 200million is “flexible,” or available for effecting programs or policiesbeyond what is mandatory.
Work training vouchers, communityaliya programs, the Tzabar program for children of expats who return toIsrael to serve in the IDF – all these are funded out of that flexiblebudget.
Just under one-quarter of that sum, or some NIS 43m.,goes to encouraging increased immigration from abroad. Of that, NIS30m. goes to Nefesh B’Nefesh and its operations to bring aliya fromNorth America and Britain, leaving just NIS 13m. available for theremainder of the world’s Jewish communities.
Even with the helpof the Jewish Agency, which contributes several million shekelsannually to improve the absorption conditions of new immigrants, only aminiscule sum of money is left over for program that might increasealiya – and justify the ministry’s continued existence.
Inresponse to this harsh reality, the Absorption Ministry has decided toturn the problem on its head. In recent weeks, it has been turning tolocal governments throughout the country with a simple message: Youwant more immigrants? Help pay for them.
“We believe in aliyaand Zionism. But this is a world of interests, of economics,” saysministry director-general Dmitry Apartsev. “We are a country that hasnothing – not oil, not gas. All we have is people.” In recent years, hesays, “local governments have started to realize this. And they’vestarted to understand that immigrants are a net asset. It is ahistorical fact that every period of economic expansions and prosperitycoincided exactly with a major wave of aliya. They generate taxes,jobs, population growth. They saw the good that immigrants brought toCarmiel and Haifa and other places, and they wanted some of that forthemselves.”
As local governments come to understand theeconomic opportunities represented by absorbing new immigrants, theministry has discovered a new lever for fundraising.
“Absorbingolim is becoming a privilege” in this newly-discovered marketplace,Apartsev says. “Nowadays I find myself sitting down with a localcouncil head and saying, ‘I have money, I have population. What are youprepared to put in? What are you prepared to offer these immigrants?’ Iwon’t work with councils that aren’t willing to put their own money inthe pot as an investment in their future.” Making the councils fight –and pay – for their immigrants also increases the value of theimmigrants in the eye of local governments, assuring that they willcontinue to care for their new residents after the initial absorptionbasket wears out.
As the phenomenon expands, Apartsev looksforward to a future in which an immigrant’s absorption is entirelyhandled by his local government.
“Our vision for the future isfor the ministry to become entirely a regulatory body. Theimplementation will come from the local government, and the aliyaassistance and encouragement will be handled by private organizations[like Nefesh B’Nefesh], who can talk to immigrants in their ownlanguage.”
Apartsev believes a new era is dawning in immigration policy worldwide.
“Absorptionand integration is a global challenge, and we’re lucky that we areahead of the curve in terms of desiring and assisting immigrants. Butwe’ve lost some of that feeling,” he laments. “We need to return to ourroots, to being a state that’s thirsty for immigration.”
Apartsevblames the media in part for what he sees as a national disenchantmentwith the aliya enterprise, and thus indirectly for the AbsorptionMinistry’s budget crunch.
The media’s coverage of immigrant crime, he says, is “terrible anddisproportionate. After last year’s murder of the Oshrenko family [byRussian immigrant Damian Karlik], did any reporter check the percentageof criminals among the immigrant population before the newspapersscreamed for stricter control on aliya?” An Absorption Ministry study,he says, has concluded that crime is actually lower among immigrantsthan among the general Israeli public.
“Immigration has lost its idealism, and even become a dirty wordsometimes. And that’s wrong. Aliya is the founding purpose of thiscountry, and it’s a powerful lever for prosperity. Maybe the mediashould start taking notice of that.”