Economics of Jewish Immigation to Israel

Operation Magic Carpet
Israel’s 1949-1950 Operation Magic Carpet rescued 49 000 Jews from Yemen to Israel.

Aliyah is managed as a monopoly and so private sector needs to get involved to encourage mass Aliyah by choice.

Aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel) has for decades been focused on rescuing Jewish communities at risk fleeing hazards, oppression and persecution in the Diaspora and this is still relevant as European Jews will no longer be content with their oppressed and precariously endangered existence in Europe. However, Israel still has a lot of work to do so as to ensure that Israel will be preferable in every way to other emigration options.

Israel has throughout its existence invested enormous sums in defense and in the resettling of millions of indigenous Jewish immigrants in renewed Jewish communities in the land of Israel. While the very wisdom of Israeli diplomatic and security policy has for decades already been at the very center of public debate in Israel, the question of promotion of Aliyah-by-Choice (ABC) has for the most part been curiously absent from Israeli public debate and really no comparable public sums have been invested by Israel in the promotion of ABC as this was typically seen as the domain of major Diaspora organizations partially focused on fundraising.

The fact is however that Jewish Diaspora bodies tasked with promotion of ABC have so far dismally failed. Aliyah was long a monopoly run by the twin organizations known as the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Later, their tasks in Canada, the UK and the US were taken over by a then new organization founded by Modern Orthodox Jews and named Nefesh b’Nefesh (NBN) literally meaning “soul by soul” in Hebrew. This has led to professionalization of the Aliyah efforts in those predominantly English-speaking countries with the introduction of advanced private sector methods for marketing, communication and management. Aliyah has indeed increased from the United States where the vast majority of Diaspora Jewry lives; yet US Aliyah remains at a very low level indeed considering the immense demographic size of US Jewry. In fact, NBN has mostly boosted US Aliyah from among fellow Modern Orthodox Jews as well as among expatriate Israelis. Therefore, it seems quite likely that the demographic profile of this increased Aliyah from the US had been quite different indeed had NBN been run by say LGBTQ Jews, Reform Jews or Jewish feminists.

There are many reasons why promotion of ABC have largely failed in countries where Jews are not under threat and so the underlying reasons for this almost consistent failure need to be well understood in order to devise new and more successful social models that are capable of attracting Diaspora Jews to Israel. This requires thinking out of the box, embracing the reality of the increasing social diversity of Diaspora Jewry and adopting a holistic approach that will bring together successfully proven tactics into a coherent strategy for the mainstreaming of ABC. Therefore, most aspects of policy making in both Israel and the Diaspora will need to reconsidered and reinvented in order to make ABC the primary choice of Diaspora Jewry.

The indigenous Israeli state has since its historical rebirth in 1948 been the target of hostile, rejectionist attempts aimed at harming, isolating and destroying it also by means of various economic tools. These hostile efforts in combination with Israel’s once largely socialist economic structure has historically served to slow down economic growth in Israel and still do to some extent. The fact that Israel lagged behind economically long served as the primary explanation for the relative absence of ABC to Israel. However, this relative economic disadvantage is not necessarily the case anymore relatively/comparatively speaking as depending on a Diaspora Jew’s particular country of residence and her/his individual profession. Therefore the question of ABC needs to be better understood from an economical perspective.

There have historically been many economic monopolies in Israel and some still remaining ones that have unnecessarily limited and continue to hamper economic growth in Israel. The Jewish Agency for Israel was the pre-state state-within-the-state Jewish Zionist government in the British Mandate in the land of Israel and management of Aliyah is one of those monopolies that have both contributed to and limited the development of Israel and the Zionist project. Even NBN, however professionally and rationally managed, is a monopoly in its three Diaspora countries of operation and this is not particularly sound to put things mildly.

