With emigration of Israelis, particularly to the United States, running higher than at any time since the founding of the Jewish state, the government is beginning an intensive program to lure back disaffected emigres with promises of prosperity in the midst of economic chaos.
Israeli high-technology industries are to offer lucrative job contracts to the most highly skilled of the estimated 175,000 emigrants during a series of trade fairs to be held in four North American cities in October and November.
Along with the premium salaries will go free shipping of household goods and air fare home, paid by the 20-odd Israeli industries participating in the "Come Back" project. The targets of the drive are the estimated 35,000 highly trained professionals who have contributed to Israel's brain drain over the years by moving to the United States.
Also in October, the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption will sponsor a cable television coast-to-coast hookup at which Israelis living in the United States will be implored in satellite broadcasts from here to return home not only for the good of their troubled country, but for their own well-being.
The two-hour program probably will open with an address by Prime Minister Shimon Peres and will include success stories of returned Israelis, films of technological advances here and appeals by high-tech industry officials for emigrants to return to good jobs.
Highly trained Israeli immigrants sitting in a studio in Los Angeles and others in Israeli consulates across the United States and Canada will be able to ask questions of officials and businessmen here in the two-way linkup, Absorption Ministry officials said.
Israel's high-tech industry has been growing rapidly, particularly in the defense-related fields that make it the world's 10th largest arms producer. Medical equipment for export is another growth industry that needs trained technicians to remain competitive.
A parallel drive is under way within Israel to try to stem the emigration phenomenon at its source. Since studies show it highest among recently demobilized soldiers -- those hardest hit by runaway inflation and difficulties in finding employment and housing -- much of the effort will be concentrated on soldiers ending their tours.
Similar education programs have been launched at high schools, and a new program has been inaugurated in government offices, where ombudsmen will talk to disgruntled civil servants.
"Our dilemma is that we don't give any justification to emigration, but on the other hand we don't allow ourselves to ban people from leaving," said Yacov Tsur, minister of immigrant absorption, in characterizing the fine line that dissuaders of emigration walk.
Conventional wisdom says that the reported six-fold increase in emigration last year, to 15,000 from 2,600 in 1983, is a direct reaction to the state of the economy.
With an inflation rate soaring at over 300 percent annually and a deficit of $1.8 billion on a $23 billion budget, it was becoming increasingly difficult for many Israelis to remain here even before the government early this month enacted stiff austerity measures to shock the economy back to an even keel.
Layoffs of thousands of government and private-sector employes, devaluation of the shekel, wage freezes and price increases of 17 to 82 percent on subsidized products have compounded the hardships, even though some of the measures were suspended in the face of general strikes.
Moreover, the government has suspended the wage-indexing that links earnings to the cost of living and placed restrictions on bank deposits linked to the U.S. dollar.
Tsur and other specialists maintain, however, that the economy is only one factor in the steadily growing outflow of Israelis.
Perhaps more significant, they say, is a malaise that from time to time permeates this society, coupled with the materialistic lure of the West and an erosion of the social stigma that once accompanied emigration.
The Hebrew word for immigration is aliya, which translates as ascent or going up. The Hebrew word for emigration is yerida, or going down, and the connotations are meant to be obvious in their glorification of the physical and spiritual ascent to Jerusalem and disdain for the emigrant. But that traditional disdain is far less pronounced now than it used to be.
A decision to leave Israel has become nearly acceptable within the space of three years -- which coincided with the war in Lebanon, the near collapse of the economy, the rise of hatred of Arabs among fundamentalist Jewish settlers, and growing polarization of the secular and religious levels of society.
Classified ads in Israeli newspapers offer sales of household goods by families that openly declare their intention to leave. In dinner-table conversation, Israelis who a few years ago would never consider discussing emigration with casual acquaintances now take up the topic openly.
Israeli consulates in New York and other major U.S. cities reportedly are receiving increasing numbers of applications from emigres who boldly declare their intention to give up their Israeli citizenship and become permanent U.S. residents.
"Of course, the economy is one of the reasons for emigration," Tsur said. "But I have to return basically to education, to a feeling of belonging to this society, and maybe it was to some degree weakened. Maybe it's easier for youngsters to say, 'Okay, goodbye.' "
The absorption minister added, "Maybe in the first generation the feeling of belonging was stronger. Maybe the wandering Jew is a disease which continues to bother the Jewish people, or some of them, even when they are born here in Israel."
Like the motives for emigration, accurate statistics are elusive.
The government Central Bureau of Statistics, using a net migration yardstick based on the difference between departures and arrivals at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport -- and assuming that any Israeli who stays away for four years is an emigrant -- devised the 15,000 total for 1984 emigres.
Similarly, precise figures for immigration are unobtainable. But one official formula for such an estimate, covering 1983, produced the figure of 13,369, up from that of the two previous years.
Tsur and his assistant in charge of stemming emigration, Yosi Kucik, maintained in interviews that many of the 15,000 emigres eventually may return, and insisted that the actual outflow, totaled for five-year periods since Israel was founded in 1948, has remained at a steady 55,000, or an average of 11,000 annually.
"Every time we debate emigration in the Knesset [parliament], the left says it is because of repressive military actions and the far right says it is because Israel has lost its resolve, and there is no security from Arab attacks. But [over] five years it stays about the same, even under very different conditions," Tsur said. He conceded that this year's figure will be higher as some Israelis abroad may "postpone their decision to come back because of the economy."
Tsur and Kucik said that since 1948, a total of 7 million Israelis have departed from the airport on international flights, and that 6.5 million returned. Of the half million balance, Tsur estimates that 300,000 -- or roughly 10 percent of the population -- have left for good.
But whatever the actual number, Tsur said, most Israelis do not leave with a conscious decision never to return. The majority, he said, move to the United States with the idea of studying or working for a year or two, and then consider staying.
"So, the process of yerida begins there, not here. Maybe deep in their minds [emigrating] is one of the possibilities, but essentially the decision is made there," Tsur said.