The Jewish Agency and aliya in the 21st century

by Maskil on March 25, 2008

Have the leaked press reports regarding the Jewish Agency’s intention to restructure away its Immigration and Absorption (Aliya) Department been misinterpreted? If not, is this really another nail in the coffin of Zionism, or simply a recognition that the balance between Israel and the Diaspora has shifted, and that organisations concerned with aliya need to respond to that shift. I would argue that it’s more the latter, and that we need a new set of assumptions to guide the next century of Zionism. I see those assumptions or assertions being as follows:

The age of mass aliya is largely over. The last of those sources of mass aliya – the former Soviet Union (FSU) – has more or less dried up. The rest of the Diaspora has become concentrated in the western democracies; within that mainly in the English-speaking world, and within that mainly in the US.

Aliya on a large scale is being undermined at the back end by stakeholders with another whole (non- or anti-Zionist) agenda: principally the Orthodox establishment and rabbinate in Israel. In the case of the FSU, as many as one in three of the Jewish Agency’s hard won immigrants was denied Jewish status, or at least a soft landing in the Jewish world. A successful large scale immigration cannot take place under these circumstances, even if another source of immigrants existed.

Because of the first assertion, immigration for economic reasons is not on the cards for now. Aliya will tend to be broken down into:

  • Personal fulfilment aliya (sometimes also motivated by factors such as anti-Semitism).
  • The possibility of emergency evacuation of an entire Jewish community, e.g. in the even of a harshly ant-Semitic regime coming to power somewhere, or a failed state scenario (one of the possible outcomes for SA, for instance).

Only the first of these motivations lends itself to traditional approaches to aliya. The second we can only prepare for, not facilitate or promote.

Israel no longer needs immigrants in the same way that it did in the first, say, fifty years of its existence. Potential immigrants will be asking what the state can do for them, rather than what they can do for the state. (If we’re still looking to aliya to help us with our demographic challenges, by the way, then we’re in serious trouble. The most that we can hope to achieve from immigration is a net inflow each year, and even this modest achievement can easily be offset by illegal immigration across Israel’s porous borders.)

If Israel does hope to attract immigration not motivated by pure Zionism, it needs to adopt more of a “if we build it they will come approach”. Israel needs to step decisively into the western, liberal, democratic camp, and put aside its dangerous pandering to theocracy. Religious and personal freedoms need to be guaranteed along with economic ones. A state that is attractive to its own population will automatically become a magnet for immigrants, and vice versa. A vision and program, perhaps along the lines of the Reut Institute’s vision of an Israel “Becoming one of the top 15 countries in the world” are needed.

With the Diaspora now less and less a source of immigrants, donations, or both, should Israel simply turn its back and allow it to wither away (perhaps hoping to catch an immigration windfall somewhere along the line)? That would be one approach. A better approach would obviously be to “invest” in order to bolster Jewish communities worldwide (including the growing secondary Israeli Diaspora). This “capital” can then continue to provide a “dividend” into the future (donations, potential immigrants, tourism, support, etc.). The investments required are becoming more and more clearly understood and include mainly:

  • Formal education, especially Jewish day school education
  • Jewish camping, scouting and youth movements of all shades
  • Israel experience tours and extended study and/or volunteer programs (Taglit-Birthright Israel and MASA)
  • Shlichot (emissary) programs, especially those involving youth
  • But also: Informal cultural and educational programs promoting Hebrew, Hebrew folk dance and community singing and even martial arts (Krav Maga).

JAFI’s budget constraints may mean the end of a chapter in Zionist achievement. It doesn’t have to mean the book is now closed.

Links/Reading/Resources:

Jewish Agency may shut immigration dept.

The Jewish Agency For Israel Homepage

Aliya – definition – Zionism and Israel -Encyclopedia / Dictionary/

Reut Institute

Taglit-Birthright Israel: Homepage

Masa Home – Israel Journey

Altneuland: A bungled Aliya

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