Therefore as so often with unsatisfactory socialist monopolies; what is really needed are privatization, deregulation, diversification and competition as carried out in a distinctly responsible fashion and critically monitored by scientists from different scientific fields. The first critical question that we should ask in this regard is the combined average cost for the Israeli government of health care and education for raising a legal minor in Israel from procreation to graduation in senior high school at the age of 18. If the average cost of developing a functioning adult Israeli citizen from conception to graduation is a factor called 100 then how much should the Israeli government be ready to invest in the effective importation of Diaspora Jews? Should the government be ready to financially invest a factor of 1 or 100 in ensuring that an 18-year old Diaspora Jew decides to make Israel the place of her/his adult life? Diaspora Jews like other Human beings certainly do respond to socio-economic incentives and so appropriate economic incentives need to be put in place that will alter the individual calculus of Diaspora Jews with regard to ABC.

Not just any economic incentive is necessarily effective in promoting ABC and different types of Diaspora Jews will require different types and degrees of social/economic incentives depending country of residence, age, profession, family status, degree of rabbinic recognition of Jewish personal status, degree of Jewish religious observance, sexuality, gender, level of education, degree of Jewish education, knowledge of Hebrew, familiarity with Israel, social class, economic wealth and other factors as well. But to begin let’s make things simple in economic terms. How much investment will it cost to convince an average 18-year old Diaspora Jew from an economically developed Diaspora jurisdiction take make Israel her/his home for life? It should be pointed out that this is highly economically beneficial and should be based on a financial calculus of finding out how much this will typically cost as certainly it will be costly indeed, yet also economically very much sound, beneficial and profitable for the Israeli economy. The current socio-economic incentives provided for ABC are however unfortunately both primitive and ineffective. So how can the real cost of bringing mass ABC to Israel be appropriately calculated from an economic point of view?

First it is important to realize that ABC is best implemented by private companies competing among themselves. Most individual Diaspora Jews find themselves in at least some point in their lives looking for a job in sending out job application to potential employers. Therefore, there is need for private companies that will recruit Diaspora Jews out where in the Diaspora who are simply looking for a job who will then be offered ready job positions in Israel on reasonably attractive terms, including if needed with incentives of reduced taxation in some form or the other. While this should certainly be done with regard to open job positions in the Israeli labor market, a more comprehensive approach is well-advised. Thus, any major Aliyah company could in cooperation with a major company in another field help establish of any particular Diaspora language work place in Israel tailored for new ABC immigrants. Rental housing could be built specifically for new immigrants to be used for the first years until they buy permanent housing for themselves.

A Diaspora Jew should thus be attracted with the full package of job, housing, as much Hebrew education as needed in ensuring near optimal proficiency in Hebrew, near zero bureaucratic hassle (which has already been partially achieved with the aid of NBN and other organizations), computerized mass marital psychometric matching and Israeli mass conversions to Judaism upon arrival in Israel for non-Jewish family members and those Jewish immigrants whose Jewish personal status is questioned by one or more Jewish religious denominations and therefore are well served by so called strict conversion (giur lechumra) that will remove any remaining religious question mark about their religious personal status as Jews. A Diaspora Jew would thus be offered an all-inclusive package on socio-economically clearly favorably terms. Essentially everything would be taken care of, including as of necessary reduced individual taxation during parts of the first decade in Israel that would be gradually individually phased out. Different private Aliyah companies could be involved in this process in ensuring that everything literally runs very smooth indeed. There should where possible even be the option of military service in all-immigrant IDF units in an immigrant’s first language in the way that is already offered to religious denominations in Israel. The tax subsidies could also be offered directly to employers rather than as relating to the income tax of individual immigrants to Israel.

This should be organized on a market model whereby different private companies would mutually compete in attracting Diaspora Jews to live in Israel. As some companies will likely become more successful than others as in any free market it will become increasingly clear how much it will cost to bring a Diaspora Jew with a certain profile to come and live in Israel. Just how expensive will it become? Well, competition will serve to bring down the average cost of ABC per capita of immigrants as ever more effective offers, models and packages are devised. It is not merely about offering money; rather it is mainly about psychology. Once it becomes profitable for private companies to bring ABC to Israel, Aliyah will become a business like any business and the question will no longer be whether Diaspora Jews will move to Israel but rather at what price for the Israeli government and through which incentives and package solutions. Furthermore, different companies may specialize at different aspects of the Aliyah process. Certainly, almost any Diaspora Jew would be ready to immediate and permanently move to Israel if offered several million shekels and a ten year tax-exempt status in Israel. However, this can be done at a far lower cost so the private sector therefore basically needs to be incentivized to incentivize Diaspora Jews to make Aliyah. Most modern Humans are ready to move somewhere else if offered a sufficiently attractive job position so Diaspora Jews need to come into contact with Aliyah companies specifically when looking for a new job.

