Once upon a time, aliya, or immigration to Israel, involved no small amount of self-sacrifice. The new immigrant was expected to navigate Israel’s abrasive absorption apparatus all alone. Little effort was made on the part of so-called “civil servants” to cater to the needs of newcomers. Unfathomable rules and red tape transformed seemingly simple operations, such as opening a bank account or getting a land phone line, into a tortuous stroll on a modern Via Dolorosa. And the myriad challenges of starting a new life in an embattled little Levantine country in the throes of rapid change were exacerbated by the expectation that, from day one, all transactions were expected to be conducted in beginners’ Hebrew.
Times have changed. Israel’s centrally planned socialist government with its Eastern European ambiance has given way to a capitalistic, supposedly service-oriented culture with one of the most robust and dynamic economies in the world. Today, Jews immigrate to Israel not just out of idealism or because they seek refuge from persecution, but because they know they can improve their standard of living and their professional options.
Israel’s government offices have changed, too. A conscious effort is now made to smooth the new immigrant’s acclimation. People are finally being acknowledged as Israel’s most important resource. Accordingly, attracting and retaining the best and the brightest needs to be a cardinal goal for every Israeli leader.
As part of that national effort, the government decided in February 2015 to expand welfare services to French immigrants. Netanya, Jerusalem, Ashdod, Tel Aviv and Hadera – the cities taking in the largest numbers of French newcomers – were given budgets to employ French-speaking social workers, translators and other staff. Similar programs were set up to provide for Ukrainian-speaking new immigrants.
However, it has recently emerged that this valuable program will be canceled at the end of the year.
“Thousands of immigrants from France, including elderly citizens, children with special needs, single-parent families, female victims of violence, at-risk youth and more, won’t receive social services,” according to Ariel Kandel, CEO of Qualita, the umbrella organization for French immigrants.
Kandel told The Jerusalem Post’s Jewish World reporter, Tamara Zieve, that Qualita has not been given a reason as to why the project will not be renewed, but mused that it could be because the numbers of olim from France have dropped.
The country topped the aliya charts in 2015 with almost 8,000 new immigrants; but in 2016 that decreased to 5,200 and seems to have further decreased in 2017, with 2,904 arriving between January and August, according to the Jewish Agency. The stereotype of the French immigrant as rich and highly educated is overly simplistic. French-speaking immigrants come from all walks of life.
If their lower aliya rate is indeed the reason that the program is being discontinued, it is wrongheaded on a number of levels. First, as Kandel pointed out, large numbers of immigrants have come to Israel from France in recent years and the second and third years of aliya are usually the hardest.
Also, the government seems to have its cause and effect mixed up. When word gets out that French and Ukrainian immigrants are encountering difficulties finding housing, work or educational opportunities, this not only causes some immigrants to return, it also deters potential immigrants from coming. If anything, the government should be expanding services, not scaling them back, as one senior official told Zieve.
Thankfully, it seems that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has personally intervened on behalf of the new immigrants. He has reportedly asked Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz to figure out a way to continue funding the program. Finance Ministry sources said that funding is likely to be found quickly, but cautioned that the project still hadn’t received final approval.
Israel’s future depends on its single most important resource, its citizens, and aliya is just one of several options weighed by the potential immigrant. If the government wants more Jews to come live in their homeland, it is going to have to allocate the resources to help make that happen.