"I don't think aliyah is on the agenda of Israeli society"
Just as the Aliyah Revolution is moving into high-gear, two good ole' post-Zionist pessimistic articles decrying that Aliyah is dead appear on the scene. Doesn't the Sitra Achra ever get tired?
"The End of Aliyah?" by Dina Kraft
With Israel facing the end of the era of mass aliyah of need, can aliyah of choice sustain the idea of Diaspora Jewish immigration to the Jewish state?
TEL AVIV (JTA) -- Founded with the express purpose of "ingathering of the exiles" -- but with no more large groups of Jews to save -- Israel is facing the end of the era of mass aliyah.
Recent reports that the Jewish Agency for Israel was considering shutting down its flagship aliyah department have prompted discussion about the future of immigration to Israel even as agency officials quickly denied the department was closing.
"Israel cannot throw away the idea of aliyah because it is one of basics of the ideology of having a Jewish state," said David Raz, a former Jewish Agency emissary abroad. "You have to create a situation that people will want to come, from the element of being together with Jews. But it's not simple. There is a trickle, but basically from the free world the majority does not want to come.”
The crux of the matter is that immigration of necessity -- also called “push aliyah” -- is largely at its end, with few Jews left in the Diaspora who need the Jewish state as a haven from persecution or dire economic straits. The Jews of the Arab world fled to Israel in the 1950s, Russian-speaking Jews flocked here in the 1990s and Ethiopians came over the course of the past 25 years.
With nothing pushing mass immigration of Jews today, all that remains are the few immigrants of choice -- also known as “pull” immigrants. Officials involved with aliyah say they expect no more than 15,000 or so new immigrants to Israel this year.
"You have Jews in the West who live very comfortably under pluralistic governments that give them unprecedented social and economic opportunities and let them live Jewish lives,” said Uzi Rebhun, a demographer at Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry. “In turn, aliyah to Israel has gone down.”
With the pool of potential push immigrants drying up, officials like Oded Salomon, the director-general of aliyah and absorption for the Jewish Agency, are thinking about how to pull Jews to Israel in new and different ways.
Salomon says the focus now is on educational programs that bring young Jews to Israel in the hope of fostering lifelong connections to the Jewish state and creating new immigrants.
The Jewish Agency wants to create a special visa for visiting Diaspora Jews who want to explore the idea of aliyah by living in Israel for a few months. Such arrivals would be assisted with finding volunteer or work positions and Hebrew study.
Aliyah officials also are embracing the notion of “flexible aliyah” in which immigrants split their time between Israel and the Diaspora. About 10 percent of immigrants who have made aliyah with the assistance of Nefesh B'Nefesh, which facilitates aliyah from North America and Britain with cash grants and assistance, divide their time between Israel and jobs abroad.
Other ideas to attract a new kind of aliyah being discussed include retirement communities near Eilat for American Jewish retirees to the creation of an all-French-speaking town.
Israel has experienced other periods of sluggish immigration, such as the 1970s and 1980s, but in those eras there were large communities of Jews unable to emigrate and come to the Jewish state, such as those in the Soviet Union.
Today, however, the Jews who remain in the former Soviet Union are either too old to immigrate or prefer to stay put in countries where improved economies and more democratic freedoms have made life in the Diaspora more attractive.
Mass immigration from Ethiopia -- where politics, economics and religious ideology sent tens of thousands of Jews to Israel over the past quarter century -- is expected to end some time this summer. The Jewish Agency plans to shut its Ethiopian offices and bring home its staff when the last arrivals come.
Yuli Edelstein, the former Soviet refusnik and prisoner of Zion who later served as Israel's absorption minister, said Israel must make sure it can provide both meaningful professional opportunities and meaningful Jewish life if it wants to see significant immigration to the country.
"This is a real period of rethinking," Edelstein told JTA, noting the economic and professional opportunities Jews have in the West. "Without a Jewish motivation for being here, it will be much more difficult to attract people."
Among Israelis, too, the ethos of aliyah has dampened in recent years, a far cry from when it was described by the drafters of Israel's Declaration of Independence in 1948 as the part of the vision of "the prophets of Israel.”
"I don't think aliyah is on the agenda of Israeli society," Rebhun said.
Despite the country's founding mission, he said, "Sixty years after the State of Israel was established, most Jews still live outside of Israel."
Sergio DellaPergola, a demographer from Hebrew University who also is associated with the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, says many potential immigrants are put off by the bureaucracy and difficulties of Israeli life, not to mention Israel’s security situation.
DellaPergola says major reforms are needed to help ease the path of immigrants, especially when it comes to accepting degrees and professional credentials earned abroad.