Another crucial aspect relates to the modern welfare state. Western European Jews are accustomed to living in relatively generous welfare states and US Jews also tend to be particularly strongly in favor of having a European-style welfare state in the United States as well. Therefore, Israeli policy makers need to consider that most potential ABC immigrants from OECD countries actually prefer a life with a generous public sector security net and the Israeli government should therefore certainly look in depth at devising a more intelligent and effective welfare state than existing ones in many OECD countries. Mass ABC will bring rapid economic growth and deepened economic integration with other OECD states which will provide room for building a more generous public sector security net than the current one in Israel that will in turn help attract far more ABC.

Diaspora Jews are as socially diverse as native Israelis; however Jews who immigrate to Israel do tend to be attracted to the sense of indigenous Jewish community in living in Israeli villages, towns and cities where the majority of citizens are rabbinic Jews who thus longer constitute an oppressed minority in those locations. As this sense of community empowerment is no doubt highly attractive, so it is also somewhat less attractive to an increasing proportion of Diaspora Jewry in the sense that Jews of different rabbinic denominations increasingly no longer recognize each other as fellow Jews. E.g. an Ethiopian-Israeli Jew cannot hide the color of his skin and so when he sits right across an Ashkenazi Haredi Jew on public transportation in Israel he knows that this person most likely do not recognize him as a fellow Jew. This non-recognition is not due to the color of skin, but the exterior appearance of Ethiopian Jews visualize their religiously disputed personal status in a way that otherwise would not be immediately recognizable. Yet, living in such a paradox where the Jewish identity of a Jew is questioned by entire streams in Rabbinic Judaism is a big turn-off not just for Diaspora Jews whose Jewish personal status is disputed, but also for those Diaspora Jews who have one or more family members who are either non-Jewish or are Jews whose Jewish personal status is also disputed by one or more denominations.

This situation is a product of Diaspora existence where different streams in Rabbinic Judaism devised different and competing social strategies for Jewish survival in Diaspora societies leading to divergent standards of conversion to Judaism. Once most Diaspora Jews have moved to Israel, then these strategic disagreements (which are mostly about Diaspora life) will lose relevance and therefore the solution to those disagreements is ABC to Israel. Diaspora Jewish denominations can hardly agree about individual conversion for the simple reason that these divergent views reflect the core differences of their competing, certainly highly divergent strategies for Jewish survival in the Diaspora. However, this issue can be resolved in Israel through mass conversion, something that has been done many times before in Jewish history.

The leadership of the Haredi community in Israel has since the early 1990s tried to make conversion to Judaism so demanding to the point of abolishing conversions as has long since been done in Latin America and among Syrian Jews. This agenda is not only reflective of stricture but is a distinctive viewpoint according to which Zionist Israeli Jews within a number of generations will “inevitably” start inter-marrying Israeli Palestinians at a large scale. Therefore, Zionist Israeli Jews are thus considered as an effectively already lost cause unless Zionist Jews become Haredi themselves as it is believed that Zionist Israeli Jews will eventually become non-Jewish through assimilation. However, the fact is that most Palestinians belong to clans of endogamous Jewish ancestry and those clans that learn about their Jewish ancestry strongly tend to develop Jewish identity and later interest in returning to Judaism. The practical solution is therefore for more and more Palestinian clans and local communities to entirely voluntarily religiously revert back to being Jewish through a process of collective reversion Jewish identity, Judaism and the Jewish people. This is an extremely attractive option for the many Palestinian clans and local Palestinian communities that have already redeveloped Jewish communal identity.

While collective reversion/conversion to Judaism should be managed by a government authority, most other tasks currently held by the existing Chief Rabbinate of Israel should simply be privatized and held by communal non-governmental organizations. Also, it should become illegal not only for a husband to deny his wife divorce but also for a rabbinical court to deny a spouse religious divorce.

