Not in it for the money
By closing the Ministry of Absorption, we could disperse its NIS 1.4-billion budget to benefit Israelis who live here.
It's customary in Israel to receive a new arrival with a "baruch habah" ("welcome," but literally, "blessed be the one who has come"), to which the customary response is "baruch hanimtzah" ("blessed be the one who is [already] here"). As I read of the recent obsessive efforts by the Ministry of Absorption and private organizations to convince Israelis abroad and other Jews to come home, I keep repeating that latter phrase in my head. The Israeli government should be thinking about it as well.
Last year, I returned to Israel with my family after six years in the United States. It was a purely ideological move: We wanted to be in Israel and be part of that sometimes seemingly anachronistic effort to create a progressive Jewish state. We happily accepted the minimal financial aid we were offered by the Ministry of Absorption (reduced-price tickets on El Al). Upon our return we were met with a barrage of bills: The National Insurance Institute wanted their NIS 4,000 in unpaid bills from the period we were abroad; the Israel Broadcasting Authority wanted another NIS 3,000 in TV fees from the years we were gone (we paid the first bill, but are appealing the second one).
Furthermore, I will have to pay for private health insurance for the next 10 months. You may think I am noting these financial burdens simply to fulfill my national duty to complain, but my real point is that none of these deterred us. We want to live here.
I'm not alone. For various reasons, more than 10,000 American citizens immigrated to Israel between 2000 and 2006. Another 18,000 came from Europe (excluding the former Soviet Union) and 1,400 from Canada, New Zealand and Australia. In addition, 38,000 Israelis abroad decided to return to Israel between 2002 and 2005. In the absence of the specter of rampant anti-Semitism or economic collapse, we can assume they came because they were ideologically driven or they simply saw Israel as their home, and not because someone was paying them to move.
Migration experts speak in terms of "push and pull" factors that influence people. On the one hand, the place where they are may be increasingly unwelcoming - perhaps due to poverty, war, lack of opportunities and the like. On the other hand, it may be that immigrants are pulled by the lure of economic promise or of a better life for them and their children. When the combined push-and-pull factors overpower the justification for staying in situ, people pick up and move.
Israelis move abroad (and nearly 100,000 did so between 2002 and 2005) for many reasons, although it's a safe assumption that most are seeking a better life - materially, spiritually, socially. Life in Israel, rewarding as it may be, is tense politically and is also expensive. On the international front, we continue to live in a constant state of conflict with the Palestinians and enemies further away. On the home front, we have a deteriorating education system and a health care system that is becoming increasingly expensive for citizens. Israelis see promise overseas.
In response, our Ministry of Absorption recently announced a plan to entice ex-pat Israelis to come home through a package of economic incentives - in particular, by eliminating some of the unexpected bills that greeted us when we arrived. Additionally, the private immigration advocacy group Nefesh B'Nefesh, funded by philanthropists and by the Israeli government, is offering Jewish doctors (MDs, not PhDs) $60,000 to move to Israel.
I am not asking to have those privileges extended to me and my cohort - those who moved here prior to the increased incentives package. On the contrary, I suggest we reconsider the incentives. And perhaps we can consider a slightly larger reapportionment of government largesse. By closing the Ministry of Absorption, we could disperse its NIS 1.4-billion budget to benefit Israelis who live here - immigrants and long-time residents alike. The Education Ministry could use the additional funds to raise the salaries of teachers and university professors. The Environment Ministry, which currently gets less than 15 percent of the budget that the Absorption Ministry has, could use the money to clean up our rivers, air and land. The Science Ministry, which gets only half what the Absorption Ministry does, could stimulate basic research and strengthen Israel's research and development prowess. And those $60,000 grants could go to local doctors and hospitals in appreciation of their service.
Since the immigration waves of the 1990s, which increased Israel's population by more than 20 percent in less than a decade, there is scarcely a responsibility belonging to the Absorption Ministry that couldn't reasonably be reassigned to a different ministry. We have a Foreign Ministry that can represent us abroad. We have ministries of health, welfare, housing and education that can also tend to the special needs of new immigrants. For added benefit, these ministries cater to the needs of all Israelis (Jewish, Muslim and Christian), and thus they need not be part of a discriminatory governmental system in which, under the code "immigrant," Israel's Jewish citizens get preferential treatment over its Arab ones.
Stop pandering to the Israelis who have decided to seek their fortunes abroad, or to Jews who are happy where they currently live. We can show them some respect for their decision - and some self-respect as well. By investing in those who live here, we will not only weaken the "push" factors that may cause future generations of Israelis to leave, but we will strengthen the "pull" factors that will bring Israeli ex-pats and other potential immigrants to Israel. They will come, not for a bribe, but for quality of life, education, social services and a clean environment.
Always bless and welcome those who come. But invest in those who are here.
Daniel Orenstein is a postdoctoral fellow at the Technion Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning and a lecturer at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.