Focus U.S.A. / How do you 'sell' Israel to skeptic potential olim?
It's not enough to mention the delicious food and world-class beaches when Israel faces deadly rocket attacks and less than inspiring leadership.
This week, one of my American friends called me, stressed. “You know, our family’s aliyah project is happening at last. We are supposed to get to our new home in Haifa by the end of August," he said. “But I just got a call from a relative in Israel who said to me 'are you nuts? You are a responsible adult, but why are you bringing your two kids into this mess, when we might be on a brink of another war with Hezbollah? And these rockets in Ashkelon? And the peace process?'"
I went silent. How are you supposed to “sell” Israel these days, with rockets and mortars pounding the south and yet another deadly clash at the northern border? When there is so little trust even among the cabinet members, not to mention the lack of trust between Israelis and the Palestinians?
During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, we used to sit near the border and count the mortars and rockets flying from one side to another over our heads at night. We would joke with other journalists that Israel is a paradise for war reporters – you have two separate wars within a 4-hour car ride of each other, at the north and south, and great hotels in between. And nobody cuts your fingers off if you write something critical. But when talking to a family friend with two young children, worried about their security and the growing isolation of Israel, this kind of professional cynicism seems highly inappropriate.
“Look”, I began, struggling for some compelling argument, but not entirely sure that I should be compelling. “It probably sounds stupid, but statistically, you really have a higher chance of dying in an accident than from a Hezbollah rocket."
"True," he agreed. “In my city there are neighborhoods that I’d rather not set foot in. But see, we will probably all be culture shocked for six months or so – and to spend this time in bomb shelters, it sounds challenging."
Challenging? I quickly calculated in my head all the potential causes for further stress: new job, new home, new community, new school for the kids, some language adaptation - and then, when he finally understands everything he reads in the newspapers - our signature circus of messy politics, social rifts and corruption scandals. Not to mention Iran.
“You know the problems. And in Israel, you’ll hardly have any quiet time,” I said. “So the question is whether you are ready to adopt wholeheartedly our trademark 'siege mentality'. You know, 'the country is under constant existential threat, the world is hypocritical and biased against Israel, ignoring all other conflict, but we are strong and we’ll prevail' et cetera. If you believe in it - the sky is the limit, as they say. The Israeli economy performed better during the last financial crisis than many of its western counterparts. You might fall in love with the culture of talking “dugri” (straightforward), the strategy of “balagan meurgan” (an organized mess), and the typical Israeli lack of formality. The food is great, not to mention the huge difference between Israeli and American coffee. Besides, you probably remember that only last week a synagogue in Olney (Maryland) was vandalized with Nazi symbols and slogans?”
“So it’s up to you to decide how and where you want to raise your kids."
In recent years, statistics of immigration to Israel are not great. After the huge waves seen at the start of the 1990s, the number of newcomers and so-called “yordim” (“those who descend”) who leave Israel have now become even. One might say that the pools of the potential “olim” have been depleted, the situation in “troubled countries” improved, and maybe the electronic media and the news from previous olim indeed made Israel tougher sell. As one of the Jewish agency “shlihim” (representatives abroad) told me once - “today you can’t sell them only happy hora and Jerusalem of gold. They read stuff."
But during the first half of this year - surprise surprise - the numbers have improved somewhat. According to Jewish Agency statistics, 9,800 new immigrants have arrived in Israel between January and July. For the sake of comparison, 7,700 new immigrants came to Israel during the corresponding period last year. North American groups grew from 1,355 to 1,514, there were 1,170 immigrants from Ethiopia among this year’s arrivals, and there was a slight growth in numbers of immigrants from Britain, France and the Former Soviet Union.
One can pin the rise in immigration on the recent financial crisis, which made the decision to move much easier for some hesitant Jews. One can credit the new methods of recruitment by the Jewish agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh. It is probably unfair to compare these numbers to the 199,516 new olim of 1990, or the 77,921 in 1999.
But if indeed everyone counts - is the leadership of the country burdened with endless threats and challenges, thinking of ways to entice these people to stay? Especially those that still have their foreign passports, which so many Israelis keep nowadays for logistical reasons, and other who hold on to their foreign passport as "insurance" - "just in case” things go really, really badly.
One Israeli friend of mine, when I told him about the conversation I had, was quick to suggest another idea. “Did you read that National Geographic ranked Tel-Aviv as one of the top ten beach cities in the world?” he asked proudly.
“He's moving to Haifa," I said.