Many secular Jews encounter Judaism primarily during life rites and many of these life rites should rather take place in Israel and not in the Diaspora. Wedding, Bar Mitzvah, high school, college and university should all ideally be conducted in Israel and not in the Diaspora.

While Jewish majority community is usually an attraction for those relatively few Diaspora Jews who opt for ABC, most Diaspora Jews have further identities and social affiliations. Thus many but not all Diaspora Jews may want to live in intentional communities in Israel such as based on a particular sexuality, on a particular functional limitation (disability), on a particular Diaspora language, on a particular economic niche, on a particular lifestyle, on a particular Jewish denomination, on a particular profession, on a particular political worldview, or even on a particular city, region or country of origin in the Diaspora. Intentional communities may be rural villages but could also be suburban neighborhoods and potentially even urban apartment blocks.

Diaspora Judaism will need to refashion itself in fundamentally changing its focus. First, traditional religious services are widely considered tedious and unattractive by secular Diaspora Jews who often have little to no knowledge and understanding of Hebrew and synagogues should therefore rather focus on encouraging Talmudic study and educating children towards the goal of ABC to Israel. Talmudic study is what prevents assimilation and keeps the Jewish people and this is something that non-Orthodox denominations need to internalize as well. Rabbinic Jews with a significant exposure to Talmudic study generally don’t assimilate for the simple reason that they have learned how to appreciate the richness and diversity of their own cultural heritage. Also, Talmudic students learn Hebrew in the process of studying the Talmud which makes it practically much easier for them to immigrate to Israel and successfully integrate into Israeli society. Non-Orthodox denominations of Rabbinic Judaism need to rebrand themselves as Religious Zionism and basically endeavor to gradually move their communities and synagogues to Israel. Diaspora Jews learning Hebrew need not only be encouraged by Diaspora Judaism but also crucially funded by the Israeli government. More charter schools need to be established in the Diaspora that will teach mainly in Hebrew. It is certainly generally true that the more knowledge of Hebrew, the likelier it is that a particular Diaspora Jew will actually opt for ABC to Israel.

Many Diaspora Jewish singles would want nothing more than finding a Jewish soul mate. However, practically speaking the organized Diaspora Jewish communities outside the Haredi community is doing little to nothing to assist them. Therefore what is needed is mass psychometric computerized matching as based on extensive psychometric matching of each potential Jewish spouse. This will be expensive no doubt (and will need to be funded by the Israeli government), but mass psychometric matching will ensure a very high degree of spousal compatibility and thus marriages with a better chance of lasting. Yet this will be more effective than Birthright/Taglit and no doubt even more effective in ensuring Jewish continuity. The mass psychometric matching would also be used for the purpose of Aliyah in matching Diaspora Jews with job positions in the land of Israel.

Diaspora Jewish tourism is another vital aspect in bringing the Jewish Diaspora closer to Israel. Birthright/Taglit is important in its own right but similar programs need to be created for children in junior high school and Jewish singles of all ages. Furthermore, tourism operators that cater specifically to Jewish individuals and households with at least one Jewish person should be given tax-exempt status so as to make Diaspora Jewish tourism in Israel even more attractive. Such tourism operators could be Aliyah-focused in bringing Diaspora Jewish tourists to places in Israel in which they would conceivably be interested in actually living.

Hebrew-speaking Israeli society is mix of many different rabbinically Jewish ethnic groups. This created a unique Jewish cultural synthesis which has led to ever-greater cultural distance between Israeli rabbinic Jews and the Jewish Diaspora since 1948. While most working age Diaspora Jews are well-educated and ready to move to another geographic location in response to an attractive job offer, Israel has largely failed to economically integrate itself into Diaspora Jewry. Most practical obstacles to Jewish relocation to Israel therefore need to be removed and Israel must turn itself into a competitive option for members of every Diaspora Jewish community. An Israel Attraction Index (AAI) is needed that will systematically and comparatively measure the attractiveness of Israel in various respects for Diaspora Jewish communities in different countries worldwide.

Diaspora Jewish parents should be encouraged by Jewish religious denominations to educate their children towards a life in Israel. Aliyah to Israel should therefore become a main life goal for new generations of Diaspora Jews.

First published in 2015