Aliya – the revolution has just begun

It is certainly no coincidence that among the first laws promulgated by the newly reestablished Jewish state was the “Law of Return” mandating that every Jew has a right to return to their ancestral homeland.

Aliya (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Former foreign minister Abba Eban once said: “Zionism is nothing more – but also nothing less – than the Jewish People’s sense of origin and destination in the land linked eternally with its name. It is also the instrument whereby the Jewish nation seeks an authentic fulfillment of itself.”
From biblical times to this very day, Zionism, the national liberation of the Jewish People, has been inexorably linked with aliya, the physical fulfillment of the movement. It is certainly no coincidence that among the first laws promulgated by the newly reestablished Jewish state was the “Law of Return” mandating that every Jew has a right to return to their ancestral homeland.
Today, while some see aliya as a promise which has largely reached fulfillment, or as an increasingly less relevant tenet of government policy, I believe aliya and absorption must remain at the forefront of the Israeli government’s focus.
For this very reason, I am honored to be the first immigrant absorption minister serving for two consecutive terms in the history of the State of Israel. I firmly believe Israel’s immigration absorption policies remain a vital pillar of our nation’s success and endurance and I wanted the opportunity to ensure that for the coming years.
Aliya is a national mission and I am proud to be given the opportunity to continue and even improve upon some of our important achievements of the past few years. In recent years, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry has spent around NIS 20 million a year to bring 74,000 Jews home and fund around 75 percent of all activities connected to aliya and absorption.
These resources have been used in numerous productive ways and we are proud of our firm commitment and constant contribution to aliya, with the help of some of the organizations which we assist such as the Jewish Agency for Israel and Nefesh B’Nefesh.
As a government organization it is forbidden for us to address the issue of emigration with foreign nationals from around the world. However, in 2010, due to a proposal I submitted, incentivizing and assisting Israeli citizens’ return home became a prime national goal of the Israeli government.
The ministry created a unique project for maintaining contact with Israelis living outside Israel – the “Israeli House.” Its main purpose is to offer counseling and guidance for those interested in returning home, and to provide personal support and counseling in planning the return. There are 15 of these centers around the world, with 11 in North America alone.
Since the campaign began, almost 40,000 Israelis have returned to live in Israel, the vast majority of whom came from the United States, Canada, Great Britain and France. Well over 1,000 of these returnees enlisted in the IDF.
We have also literally streamlined aliya. The absorption process at Ben-Gurion International Airport has been upgraded and about half an hour after the immigrants’ arrival at the ministry’s wing in the airport, they enter Israel with the following: A certificate of immigration, an ID card, an “absorption basket,” a health insurance form for registration with a health fund and a form to open a bank account. The process is completed together with a guide speaking the immigrant’s native language.
Anyone, such as myself, who made aliya over four years ago knows well how long and arduous this process was previously.
Additionally, while every Jew is more than welcome, our ministry has focused on an aliya of contribution.
We have understood the state’s needs and brought home some 4,400 engineers, which has saved the economy about NIS 1.2 billion, and the immigration of some 2,000 doctors which saved the economy around NIS 750 million. These and many other experienced and highly-educated professionals have created a “brain-gain” for the State of Israel, especially necessary during the past few years of global recession.
Meeting our nation’s needs was also the reason behind the ministry’s project to encourage thousands of new immigrants to settle in the Negev and the Galilee and ensuring that many new immigrants find support and guidance while serving in the army.
However, we also understand that new immigrants need greater financial and social assistance.
In the past four years, we restarted a policy stopped 20 years ago, and built subsidized homes for 4,000 new olim, with thousands more being built in the near future. We have doubled the monthly rental assistance for new immigrants and launched a program for youth-at-risk in 50 local authorities throughout the country.
Additionally, we offer generous tuition grants for those immigrants who wish to pursue higher education through the Israel Student Authority. Moreover, we provide information and advice to students still abroad and assist students to study successfully and integrate into Israeli academia by running programs for social integration to encourage a sense of belonging and identity.
This is only the beginning of the aliya revolution I am seeking to introduce, not only for immigrants or returnees themselves, but also for the nation of Israel as a whole. Aliya is a national mission, but it is a means to an end. The end remains the strengthening of our nation and its people and invigorating and strengthening the national home.
As I leave my office, I look upon the pictures of all my predecessors, each of whom contributed enormously to the biblically-inspired “ingathering of the exiles.”
However, at the beginning of the 21st century we need to maintain the relevance of aliya, especially in the West where the vast majority of Diaspora Jews currently reside. For this reason, I will be traveling to the US in the near future to learn and listen and hopefully open the next chapter in the practical means of attaining Zionist goals which Abba Eban described as the Jewish nation’s “authentic fulfillment of itself.”
The writer is Israel’s immigrant absorption minister.