‘Emigrés are no longer enemies of the state'

JPPI fellow Yogev Karasenty: Let Israelis living abroad for under 4 years vote, subsidize Jewish day-school education.

EL AL Plane 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
EL AL Plane 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In the not too distant past, Israeli emigrés were considered enemies of the state. Former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin once famously called Israelis living abroad an “avalanche of wimps,” and the state does not go out of its way to accommodate them. But if Yogev Karasenty, a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, has his way that will no longer be the case.
The Jewish policy wonk argued in two papers published this week that the government should provide the roughly 600,000 Israelis living outside the country a range of services and give some of them the right to vote.
“The previous objections to yerida no longer exist and perhaps deservedly so,” Karasenty said on Monday, using the Hebrew term for Jewish emigration from Israel. “The question is how do you continue to involve Israelis living abroad in Judaism and Israel?”
His arguments are familiar. The world is flat, the global markets are more integrated than ever and the flow of people is catching up with the flow of ideas.
“Israel’s economic dynamo is the hi-tech industry and its residents often spend stints abroad where they work in the marketing and development of products,” he said.
Given the changing realities, Karasenty argues the so-called Start-Up Nation should stop ignoring its citizens outside the country, particularly those who leave for short periods.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, some 80 percent of Israeli emigrés who eventually return home do so within four years of leaving the country, Karasenty said. This group, which numbers between 20,000 and 60,000 people and lives mostly in North America and Western Europe, should be allowed to vote in Israeli elections during their first four years overseas.
“If they were to vote in the elections they would elect one or two lawmakers to the Knesset,” he said.
Similar proposals have been made with some regularity over the past couple of decades, but none has come close to being implemented.
Many have voiced opposition to putting electoral power on crucial issues pertaining to war and peace in the hands of people who live far away and will not necessary have to deal with the consequences. But Karasenty said his proposal would bestow such rights only on people who are likely to return home.
He goes even further. Israel, he said, should invest in the education of children born to Israeli parents living abroad who may have left the country decades ago.
He cited a popular kindergarten in Moscow where children have an Israeli curriculum.
That institution is profitable, he said. Israel might provide grant money to create similar ones that would then have to pay for themselves.
The government might also consider subsidizing education at Jewish day schools, Karasenty said. Israeli emigrés are often put off by Jewish private schools because of the high tuition fees. Instead, they send their children to state schools that are cheaper. To strengthen the children’s Jewish and Israeli identities, the government should examine ways of making it easier for Israelis abroad to give their children an Israeli education.
“Many times they are not associated with the Jewish community,” he said. “Making Jewish education more affordable will help maintain their connection to Israel.”
One might wonder why Israel, whose own lackluster school system is thirsty for funds, should invest precious resources in Jewish schools in New York or London instead of in peripheral towns like Sderot and Karmiel, or even in affluent Ra’anana, for that matter. On this point the think tank fellow concedes that the government faces difficult choices; however, he added that the right balance that would address both issues could be struck.
Perhaps Karasenty’s most ambitious suggestion is that Israel set up a network of cultural centers around the world in the mold of the UK’s British Council, Spain’s Cervantes Institute or Germany’s Goethe Institute. Indeed, the Jewish Agency is experimenting with a similar concept in Budapest.
But while this may be fine for the wealthy countries of Western Europe, can Israel afford such a luxury?
“The real question is whether we allow ourselves to continue ignoring Israeli citizens abroad,” Karasenty countered. “We need to figure out how to stay engaged and in touch with our citizens abroad.”