North American Aliya: When is enough enough?

by Maskil on 9 Sep 2008

The recent revolutionary changes in the roles of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) regarding Aliya from North America provide (perhaps unnecessary) lessons in what happens to institutions that fail to adapt to changed circumstances.

Rather than organisational roles, however, what I’d like to address here is Aliya in general, North American Aliya in particular, whether Israel still “needs” Aliya, and how to make Israel a destination of choice for immigrants rather than refugees.

My initial response to these changes was something along these lines: Israel is already home to almost half the world’s Jews. If there’s any problem it hasn’t been able to solve with (say) 40% of the world’s Jews, is it any more likely to be solved with 45 or 50%?

Why do we still see this apparently crying need for more Aliya? My sense it that – more than any other factor – it has to do with the (unwinnable) demographic war we’re engaged in with the Arab population west of the Jordan. If this is the case, then let’s rather find ways to disentangle ourselves from that situation (the word disengage would have been more suitable, but it’s now discredited). I can’t say yet how that disentanglement should happen, but I do know we need to apply our minds to finding solutions.

In my reading of history, Aliya was never intended to be about the needs of the Jewish Commonwealth, but rather about addressing the “Jewish Problem” (or situation; problem implies a solution) and the physical safety of individual Jews and communities. The equation has now been turned on its head, with Israel needing Aliya to address … what need again?

Historically, this need for Aliya arose because the huge pools of potential Eastern European Olim were annihilated in the Holocaust, leaving only a remnant to fulfil the dream. In one of our history’s saddest ironies, the Jews for whom Zionism was created all but ceased to exist, and immigration instead came mainly from Middle-Eastern Jewry, who until then had had no pressing need for such a safe haven.

In one of my previous posts on the subject, I said that the best hope for Western (particularly North American) Aliya is a strong and connected Diaspora. That is where we should focus our efforts, rather than on ceaselessly scouring the planet for Jewish DNA.

In my opinion, we need to aim for a normal migration pattern between the Diaspora and Israel, and vice-versa, but with the balance in favour of Israel. This is a far more realistic scenario than banking on waves of immigrants to somehow “complete” Israel.

So, while I believe that JAFI and NBN should be there for those who wish to make personal fulfilment Aliya (as well as to evacuate threatened communities in need), I remain unconvinced as to whether Aliya is the real solution to Israel’s current problems.

Leaving that aside, what kind of campaign or initiative would help bring those waves of Olim to Israel’s shores? I believe that what’s needed is not a marketing campaign, but rather an effort to make Israel a far more immigrant-friendly country. I don’t think it’s ever been tried before, but I do think it’s worth a shot.

What is the work that would need to be done in order to make Israel an attractive destination for immigrants? To what extent is this a case of having to just change images and perceptions, or are there underlying realities to be dealt with? We know that, even among our friends and among Jews themselves, Israel’s image is often that of an oppressive, fundamentalist garrison state. This initiative to make Israel Olim-friendly involves addressing not only perceptions, but also the unpleasant realities that sometimes underpin them.

The poisonous cocktail of unpleasant realities and half-baked perceptions is steadily alienating an increasing segment of (especially young) Diaspora Jews. The sad part is that many of these people are rejecting Israel (or at least uncritical support of Israel) exactly because they see it as violating so many of the Jewish values they were taught to uphold. In the eyes of many, the ugly Israel they see is an affront and an embarrassment to Judaism and its ethical teachings.

(Speaking of perceptions, why is it that I can get to watch Al-Jazeera on satellite TV, but not something along the lines of We’ve been hearing about the need for a pro-Israel satellite TV channel for years. When are the heavy hitters going to step up and make this a reality?)

Here’s where I believe we need to start:

A constitution. Israel needs a constitution. Not a phony IDI “constitution by coercion” that hands over power to exactly those people and institutions it should be protecting the public from. A real constitution that protects the man in the street from princes, merchants and cardinals alike; from MKs, oligarchs and the rabbinate alike.

