Immigrants are arriving in Tel Aviv at a faster rate than any time since the establishment of the State of Israel, the city’s mayor Ron Huldai told Haaretz on Wednesday.
Huldai was speaking ahead of the launch today of a host of municipal services for Western immigrants, whom he says have made up more than half the 15,000 newcomers that have moved to the city over the past decade.
“Suddenly we are faced with a whole new population, with different needs and expectations that we have to address,” said Huldai in an exclusive interview with Haaretz. “Tel Aviv is facing a new wave of immigration in proportions that it hasn’t seen since the pre-state years.”
Job-seeking workshops, vocational Hebrew classes and legal advice to apartment hunters are among the new services to be offered. Different workshops and other events will be held at Mazeh 9, the new municipal center on Mazeh Street, where City Hall representatives will offer multilingual information and assistance on a drop-in basis, during regular office hours.
According to the Immigration Absorption Ministry’s estimates, more than 8,000 newcomers are from English- and French-speaking countries; therefore the number of Western immigrants has grown significantly both proportionally and in absolute terms. Huldai categorized most of them as educated, professional and financially secure. He added that many are young and single and though overwhelmingly Jewish, they tend to live a more secular lifestyle. As few other places in Israel, if any at all, can rival the city’s job opportunities, urban experience and pluralistic atmosphere, Tel Aviv is where they end up.
“Western immigrants find in Tel Aviv the same lifestyle, the openness, the freedom they know from back home,” Huldai says. “Tel Aviv in general has become a city where more and more people want to live, and these people are no exception.”
Catering to Western immigrants, who have in many cases left behind a comfortable life in pursuit of the Zionist dream, is a much greater challenge compared to other immigrants, the Tel Aviv Municipality has come to realize. In these cases, failed aliyah means not just a disgruntled immigrant struggling to make ends meet; Western immigrants would much more easily go home, unless home is what Tel Aviv becomes for them.
Against this backdrop, City Hall launched a new plan to integrate Western immigrants, in cooperation with the Ministry for Immigration Absorption, the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh. The plan will focus on essentials like employment and housing, but not only. Mazeh 9 offers its space for cultural events for immigrants, as well as discussion groups in the three languages on Israeli culture and society. An Israeli film club will be launched at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, where a monthly screening of an Israeli classic will be followed by a debate in English.
“There’s an old saying in Israel, ‘Make the tourists feel welcome,’ Huldai added. “So we’ve taken it one step forward and say ‘make the immigrants feel welcome.”
Most of all, Huldai’s advisor Eytan Schwartz stresses, the contribution of this group of immigrants is in attaching importance to immigrants’ role in making their city a better place. Therefore, he says, the new plan will offer a framework for social entrepreneurship, with projects ranging from cleaning the city’s beaches to tending to the city’s ageing Holocaust survivors.
Huldai’s detractors – including MK Nitzan Howoritz (Meretz), who will seek to dethrone him in October’s mayoral elections – often accuse him of investing in the city’s rich at the expense of its poor. Is this program another way to channel services to wealthy newcomers at the expense of the city’s needy?
“None of this is direct investment,” Huldai says. “What I invest is attention, giving people access to information, setting up workshops. I just want them to feel at home.”
Also, he adds, the municipality invests in other populations as well. “I invest in migrant workers a lot more money than these immigrants. Why? Because they need more.”