Photo courtesy of Mairav Zonszein
Early in the morning on July 7, an excited crowd of more than 100 gathered in Ben-Gurion International Airport to greet 232 new Jewish immigrants to Israel who arrived from North America on an El Al charter flight organized and funded by Nefesh B’Nefesh (which means “Soul in Soul” in Hebrew). The airport’s old and defunct Terminal 1 has been transformed into a celebratory arrival hall for new immigrants brought by the nonprofit organization, which was founded in 2001 with the aim of revitalizing immigration to Israel from North America and Britain.
Recently considered by the Jewish Agency to be serious competition when it comes to immigration, NBN is now recognized as the official operator of North American immigration to Israel. After some years of animosity and tension between the two groups, the Jewish Agency, along with the Israeli government, signed a contract with NBN last September that not only grants formal recognition to NBN but also guarantees that the government and the Jewish Agency will each fund a third of NBN’s $12 million annual budget. The remaining third comes from private donors. It is noteworthy, given the fact that Israeli taxpayer money goes toward this enterprise, that so few Israelis have heard of it.
NBN’s declared mission is to remove any obstacles that may stand in the way of those who wish to move to Israel. As such, it offers incentives, primarily cash. In addition to the “absorption basket”–a set of social and financial benefits provided by the government–new immigrants are flown over in an El Al plane, given their immigrant certification upon arrival and receive a lump sum of money. This money is stipulated as an advance, awarded only after the olim (immigrants) have lived at least three years in Israel. Amounts vary, depending on family size and financial situation. Although all immigrants sign a contract with NBN requiring that they “agree not to disclose the amount of the advance of funds to any person,” a single man who moved from the United States in 2006 was willing to divulge that he was granted $4,000 when he moved.
In the years since its first plane landed, NBN has brought 20,000 immigrants to Israel from North America and Britain. Of those 20,000, NBN PR and communications manager Renana Levine claims that fewer than 3 percent (600 people) have moved beyond the Green Line to settlements in the West Bank.
However, on this last flight alone, seven families were reportedly moving to Ma’ale Adumim, the largest settlement in the West Bank. Even if we take the modest amount of three members per family (despite the fact that it is surely more, as one family had five children), that is already twenty-one people on a plane of 232, making it nearly 10 percent of the flight. And this is only one settlement. A representative of the Efrat Council, a long and narrow settlement in Gush Etzion, said that he expected fifteen families to move there this summer. The 3 percent claim is thus highly suspect.
While some of the territories beyond the Green Line, such as Gush Etzion, are considered by most Israelis to be “consensus areas”–places they assume will remain part of Israel in any final resolution with the Palestinians–they are nonetheless settlements undergoing population growth from outside Israel, which is in blatant disregard of President Obama’s call to freeze all settlement growth. Yet this does not seem to bother the new immigrants or NBN staff, who appear disturbingly oblivious to recent tensions between Israel and the United States over settlement expansion and their direct role in changing facts on the ground in the West Bank. When asked why he chose Ma’ale Adumim, one new immigrant responded that it reminded him most of his home in Montreal.
NBN clearly does not differentiate between destinations on either side of the Green Line. One need look no further than its website to see that settlements throughout the West Bank figure prominently as ideal destinations. “It is hard to imagine a more hospitable place for religious Olim than Gush Etzion,” NBN proclaims. “Kedumim’s residents feel very connected to the area’s historical roots and are actively working to increase the community’s size. They are making a special effort to reach out to North American olim.”
When asked about the political implications of NBN’s support for Americans moving to the West Bank–where construction is considered by both the international community and the US State Department to be a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention–Levine responded that where the immigrants move to is “up to them. We do not promote one location over the other. We are an apolitical organization.” But how can a US-based nonprofit that works in conjunction with the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency, and does not differentiate between the West Bank and Israel, possibly consider itself to be “apolitical”?
At the jovial July 7 welcoming ceremony, the newly instated Jewish Agency chairman, Natan Sharansky, a Soviet refusenik turned Israeli success story, addressed the crowd, informing them that they could use the Bible as their destination guide. He enumerated several ideal locations to move to, including Efrat and Bethlehem, where the Jewish settlement of Har Homa stands, severing Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem from East Jerusalem.
When asked about whether Obama’s policy has hindered NBN’s operations, a staff member responded happily: “No, we are seeing a rise in numbers.” Settlement growth last year, at least, was up 69 percent. Of that amount, 39 percent of the new construction was built outside “consensus areas.” According to Peace Now, only 60 percent of growth in the settlements last year was “natural” (resulting from internal reproduction), while the remaining 40 percent was the result of immigration to settlements from Israel and abroad. The staff member, himself an NBN immigrant and resident of Gush Etzion, admitted that he does consider himself a settler.
In addition to Israel’s foot-dragging on the evacuation of outposts, the Obama administration faces another obstacle in its effort to put a freeze on Israeli settlement growth: American citizens moving to the West Bank. If Obama aims to crack down on Israel’s blatant expansion of settlements, he should start from within his own borders.