Despite plans for a new set of tax breaks for new immigrants and other ideas to help pave the way for potential immigrants, at the end of the day immigrants will come to Israel only if they see in the Jewish state the promise of a fulfilling Jewish life, DellaPergola said.
"If it's a country just like any other,” he said, “then why come here?"
"Jerusalem And Babylon / The numbers are on the wall" by Anshel Pfeffer
I don't know if anyone ever tried to work out the average age of Israel Prize recipients, but the profile is fairly standard. A man or woman in their seventies or eighties, hailed for decades of service in academia or some other worthy pursuit and for his or hers past contribution to Israeli society. Sad but true, this is usually a pre-obituary, almost-last honor, to a deserving individual long past the prime of life. The occasional practice of rewarding an organization with one of the prizes, is fairly ridiculous.
Public bodies, even if they are voluntary, are there to serve a purpose, we should expect them to fulfill it better in the future, and their workers reward should be a job well done. But Education Minister Yuli Tamir obviously doesn't think so, as the Israel Prizes commission in her ministry announced this week that this coming Independence Day, a whole raft of organizations, ranging from youth movements and womens groups, to the Manufacturers Association of Israel will be duly honored. But in one case, it seems that the organization to receive the prize is very similar to the more traditional laureates.
Founded in 1929, the Jewish Agency is also on the brink of octogenarianism, with a proud past in which it played a crucial role and gave decades of loyal service to the nation. But now it seems in the autumn of its life, and many of its stalwarts are openly predicting that the grim reaper may just be around the corner.
The cruel joke is that it was the very event that will be commemorated on prize-day, the foundation of the state in 1948 that signaled the end of the Jewish Agency's heyday. In one fell swoop, it went from being the government-in-waiting to an organization that had lost its most basic raison d'etre. A sovereign state has its own official agencies, all of a sudden, the Jewish Agency lost its primacy in the fields of foreign relations, education, settling the wilderness and developing infrastructure, to the new government ministries.
Its chairman, David Ben-Gurion, had now become the first prime minister and he had a real country to run. Not surprisingly, the new definition of the Jewish Agency's role, in 1950, consisted basically of important tasks that the new government, eager to build up diplomatic relationships with the world, wasn't comfortable with.
An issue of control
So the Jewish Agency was tasked with encouraging and enabling the Jews of the world to make aliyah and promote Jewish-Zionist education throughout the Diaspora. As an added bonus, the Agency would not get government budgets but had to do its fundraising outside Israel through the Jewish federations in North America and Keren Hayesod with the local Zionist organizations in other parts of the world. This of course didn't mean that the government and the various Israeli political parties relinquished control of the Agency. Senior posts were allocated according to party lines and the prime minister always had the last word on the appointment of the chairman.
An uneasy alliance had to be created between the government and the major donors and the multi-layered structure of the World Zionist Organization and the Agency's board of governors came into being.
This creature of compromise and circumstance was never an ideal creation, but while it was still clear that the agency had a definite role, facilitating aliyah from around the world, it at least had a justification. Today it is becoming increasingly clear that that role is a thing of the past. Aliyah from the former Soviet Union is down to a trickle and the government has decided that the emigration of the Falashmura will end in three months.
The Jewish people is basically divided today between Israel and a string of communities in Western or rapidly Westernizing countries. In such an environment, the decision to make aliyah is an increasingly individual one. The Agency has realized this and adopted a new credo - "aliyah by choice." But how does one motivate people to make that choice?
The days of proselytizing for aliyah are over, the most that can be done is to make things easier for those who have already made the choice. Private organizations like Nefesh b'Nefesh and Ami, and also the Absorption Ministry have realized that and are gradually encroaching on the Agency's turf. Talk off-record to agency officials, at all levels, and they also understand this. Within the Agency, plans are being made to restructure the Aliyah department, effectively breaking it up to components which will be merged into the Education and Israel departments, primarily due to a shrinking budget, caused by a decline in donations and the weak dollar.
What is needed is a public facing of the facts. These changes should have been underway even if there was no budgetary necessity. In an era in which the main challenge facing the Jewish world is creating frameworks for identity and knowledge, the Jewish Agency has a role to play as pipeline between Israel and the Jews of the world, it can be a central role, but first it must admit as much to itself, its donors and potential clients.
In today's global Jewish society, the Jewish Agency has no direct way of significantly affecting aliyah to Israel. Its only future is as an international vehicle of Jewish and Israeli education. If the Agency's leaders carry on claiming that aliyah is still its central mission, the Israel Prize will indeed be only a recognition of past achievements. Full post and comments...