How to bring them home

For all the fanfare over the Absorption Ministry's initiative, it amounts to very little, very late.

EL AL plane 1 248 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
EL AL plane 1 248 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
It has become fashionable in recent years to talk of the need to bring home the "yordim," the expat Israelis who, for various reasons, have left the country and live their lives abroad. Previously, even discussion of the "yordim" was a touchy subject, since their decision to emigrate runs counter to those mainstream branches of Zionist ideology that hold that Jewish life and identity can only be authentic in Israel. Now the Immigrant Absorption Ministry has launched a much-hyped initiative to encourage some of the hundreds of thousands of Israeli expats to return. It will cost as much as NIS 150 million and will include waving the returnees' National Insurance penalties and offering loans for new businesses, along with establishing a new manpower unit that will help returnees find some 20,000 job vacancies the ministry plans to open up in some of Israel's leading companies. The offer to remove the insurance and tax penalties meted out to yordim is a good idea regardless of any push to bring them back. There is also nothing wrong in offering incentives to those who truly intend to return to the country to live and work. Yet for all the fanfare surrounding the initiative, which was passed at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, it amounts to very little, very late, and shows that the government may not really understand the economic troubles that often cause yordim to leave or the crisis of identity which yordim, like other Jews and Israelis, face overseas. With vast swaths of the haredi and Arab publics not employed - Tel Aviv University economist Dan Ben-David earlier this year estimated unemployment among working-age ultra-Orthodox men at 84 percent, and among Israeli Arab women at 85% - the working middle class pays very high taxes for little gain. This blights the lives of many hardworking Israelis, and is a major disincentive for would-be returnees. Meanwhile, the Israeli educational system is raising children whose test scores have been falling since the 1960s from the top of the developed world to its bottom - and that's the secular system. Things are much worse in those sections of the population that are least focused on providing educations useful in a modern economy - the Israeli Arabs and haredim, who now comprise half of Israel's schoolchildren. Again, this is hardly a reality likely to appeal to ex-Israelis contemplating coming home, and the ongoing teachers' strike is only exacerbating the deterrent. As Ben-David told the Post, "When the burden - whether taxes or army service - is increased, not only will it be a problem to attract future immigrants to this country... but we're going to have a problem keeping here the people who have alternatives elsewhere, the ones we need for this country to function properly: university professors, high-tech people, doctors..." Then there is the question of the identities of the Israeli expats, and particularly of their children. As a recent, first-of-its-kind Bar-Ilan University study found, the young generation of Jews born to Israeli expatriates in Europe is in danger of losing its Jewish and Israeli identity. A quarter of young Israelis living in Europe are intermarrying, while 60% of them do not belong to any Jewish community and do not participate in any Jewish activities. While similar figures do not exist for America - even the number of expat Israelis is in doubt, with the US census finding about 135,000 people who speak Hebrew in the home and the Israeli government estimating 400,000 - it is often observed that Israelis do not connect to the Jewish communities in their new cities. As the Israel Zionist Council complained hours after the cabinet approved the new plan for yordim: "There are ways to reach those [Israelis abroad] who don't connect to [local] Jewish communities - for example, investment in Jewish education, bringing the young on visits, sending them to camps... How do we define the sense of belonging among the young, and are we investing in that sense? The education system certainly doesn't deal with it. These are the questions that the Immigrant Absorption Ministry isn't dealing with." Indeed, judging by the new incentive plan, the state of Israel seems blissfully unaware that these problems even exist. Its new yordim initiative certainly doesn't tackle them. It is time for the Jewish state to think seriously about investing in Jewish education both in Israel and in the expat communities overseas. It would help solve a whole host of difficulties.