Prime Minister Netanyahu, at the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah games, exclaimed to the athletes who had gathered from all over the world that: “I would be very happy if many of you make aliya and become part of the Zionist enterprise.” Netanyahu’s message would have touched an emotional chord with many of the participants, for many of them would have grown up with a very romantic notion of Israel and Zionism-with aliyah being ‘sold’ as the ultimate goal, the true fulfillment of Zionism or as the aliyah organization Nefesh b’Nefesh, enthusiastically puts it in showbiz glitz style. You will be “living the dream.”
The truth of the matter is that the concept of aliyah and the reality of aliyah are two different things altogether. This romanticized notion of aliyah is very quickly superseded by the harsh reality of trying to makes ends meet in a very tough country.
A lot of olim eventually get worn down and return back to their countries of origin. A scandal of Western aliyah is the poor retention rates. This is something that is never discussed by government ministers or by pro-aliya organizations. It is estimated that 60% of all Western olim return to their country of origin in the first three years and as much as 80% in the first 5 years. No matter how you measure this. It is gross failure on a tremendous scale. Organizations like Nefesh b’Nefesh do wonderful work to promote aliyah, but are also misleading people by emphasizing western aliyah as a great success story on their recruitment drives in the UK and USA. This gives people a false sense of optimism devoid of any sense of reality of how hard it is to actually make a living in Israel. It does them no credit to produce on their website ‘Alice in wonderland’ statistics stating they have a 97% retention rate when every oleh knows the contrary to be true. At the minimum Nefesh should tell olim how hard it will be before they come here so they come here without any false illusions.
So why is western aliyah failing? There simply aren’t quality jobs for olim. Olim understand when they come here that they will have to make big sacrifices in terms of salary, earning a third or less they would have in their countries of origin, even though paradoxically prices are in Israel are on par with London and New York and in some cases even more expensive, but what western olim, the majority of whom are graduates and postgraduates are not prepared to put up with is working in low paid call centre jobs indefinitely. Educated western olim didn’t become Israeli citizens to cold call. Many Israelis are in a similar situation, but the fundamental difference is that olim don’t have the connections or family support that is so crucial if one wishes to succeed in Israeli society.
So what needs to be done? Hebrew is the key to the integration of olim in the job market and yet Hebrew at ulpanim is only taught up to the most basic of levels. Olim need to be given the opportunity to continuously learn Hebrew to a proficient level, and at the very least to be able to write professional letters. So why not develop a culture of continuous Hebrew learning by opening up Israel’s universities to Olim who in the evenings would run more advanced Hebrew courses for them, something that doesn’t exist at present.
And talking about universities, 400 quality jobs could be created overnight for olim in academia. There are numerous first degrees and second degrees being taught in English at universities and colleges in Israel for foreign students and yet the employment of Western olim as lecturers on these courses is practically non existent. A decision should be taken to implement affirmative action in favour of western olim whereby a minimum of 25% of these lectureship positions would be filled by academic olim.
Another area, where olim have much to contribute is the area of Israel’s public image, and relations with the rest of the world. Western immigrants can add value to work currently being undertaken because of their unique understanding they have of their country of origin including crucially how best to relate to the local population including opinion formers and decision makers. We all know that Israeli diplomacy has suffered in the past from sloppiness including its inability to relate to the local populace.
Finally, the Knesset’s Aliyah and Absorption committee should carry out a full scale enquiry about Western aliyah about why it is that the retention rate is so low and what can be done to stem this hameorage. Since the inception of Nefesh b’ Nefesh in 2002, the organization has received 89 million shekels from the Israeli government and 50 million shekels from the Jewish Agency. There does not seem to be any financial accountability of how this money has been spent. An audit should be produced to assess whether shekel for shekel the Israeli taxpayer has received value for money. Rather than spend more money on promoting aliyah, why not create a ‘New Deal’ for Olim already in Israel, a job creation scheme giving some olim access to quality jobs. The Committee should report back to Prime Minister Netanyahu with proposals which should be implemented by the Prime Minister.
There has to be a rethink of approaches to western aliyah to ensure those people who make it here actually stay. There is at present a real question mark as to whether Israel has the capacity to absorb “Olim” from the West. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once said: “Aliyah is the central goal of the state of Israel.” This goal has to be updated to include not just aliyah as being the central goal, but just as crucial the retention of western olim and this will make western aliya into a success story.
Ze’ev Portner is an oleh from London, an Israeli attorney, but is currently working as a receptionist at a company in Petah Tikva