Russian-Israelis Abroad Unaware Repatriation Program Targets Them

The state is good at courting, but bad at cultivating long-term relationships with expatriates.

Last November, the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption launched a campaign to encourage Israelis living abroad to return. Israeli expatriates are known by the derogatory term "yordim" those who descend, in contrast to the "olim" who "ascend" to Israel, and a politically correct Hebrew term has yet to be found.

In preparation for the NIS 140 million campaign, the ministry defined its target audiences and conducted research to learn why Israelis leave, and what might bring them back. It selected popular Israeli Web sites as advertising venues, and decided to target people in North America, Europe and, above all, the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Five months later, the operation already can be considered a success. About 4,000 Israelis living abroad have registered to return, and 1,800 are already here. The Russians, however, are not coming back. The young, successful people who immigrated to Israel in the 1990s and chose to return to the former Soviet Union - the campaign's main target - largely ignored the whole thing. Most did not even click on the ministry's ads to see what was being offered. Only 80 or so of the tens of thousands of former immigrants living in the major cities of Russia and Ukraine heeded the call to return home.

Interest improved slightly - people at least bothered to visit the Web sites - when the Immigrant Absorption Ministry began advertising on Israeli Web sites in Russian, too.

The lesson in language preferences illustrates the clash between the Russian-speaking Israeli community and the culture at large - the state is good at courting, but bad at cultivating long-term relationships with those who respond to its entreaties.

It also became clear that the emotional appeal to Israelis to "return home" does not work on the Russian speakers. For some, Israel never became home, or Russia never stopped being home. Almost none consider it a contradiction to live in both worlds.

Roman Bronfman, a former Knesset member who is now a businessman, is familiar with some of these young Russian speakers from their time in Israel. He occasionally meets some during his business trips to Russia.

"I'm not at all surprised," Bronfman said. "In Israel they are considered inferior Israelis; in Russia they are superior Russians, because they have lived in the West. They return to [Russia] after acquiring foreign languages, a Western managerial approach.

"It's a reversal: In the 1990s they considered Israel to be a developed country; now I hear them say that Russia is an empire of culture and opportunity, and Israel is a provincial country between Africa and Asia. It's impossible to bring Russians back from Russia now," Bronfman said.

Dr. Zeev Khanin, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University who immigrated to Israel in 1992, sees things slightly differently.

"Just as there is no clear legal definition of a yored, there is no sociological definition, either. Nevertheless, it's clear to me that the vast majority of Israelis living in Russia and Ukraine today never defined themselves as yordim until they heard about the propaganda to bring them back.

"[Most] see themselves as migrant workers or jobseekers. They visit Israel often and integrate into the local Jewish community. I believe they simply don't understand that the campaign to bring Israelis back is connected to them. From their perspective, they are still Israelis and big patriots," Khanin said.

Armed with new insights and assistance from an Israeli advertising agency that specializes in the Russian-speaking sector, the ministry is now launching the second phase of its campaign. Instead of the emotional appeal that has been so successful with Israelis living in Europe and North America, this stage focuses on economic incentives and renewing the connection with Israel, a senior ministry official explained. The appeal to Russian-speaking Israelis living abroad will concentrate on the business angle, with business and tax consultants set to travel to Russia and Ukraine to bring them home.