Israel is looking to Canada's multicultural model for insights into how to integrate people from different backgrounds and help them become new citizens, while retaining their culture.
Despite the fact that religion remains its defining feature, the State of Israel is the most diverse in the world, with half of all people born outside the country. Its newcomers are united by religious identity, but often divided by culture, according to several speakers at a recent conference outside Tel Aviv.
"Israel has changed completely. In 20 years, we will all be foreign-borns," said Daniel Ben Simon, a Moroccan-born member of the Knesset and the head of its labour faction. "We [immigrants]are doing very well in politics. You should hear all the different languages in the Knesset cafeteria. There is a lot of access. But not in elite circles, not in the media. Immigrants should be given more space in Israeli society."
Mr. Ben Simon spoke at the Canada-Israel immigration conference at the Ruppin Academic Centre, a gathering earlier this month of 50 scholars and policy-makers from Israel and Canada.
Canada, where one fifth of the population is foreign-born, has struggled with the economic integration of recent waves of immigrants from Asia, who often have trouble finding jobs commensurate with their qualifications, the conference heard.
And yet, Canada's multicultural model has facilitated social integration, by encouraging immigrants to both embrace a Canadian identity and retain their original culture and language. Studies have found that, over time, the offspring of most immigrants succeed, proving social mobility is possible, said Jack Jedwab, the executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies, which co-sponsored the conference.
Israel is still struggling with these issues, said Mr. Ben Simon. Since its formation in 1948, nearly three million immigrants have arrived, including Holocaust survivors, Jews from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.
Managing these diverse people has been difficult, and Middle Eastern and African immigrants have long complained about the cultural hegemony of European Jews, noted Moshe Semyonov, a sociologist at Tel Aviv University. He wondered if Canada could provide answers to these challenges.
While the Israeli government helps newcomers learn Hebrew, find housing and employment, many still struggle to achieve economic and social parity with Jews of European-American ancestry. Sharing the same faith doesn't necessarily produce social harmony.
Immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who now comprise one fifth of the population, have resisted learning Hebrew, noted Larissa Remennick, an Israeli sociologist. "Russians have compelled Israel to accept the Russian language," she said, challenging the traditional idea of the Israeli melting pot. Many speak "HebRush," and live and work with other Russian-Israelis.
The other major issue in Israel is the fate of its 240,000 temporary workers from the Philippines, Thailand, China and Africa. Unlike temporary workers in Canada, who can become citizens, they aren't eligible for Israeli citizenship. The Israeli government favours increased immigration as a counterweight to the high birth rates among Arab Israelis, who make up 20 per cent of its 7.4 million people. Israel's law of return grants citizenships to all Jews who move there, but the country doesn't have an explicit immigration policy.
Mr. Jedwab, who unveiled a new book of essays on integration of immigrants in both countries, proposed that Canada be a model of development for a second-track immigration policy for non-Jews. "While the law of return remains essential to Israel's national identity," he said, "it is vital that the country establish clear criteria for the admission of non-Jewish migrant workers to Israel. The Canadian system could provide a template."
Rebeca Raijman, a sociologist from the University of Haifa, told the gathering that Israel is "exclusionary" towards non-Jews. The Palestinian uprising led to a shortage of labourers in construction and agricultural services in the 1990s, prompting Israel to recruit temporary labourers. "So Israel has been bringing in migrants since the 1990s," Prof. Raijman said, "but they don't have full recognition."
In his view, Israel is not accustomed to viewing itself as a country for non-Jewish immigrants, Prof. Semyonov said: "We must adapt Israel's immigration policy to fit the new global immigration trends."
At a special session of the Knesset's absorption committee, two parliamentarians, one from Russia and another from Ethiopia, praised the openness of Israel's political system. However, they told the conference that new arrivals face economic and social challenges. The committee announced the establishment of a bi-national fund to research immigration and social integration in both countries.
Mr. Jedwab hopes the Israeli-Canadian dialogue will help both countries solve the challenges of "deep demographic diversity."