Knesset Members, Aliyah groups and officials from the Absorption and Finance Ministries gathered at the Knesset Tuesday to establish the Knesset Lobby for Western Aliyah (immigration to Israel).
The lobby was launched by MK Gilad Erdan (Likud) and MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima).
“There are more than eight million Jews in Western nations that we hope will make Aliyah to Israel,” Erdan said, opening the discussion. “This hope does not differ inside or outside the coalition – whether on the right or the left. But there are obstacles and specific issues that we as Knesset Members hear about from individual olim and Aliyah organizations alike. The purpose of this lobby is to identify where new legislation is needed to rectify those obstacles.”
Former Israeli Ambassador to the US Danny Ayalon, now the Chairman of the Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliyah organization said that Israel was founded on two principles, both necessitating establishing facts on the ground: “Ingathering the exiles and redeeming the land,” he said. “The vision is to recognize and differentiate between Aliyah from the West and past waves of Aliyah. What we have here is the recognition that the Zionist spirit is not passé. Jewish communities in America, Canada and UK are showing that if you thought that Jews only make Aliyah when they are in crisis – you are incorrect. Here are Jews from the fleshpots choosing to move to Israel.”
Ayalon said that the lobby must deal with the pressing issues faced by the Western olim, many arriving with one or two degrees at least. “We must adjust and streamline the process of registering and converting their licenses – be they lawyers, doctors, psychologists or others - so they can join the job market. Tax laws must be adjusted to encourage the moving of businesses here.”
Ayalon is optimistic. “If Nefesh B’Nefesh has brought 14,000 olim until today, with 20,000 people on waiting lists – we expect to realistically reach the number 100,000 in the coming years.”
MK Uri Ariel (National Union) called for the government to put all its resources at the disposal of the organizations like Nefesh B’Nefesh, who are working to increase Aliyah from the West. “The motor that powers all aspects of Israel to move forward is Aliyah,” he said. “What are they waiting for? I think the organizations have moved forward and they now have the right to set certain demands before us to stand up and prove we are willing to help. Of course these must be conveyed in an organized work plan, but the end result must be legislation.”
Ethiopian Jewish oleh (immigrant to Israel) MK Shlomo Mula (Kadima) said that Aliyah is “the challenge of this generation’s Zionism.”
Fellow Kadima MK Ronit Tirosh said she does not think it is clear to Jews across the world that Israel is the place for them. “For this we need PR. I don’t think this is being done now. We must not wait until there is Anti-Semitism – because that kind of Aliyah comes from a lower place – they don’t have another choice. Western Aliyah is a different story altogether.” Tirosh said the new lobby should include Director Generals of the Finance, Aliyah, Employment and Tax Authorities.
Absorption Ministry Director-General Erez Halfon said that one of the serious issues is that communities in the US would prefer that the Jews remain in their communities there. “The task is much harder – to bring olim from the West – than we have ever faced. There is a question of how to convince the communities to encourage their members to move to Israel? We in the ministry have launched a campaign to convince Israelis, concentrated in North America to return home. That involved conflicts as well with our consulates, who allot resources to making life comfortable for Israelis there on a certain level.”
Halfon also lamented that there are sources overseas offering Israelis incentives to leave the Jewish homeland. “There is a competition today among institutions paying Israeli students to do their degrees overseas,” he said.
The Jewish Agency’s Secretary-General Moshe Vigdor spoke about the quasi-governmental agency’s new push for low-pressure trial Aliyah. “Today is not like the old Aliyah where the olim arrive and tear up their passports. People today commute, people make Aliyah in stages. Families come one by one.”
The mayors of Ariel, in Samaria, and Modi’in, located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv also addressed the lobby. “With all due respect, at the end of the day it is the local authorities who provide the absorption: the ulpan, the warm hug, all the multiple needs,” said Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman. I recommend that in order for this to succeed a decision must be made as to the role of local government in these matters.” Nachman suggested a government task force that would meet regularly with representatives of the various Aliyah organizations and local governments to inform them of issues facing olim and address them head on.
Avi Mantel of the French version of Nefesh B’Nefesh – AMI – warned that the momentum of immigration from France should not be taken for granted. “[Newly elected French President Nicholas] Sarkozy’s embrace has not been a good thing for Aliyah from France,” he said.
Erdan acknowledged the request for help in removing the obstacles placed in the paths of olim seeking to convert their professional licenses. “There are certain guilds that are acting to create obstacles for foreign olim,” he said. “We seek to act to help out in this regard. We need specific recommendations from your experience where we are needed to act.”
Yishai Fleisher, co-founder of the Kumah Aliyah movement, asked lobby members to differentiate between two issues: “There are two things here that we often mix: one is the absorption, and one is the call from Israel for Jews to come. The latter is what this lobby must focus on. I am suggesting ideas like Aliyah Day – Oleh Day – where the state can broadcast that we appreciate our olim.” Fleisher mentioned other ideas such as dispatching Israeli musicians and delegations to inspire Diaspora Jews and invite them “home” on behalf of the State of Israel.
MK Stas Misezhnikov (Yisrael Beiteinu), Chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, said he “connected” with Fleisher’s approach: “I remember that before I was in the Knesset I worked in marketing for a natural health products company. And I remember we used to send invitations out to the Jewish communities. Israel must behave as a business that seeks to market itself as a place to live. I am willing to hold a meeting in this regard to deal with financing these initiatives.”
MK Erdan thanked the nine MKs from across the political spectrum for attending the launch of the lobby and said the next step is to formulate a national plan to encourage Aliyah from the West. He invited the mayors, MKs, organizations and officials present to all submit position papers on the subject that will be compiled, distributed to the Prime Minister and all government ministries and discussed at the next meeting, where a united list of priorities will begin to take shape.
(Photos: Ezra HaLevi)