The Lesson of Nefesh B'Nefesh: Israel Urgently Needs a New Policy on Immigration and Citizenship

While it started out a decade ago with good and timely ideas for bringing Western immigrants to Israel, the organization has increasingly come to resemble the complacent Jewish Agency, which it replaced.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Haaretz's investigation on the affairs of Nefesh B'Nefesh (NBN) and the privatization of immigration from North America and Britain brings into sharp focus the often conflicting roles of government, and national and private organizations that are involved in the aliyah business and maintaining Israel's connection with the Jewish Diaspora.

Jewish immigration was one of the principle values of Israel's foundation and the ingathering of the exiles will continue to be a core ethos for the country's identity and culture, but that cannot change the fact that the age of mass aliyah is now over. There is not one Jew today, living in any country around the world, including the Jews of Iran, who cannot move to Israel if he or she desires to do so. Many if not most of those Jews feel an affinity to Israel, but that does not translate into a decision to uproot themselves.

Over ninety percent of Jews outside Israel reside in relatively wealthy democratic countries, and if they had a burning desire to return to Zion, they would have done so already. That doesn't mean that aliyah is over - there will always be Jews born in other countries who decide to lead their lives and bring up their children in the Jewish state. But unless a terrible and unforeseen calamity befalls entire nations, or in the unlikely case that a wave of extremely violent anti-Semitism, unprecedented in six decades, sweeps over a Western democracy with a sizable Jewish community, it will increasingly be an individual choice.

"A million olim in a decade!" may be a catchy Zionist slogan, but it will only happen as the result of a disaster none of us wants.

As things stand now, there is no reason to expect the numbers to change drastically from the current annual rate of somewhere between fifteen and twenty thousand olim each year, with the number of Israelis leaving the country perhaps slightly lower. This is a healthy and stable rate of immigration which enables the authorities to carry out long-range social planning.

Ten years ago, the founders of Nefesh B'Nefesh were the first to realize that with the petering out of mass aliyah from the former Soviet Union, immigration to Israel would come mainly from the prosperous Western nations and in a growing proportion from the United States.

It was clear that the hidebound monolith of the Jewish Agency, even before it was hit by a massive shortfall in revenue, was totally unprepared to transform itself into an organization that could serve the needs of this constituency, and neither was the politicized Ministry for Immigration Absorption.

In an age in which most government and financial services were going online and nearly all the prospective immigrants were computer-literate, there was no reason for the cumbersome process of preparing for the big move and harrowing first months in a new country not to be streamlined.

Nefesh Be'Nefesh succeeded in three ways. They rebooted the aliyah experience, drastically reducing red tape and unnecessary formalities. They tailored a one-size-fits-all absorption experience to the specific needs of immigrants arriving from the U.S, Britain and Canada. And they created a highly effective PR machine that succeeded to a large degree in rebranding aliyah as sexy and desirable, drawing a great degree of media attention to their well-organized special El Al flights filled with olim, met with great pomp at Ben Gurion airport by beaming prime ministers and presidents. (Full disclosure – like hundreds of other journalists, this writer also flew on a NBN flight free of charge).

Creative minds constantly came up with new gimmicks such as the "singles flight" and heartwarming stories of hundred-year-old great-grandmothers realizing their dream of aliyah. A fourth achievement has been delivering a long overdue kick to the backside of the complacent Jewish Agency.

But as the Haaretz investigation reveals, there has been another side to the success. NBN has supplanted the Jewish Agency by becoming a monopoly in its own right and, like the Agency, its senior executives are based in lavish offices in Israel, making American salaries (good ones) and in many cases, they seem to have failed to fulfill their promises to the olim. The organization which now receives half of its funding from the government has acquired a large deficit. Yet another resemblance to the Jewish Agency.

NBN takes credit now for nearly every oleh reaching Israel from North America and Britain, and claims to have boosted aliyah from these countries by significant numbers, but there is no way of knowing how many of these new immigrants - certainly a large proportion - would have moved to Israel with or without NBN assistance.

They have claimed hundreds of olim who arrived under the auspices of other organizations simply because they travelled on NBN flights (funded largely by the government). Their numbers also include hundreds of veteran immigrants, many living in Israel for decades, who have just "changed status," receiving full citizenship through NBN's efficient mechanism.

The metamorphosis of NBN, an unaccountable private body now effectively controlling emigration from the biggest Jewish community in the world, the continuing failure of the Jewish Agency to articulate a new mission and the way the Absorption Ministry has become the private fiefdom of one political party (Yisrael Beitenu) demonstrate how Israel's emigration policy is falling apart.

This is happening at the same time that the government has failed to formulate a comprehensive policy regarding the hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, refugees and asylum-seekers already in the country and to address the plight of a quarter-million Russian-born immigrants and their children, who are not recognized as Jews by the Chief Rabbinate and therefore unable to marry in the country.

Israel cannot afford to parcel out its responsibilities to new immigrants and the Diaspora piecemeal. The terminal decline and irrelevance of the Jewish Agency is not a reason to award its role to private organizations. A legal and structural overhaul of the entire citizenship structure is long overdue.

A child sits on the baggage carousel at Ben Gurion airport after immigrating to Israel with his family.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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