Equality before the law. Legislation and dirty little “shmoechel” coalition deals that transfer public funds to one specific sector of the population, or that exempt that sector from the obligations and rights of citizenship need to be struck down. There needs to be one education system, one system of national service/conscription and one welfare system, at least for the entire Jewish population.

The rule of law. Israeli law needs to be imposed over every person and every inch of Israel’s territory – whether disputed or undisputed – by force, if necessary. If I relied on satellite TV as my only source for Israeli news, I would see Israel as a place where Haredi gay-bashers and olive-tree uprooting settlers reign supreme, while the law stands idly by. No state can allow itself to be eroded in fact and reputation this way; particularly not a state facing as many threats as does Israel. Crack some heads. When you’re dealing with cowards and bullies, one or two demonstrations of resolve usually suffice.

Separation between religion and state. This needs to happen irrespective of whether a constitution comes about or not. The Israeli religious-bureaucratic complex must be dismantled, and all the major streams of Judaism must have equal standing with Orthodoxy. No more garbage about a status-quo and authentic/Torah/Halachic Judaism. This has gone on long enough. Just fix it.

(Why is this such a crucial issue? Unless you’re planning to attract only those comfortable wearing basic black, a major part of the target market will be Conservative/Masorti, Reconstructionist and Reform Jews, all of whose legitimacy (institutions, rabbis, conversions) is disparaged and denied by official Judaism in Israel. Israel cannot afford another bungled Aliya such as the one from Russia during the 90s, where as many as 1 out of every 3 immigrants was disenfranchised by being considered non-Jewish according to Halacha.)

Stable government. Another long-recognised need. MKs need to be accountable to their voters, and Israel needs to be able to form stable, viable governments that can serve out their terms, and are not reliant on coalition deals with Haredi and other anti-Zionist parties.

Bureaucracy. Less of it. Israel Inc. still needs to become a lot leaner, meaner and more business-friendly (while not allowing the individual’s rights to be trampled). The concept of Proteksia just isn’t cute anymore (if it ever was), and shouldn’t be a requirement for getting anything done when dealing with government.

Corruption. Corruption on the part of holders of public office (including the rabbinate) needs to be stamped out. Dealing with this blight on the nation may require setting up a dedicated unit with the function to vigorously investigate and prosecute corruption on the part of public officials, from the highest to the lowest.

(I don’t presume to try to teach the Israeli voter Civics 101, but Israelis have been living with these affronts to democratic dignity for so long that many appear to have become resigned to them.)

I have a “second-tier” list as well, but I’ll save that for a future post, apart from this one:

Acts of insanity. Avoid them. Remind me again how many years of net positive Aliya is required to offset just one act of political insanity or demographic suicide, in allowing “just” 20,000 “Palestinian refugees” the “right of return”.

What do these have to do with Aliya? On the face of it, nothing, but in reality, everything.

Aliya by choice, and particularly Aliya from North America and the rest of the Western world is a whole new ballgame for Israel and most of the bodies responsible for it (NBN excluded).

Attracting large-scale immigration from modern, democratic, secular Western societies, with a high living standard, religious freedom, little overt anti-Semitism or discrimination, and respect for human rights is simply not one of Israel’s core competencies.

Could Israel achieve it? Almost certainly, but it will require some profound changes to both venerated and despised Israeli institutions alike.

What’s the advantage of doing all this work? Not only will it create a very favourable climate for attracting immigrants, but all Israelis, old and new, existing and potential will benefit from it. It will also decide the tenor of the state for generations to come, making it truly a state for all Jews, not just the self-anointed “Real Jews”.

There is little doubt that a substantial Anglo Aliya is capable of making a huge contribution towards Israeli society in many respects. I believe this can only happen, however, if the right conditions are created to facilitate it.

To repeat a (misquoted) phrase, “If you build it, they will come.” Get this right and all else will pretty much follow.

Related posts:

Altneuland: A bungled Aliya

Altneuland: Cowardice and bullying

Altneuland: The Israel Democracy Institute (IDI): Constitution by Coercion

Altneuland: The Jewish Agency and aliya in the 21st century

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