Only Aliya can save Israel. Oh really?

by Maskil on 21 Oct 2009

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According to the concluding paragraph of an article entitled “Only aliyah can save Israel” by Uzi Silber:

So what then is the solution [to Israel’s demographic problem]? Barring unforeseen miracles, mass Jewish immigration to Israel by the hundreds of thousands remains the only viable way of ensuring that the Jewish state’s future does in-fact remain ours.

My first reaction was “in that case, why didn’t the immigration of as many as 1 million Jews from the FSU (mostly during the 90s) “save” Israel?” Why not indeed? My second reaction was “if we’re relying on immigration on that scale, then we’re in deep trouble!”

Unfortunately, though, formulas such as this have been repeated so often and so blindly that they have taken on the halo of truth. As a result, very little clear, hard thinking has been done to define whether Israel does indeed have a demographic

problem, the nature and extent of the problem, what can be done to address it, and whether those measures include mass immigration. Also, of course, whether mass Jewish immigration from anywhere in the world is a realistic option.

This clear, hard thinking needs to be a group exercise, but I can offer a few observations and suggestions.

Is this Zionism?

A call for “mass Jewish immigration to Israel by the hundreds of thousands” may sound like Zionism. Zionism, however, was intended to address the Jewish condition – Jewish powerlessness and minority status everywhere – by creating a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine. With that objective now largely achieved, the Zionist equation has seemingly been inverted, with Jews everywhere being called on to plug this particular leak with their bodies. I for one am uncomfortable with this inversion of Zionism; almost the antithesis of Zionism.

Sources of Aliya

I’ve detailed my views regarding Aliya in the 21st Century elsewhere (see Related posts: below). Simply put, though, the pools of potential immigrants have largely ceased to exist.

The Holocaust and 60 years of intensive Zionist efforts (as well as Israel’s conflict with its Arab neighbours) have basically drained all the pools of potential immigrants to Israel. Leaving aside what I refer to as personal fulfilment Aliya, I think it’s true to say that (barring unforeseen calamities) pretty much everyone who needs or wants to make Aliya has already done so. This might seem like a shocking notion, but it might be one we need to get used to.

Defining the problem

Defining the problem is not something I’m going to try to do here; it’s an essential part of the exercise I mentioned above. First, though, we need to understand that defining Israel’s Arab minority as “Israel’s demographic problem” will be deeply offensive to Israel’s Arabs, many Jews (both in Israel and elsewhere), and people who care about Israel as a democratic and just society, and as a place founded as a refuge from the Holocaust. (It’s also just possible that by defining a situation as a problem, we are in effect creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

Be that as it may, we need a clear grasp of Israel’s demographics before we can start bandying Aliya about as the solution. We need to understand the position both within the Green Line and in Western Palestine as a whole. We also need to recognise the implications of Israel’s formal but unrecognised annexation of East Jerusalem (without clearly defined boundaries) and the transplanting of over half a million Israeli Jews into East Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), without any formal annexation.

Lastly, we need to understand the perceptions on both sides and arrive at a view of how Israel’s Arabs define themselves. As a peaceful minority, such as the Jews were in Europe? As a demographic time bomb? As searching for justice and their rightful place in Israeli society, or the spearhead of Arab, Islamic or Palestinian irredentism? Are these perceptions and realities shifting, and if so in what direction?

Only once we’ve understood Israel’s demographics can we decide whether Israel has a problem or not; bearing in mind that the tipping point is not 50%. As we’ve seen with Israel’s other (far more insidious) demographic issue, at only 20% of the population, the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) minority have used their coalition partnership “bargaining chip” to subvert Israel’s democracy and fund their institutions, lifestyle and growth at the taxpayers’ expense, while imposing their worldview on the rest of society.

We also need a working definition of the Jewish State, even if this is just stating the obvious: a Jewish state cannot exist without a Jewish majority.


The final step in our mooted brainstorming process is the search for practical measures to retain or increase Israel’s Jewish majority, without harming the rights, property and persons of its non-Jewish inhabitants, and without damaging Israel’s image and standing in the family of nations. Here are a few starter suggestions:

Define where Israel starts and ends, either through a negotiated settlement or through BATNA. Israel needs to set its borders, either bilaterally or unilaterally. This is essential to both understanding and addressing the situation, and the window to achieve it is closing rapidly. We can’t continue trying to carry water in a sieve.

