On a recent Sunday afternoon on New York City’s Upper East Side, several hundred Big Apple residents gathered to hear from the Israeli government why they should consider immigrating to the Jewish homeland. But the targets of the pitch for life in Israel were not the usual crop of American Jews with Zionist leanings. They were, rather, Israeli Jews who had, somewhere along the line, left the land of milk and honey to settle in the land of plenty.
For decades, many thousands of Israelis — the government estimates about 700,000 — have left the Jewish state to settle in foreign lands, creating a global Israeli Diaspora of sorts. Now, those citizens, once viewed by their fellow countrymen as shameless apostates and derided as yordim, meaning those who emigrated — or literally, “descended” — from Israel, are being courted back home.
Just to prove how much Israel wants its erstwhile citizens to return, the country’s minister for immigration absorption, Ze’ev Boim, is embarking on a North American tour to try to sway the legions of Israelis who have made their lives elsewhere to pull up stakes and re-establish residency in their homeland. Boim’s trip, with stops in Toronto, Los Angeles and San Francisco, marks the first time that an Israeli immigration minister has flown across the Atlantic Ocean to woo back the country’s widely dispersed citizenry.
Like America, Israel has long prided itself on being a nation of immigrants. The Jewish state has been defined, in many ways, by the multiple waves of immigration, known as aliya, that have marked its explosive growth since the first Zionists alighted from Eastern Europe in the latter part of the 19th century. As subsequent bands of newcomers have followed suit, including the Middle Eastern Jews who arrived in significant numbers at the midpoint of the 20th century, the government has taken pains to integrate new nationals into life in the Jewish state. Only in this case, the state is attempting to grease the wheels for those who left, whether to pursue graduate education or take a job, and now wish to return.
Boim, a member of Israel’s Kadima party, expressed confidence that in light of the state’s rapidly expanding economy — the current growth rate hovers at around 4.6% — he stands a good chance of convincing an increasing number of Israelis to move back.
“Each year, 6,000 Israelis come back,” he said. “I want to double that number.”
According to Boim, most sabras, or native-born Israelis, never fully assimilate into their host countries. “They live like Israelis,” he said, eating Israeli food and, he pointed out, going so far as to insist on cleaning their floors with a magav — a rubber cleaning device that is the Israeli equivalent of the American mop.
As a crowd of Israelis assembled at the Ramaz Middle School on East 85th Street to hear directly from Boim, they were handed welcome bags from the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption that were loaded up with pamphlets from Israeli companies in need of workers, as well as silver business card holders emblazoned with the government’s logo. A flier from the Ministry described their employment assistance services, which are good for two years. To make them feel at home, they were offered a full spread of hummus, babaganoush and tabouleh.
Participants asked the minister about health insurance (which they won’t get until they’ve been back in Israel for a year), the economy (which is expanding at a rapid pace despite this past summer’s war in Lebanon) and jobs (which, in fact, are harder to come by in Israel, where the unemployment rate of 8.9% is nearly double that of the United States).
Despite the hurdles toward reintegrating into what was described by some as a society that has changed drastically since they left, most Israelis interviewed by the Forward said that they would like to at least attempt a return. Some cited family reasons, while others simply said that the time had come.
Ilana Tabol, who moved to New York from Jerusalem 14 years ago, said that as a result of her father’s death, she felt compelled to return so that she could assist her mother, who has been left alone. Tabol, a real estate agent in Queens, expressed concern that she would be without health insurance for an entire year.
“I came to hear what they have to offer me,” she said, but as for how to remedy the lack of health insurance, she added, “they don’t have an answer.”
An aide to Boim explained that the policy is in place to discourage opportunistic Israelis from returning for the short term in order to take advantage of the country’s top-tier health care system before turning back again and leaving.
Another potential returnee, Benny Michaeli, 52, said that he was inspired by the government’s newly welcoming approach to Israelis residing abroad. “They’ve changed their attitude toward Israelis living in the U.S.,” he said. “The minister coming from Israel and saying ‘We want you back’ is a first step” to correcting what he described as an “unjust” attitude toward Israelis who had chosen to pursue the American dream.
Michaeli, who settled in Queens nearly a quarter of a century ago, also cited the pull of family ties as a formidable incentive to return. In addition to having a “big, thriving family” in the Jewish state, Michaeli’s American-born son recently moved there and became a citizen. A salesman for ladies eveningwear, Michaeli said that he hopes to get back into insurance, the industry in which he worked before uprooting from Tel Aviv 24 years ago.
“If I find the good will to help me refresh my recollection of insurance, that’s one option,” he said, seemingly unfazed by the prospect of a career transition. In Israel, he said, “the economy is fabulous.”
This article is the first installment in a series on the Israeli Diaspora.