Instead of hindering migration from Russia, the Knesset should provide increased funding for integrating migrants.
By Alex Rif, April 28, 2023
On the eve of its 75th Independence Day, Israel, which vowed in its Declaration of Independence “to open the gates of the homeland to any Jew,” did the exact opposite. It closed the gates to Russian and Belarusian Olim (immigrants) fleeing war and hardship.
One could argue that this simply isn’t the case: “What are you talking about? It’s still possible to become a citizen the standard way: Six months to a year waiting in the country of origin, until receiving the prized confirmation, followed by Aliyah.” The only problem is that Russia and Ukraine are still at war, and Putin is still drafting people without warning, and imprisoning anyone who doesn’t comply.
Those entitled to make Aliyah are not necessarily in danger of being drafted immediately, but with the current situation in Russia, giving notice about leaving the country could be considered treason, which could be just as dangerous.
And yes, there is the possibility of sorting out their citizenship status once they arrive in Israel, but what will they face? The process from a tourist visa to citizenship takes about six months to a year, during which time they can’t open a bank account, sign up for medical services, start ulpan (Hebrew lessons) or work legally.
This means, de facto, canceling the fast-track Aliyah process for Russian and Belarusian Jews. And if they were forced to flee their native country in a hurry, they would have to choose anywhere but Israel as a safe haven.
So how does this all tie in with the “Grandchild clause?” The Israeli government has already committed to amending the Law of Return, and whichever draft passes, the goal is to narrow the eligibility for Aliyah for those with a Jewish grandparent.
However, with the current wave of protests against plans for judicial reform on the one hand, and public criticism both in Israel and the US regarding the changes to the Law of Return on the other, the proposal might not actually be on the legislative agenda – which is actually for the better.
Nevertheless, the government has found creative ways to hinder Aliyah from the former Soviet bloc, from where most potential Olim eligible through the Grandchild Clause originate.
Increasing diasporic assimilation makes the grandfather clause more necessary than ever
MK SIMCHA ROTHMAN, chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, spoke this week at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, convening in Israel. Both he and I participated in the same panel discussion.
“There are those who are trying to tear us from Diaspora Jewry. Canceling the Grandchild Clause will in no way affect the Aliyah from the US,” said Rothman. He is correct; since the fall of the Iron Curtain and opening the gates of the former USSR, Aliyah from these countries is at its peak, resulting in a rise in Olim who are not halachicly Jewish.
This happens in other countries too where some grandchildren of Jews are also not halachicly Jewish. The rate of mixed marriages among US Jewry is 58% among all Jews and 71% among non-Orthodox Jews (PEW Institute, 2013).
The data from France is similar, but they don’t want to come to Israel, at least for now. But who knows what could happen in a decade? An antisemitic wave or a war could occur, and then the question of “who is entitled to make Aliyah?” will become everyone’s problem. For the moment, however, it is a Russian problem, which makes it easier for the government to solve.
That said, since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, most of last year’s Olim came from Russia, and not Ukraine. The government kept the fast-track Aliyah process in place for Ukrainians, however, and rightly so.
It’s no surprise that several other countries have opened their gates to refugees, offering more significant absorption and welfare packages than Israel. In a situation where most of those in the former USSR who are eligible for Aliyah are still disconnected from Jewish communal life, after 70 years of religious oppression – it makes sense that Israel would not be their first choice.
However, no country, apart from Israel has opened its gates to those fleeing from Russia itself, and in that sense, Israel could have fulfilled a true Zionist vision of being a sanctuary to the Jews in peril (“And your children shall come again to their own border,” (Jeremiah 31)). It could also repeat the success of the 90’s Russian Aliyah, thus creating a valuable economic boost.
Most olim are well educated
SEVENTY-FIVE percent of Olim have an academic degree. Also, most are young and eager to integrate. A study by Deloitte for the Ministry of Absorption, the Jewish Agency and the One Million Lobby was carried out after the war began. It found that if 80% of Olim can integrate into the Israeli economy, working in their original profession with an average wage – the Israeli economy would gain NIS 8 billion in the next 10 years alone!
Another joint study by the One Million Lobby and Prof. Larissa Remennick from Bar Ilan University, found that of the 94% of Olim in the past year alone who decided to make Israel their home, 45% claim that staying in the country would be determined by their ability to integrate into Israeli society.
Unfortunately, despite the obvious moral and financial gains to be had, Israel is failing to help the Olim who already live here to integrate.
There is an endless waiting list for ulpanim (around 5000 people in April 2023), since the Finance and Education ministries can’t seem to agree on an increase in ulpan teachers’ wages (from about NIS 6500 per month). Further, there are no programs to integrate academics into their own fields, difficulties in relation to bank transfers and deposits abound, and of course a continuous media discourse on how they are “not Jewish enough,” only adds to these problems.
Despite the upcoming state budget bill, there is no news regarding the 85,000+ Olim who are already here. There is, however, a NIS 110 million annual increase in the budget to encourage Aliyah from the US and France, while at the same time NIS 90 million, which was supposed to go toward the integration of the current Aliyah, went up in smoke in the recent budget cuts forced upon the ministries.
As Israel’s late foreign minister, Abba Eban, once remarked that the Palestinians, “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” the Israeli government seems to be doing the same here: First by failing to integrate the Olim who are already here, and second, by closing its gates to others fleeing the war from Russia and Belarus.
The next unavoidable and sadly predictable step, will be to call for the amendment of the grandchild clause because some Olim misuse its power, using Israel only as a rest-stop. But what can you expect when people aren’t given the basic tools to start their lives in a new country?
Just like I said on the General Assembly panel, inspired by the immortal, heroic struggle that connected world Jewry in the 1970s to the Soviet Jewry struggle, once again, I deplore the Israeli government: “Let my people in!” Increase the Absorption Ministry budget by NIS 500 million to properly integrate the Olim who are already here and reopen our gates to those Jews fleeing Russia and Belarus in the wake of war.
It is the ultimate Zionist act on our 75th Independence Day celebrations in the Jewish homeland.
The writer is CEO of One Million Lobby, the first Israeli NGO to advocate for a better social, economic and cultural reality for 1.2 million Russian-speaking Israelis. She is a writer of the TV series Generation 1.5, and a book of poetry, Silly Girl of the Regime.