Bring the settlers home. Settlement blocs contiguous with pre-1967 Israel should be formally incorporated into Israel, and the remainder abandoned. The Settlement Enterprise has dragged Israel into an unwinnable demographic war in the West Bank, while at the same time diverting population growth out of Israel proper. For Israel’s sake, it has to end.

Seal Israel’s borders. Almost as soon as Zionist settlement in Palestine began, it was accompanied by (and sometimes even outstripped by) immigration from the surrounding Arab countries. The trend has continued to this day, with the attempt to erase the Green Line only recently having been abandoned. Israel must have absolute control over her frontiers and over who and how people and goods enter and leave them. The Border Police and related services must be dramatically boosted in order to achieve this.

Don’t permit erosion of Israel’s sovereignty. (One of my hobby-horses.) Israel’s writ must extend to every inch of her territory (or security envelope, where these are not conterminous) and over every inhabitant of the country. So-called no-go areas simply cannot be permitted.

Stop subsidising the birth-rate in any way. Attempts to increase Israel’s birth-rate began in the first years of its existence and – in one form or another – have continued to this day. This is despite their having been a miserable failure; instead of changing the behaviour of Middle Israel, they rewarded the behaviour of those who would have had large families anyway – the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors. They have quite simply backfired, and should be scrapped immediately and replaced with a system that penalises large families reliant on welfare.

Stop treating sociological Jews as 2nd-class citizens. This applies mainly to the 350,000-odd Jews from the FSU who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return, but fail the stringent tests of “Jewishness” set by Israel’s Haredi-dominated rabbinate. This sort of treatment will in no way encourage other “undocumented” or sociological Jews to make Aliya; just the opposite. Israel should instead provide a soft landing for these immigrants, including the option of recognised non-Orthodox conversions. (It’s ironic that the very people who whine about the lack of Aliya tend to support this hard-line attitude towards those caught between the Law of Return and a cold, pitiless rabbinate.)

Family reunification and mail-order brides. Israel currently permits immigration from countries with which she is formally in a state of war or armed conflict (including the Palestinian Territories). This is done in terms of family reunification and “mail-order brides” for Arab/Muslim citizens (some 50,000 between 2000 and 2005, according to one report). No country in a state of conflict can permit this organised insanity, even in the name of political correctness.

Define an immigration policy. Israel’s addiction to foreign labour needs to be tackled by means of a formal immigration policy. This policy should define the skills and sectors where guest workers are needed (e.g. frail care for the aged), and regulations and conditions for their stay. The periodic knee-jerk reactions to the presence of guest workers (followed by mass expulsions) contribute to the perception and substance of Israel as an unwelcoming destination. This in turn subtly influences decisions regarding Aliya.

Create an attractive society. Apart from a very small minority, appealing for Aliya on the basis of a demographic struggle is not likely to be an attractive proposition. Simply put, Israel needs to compete in an open immigration market. The surest way of becoming more competitive is a shift away from the semi-theocratic model of society and closer to the Western, democratic and secular model, including a clear separation between religion and state. Israel needs to stop believing and acting as if it has a “captive market” for its desired immigration demographic, and become competitive instead.

Strengthen or plunder the Diaspora?

More than 60 years after Israel’s miraculous creation, we need to start asking how long Israel’s insatiable appetite for Aliya will continue. Israel is already the home to a plurality of Jews in the world today. What percentage of the world’s Jewish population will eventually satisfy her need?

With the Diaspora in something of a disarray, perhaps it’s time to call a halt to the Aliya industry, focusing instead on Aliya by choice (personal, fulfilment Aliya) and the Aliya of need (e.g. where a threatened community needs to be evacuated).

Instead of plundering the Diaspora of its best and brightest, perhaps its time for Israel to put a lot more emphasis on strengthening Jewish life and communities wherever they exist, and strengthening the ties between Israel and the Diaspora.

If Israel, the World Zionist Organisation (WZO) and the Jewish Agency (JAFI) are not the right bodies to achieve this, perhaps they should move aside and make way for a democratic, representative global Jewish convention ready to meet the challenges of 21st Century Jewish life.


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