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Fundamentally Freund: Alleviating the aliya crisis
Michael Freund
27/01/2009
With numbers of immigrants so low, why not throw open the doors to the 'lost Jews' longing to get in?
 
On Sunday, we received yet more bad news. In a statement to the media, the Bank of Israel projected that overall output would shrink this year for the first time since 2002, heralding the onset of recession after five years in which the average annual growth rate was nearly 5 percent. As a result, the economy now takes its place alongside Gaza, the water shortage and the Iranian nuclear threat as another acute problem on the national agenda. With so many crises vying for our attention, it's hardly surprising that a no less important emergency has largely fallen by the wayside. And that is the steady and ongoing decline in Jewish immigration, which is no less an issue of national security than borders, terrorism or defense. Aliya, of course, is the lifeblood of the Zionist enterprise, as well as being an engine of economic growth. But it says a lot about the state of immigration these days that in the Immigrant Absorption Ministry's annual summary of aliya statistics, which was published last month, the word "aliya" did not appear until the 12th paragraph. Instead, the bulk of the report focused on the growing number of expatriates returning from abroad. But burying the issue at the bottom of a press release will not make it go away. The fact is that the aliya business is in serious trouble, and steps need to be taken to fix it, without delay. According to the Jewish Agency, the number of Jews moving here has plunged from 76,766 in 1999 to just 16,500 in 2008. That is a drop of nearly 80% in nine years, and there is little reason to believe that a turnaround is near. While there was an uptick in 2008 from the US, South Africa and Oceania, the overall trend was bleak. Aliya from Western Europe was down 24%, from Eastern Europe by 15% and from South America by 34%. This, in addition to the 14% drop in immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Clearly, if aliya were a stock trading on Wall Street, it would be in need of a bailout. Nonetheless, successive governments have done little if anything to alleviate the problem. TO BEGIN with, it is essential to restore aliya to its rightful place as a core mission of the government and society. This can be accomplished starting with a number of symbolic steps, such as building a national museum of aliya in Jerusalem. Such an institution would be dedicated to telling the remarkable story of the Ingathering. It could serve as a focal point for educating the younger generation about what people went through to make it to this country, as well as underlining the important contributions that immigrants have made in building the state. And it might just inspire Jewish visitors from abroad to make the move themselves. The government should also launch a national aliya day, replete with ceremonies, celebrations and even a few speeches, to reinforce society's sense of appreciation for those who arrived here more recently. It is essential to kindle an ongoing national dialogue about aliya, and to give greater voice to private organizations, such as Nefesh B'Nefesh, Ami and Shavei Israel. For as in every other field, the private sector always trumps the public sector when it comes to efficiency, effectiveness and passion. Over the long-term, the goal must be to reignite a national sense of duty and purpose about bringing the people of Israel home to Zion - a theme that has been sidelined too much. There are immediate steps that can be taken as well which will lead to an increase in the number of immigrants. Tens of thousands of "lost Jews" around the world are seeking to return to their people and their ancestral homeland, yet the government has shown limited interest in bringing them. They include the 7,000 Bnei Menashe of northeastern India, descendants of a lost tribe of Israel; the 15,000 Subbotnik Jews of Russia, whose ancestors converted to Judaism two centuries ago; and the remaining 8,000 Falash Mura in Ethiopia who still wish to come. Taken together, they number more than 30,000 people who wish to embrace Judaism and make aliya. Citing socioeconomic concerns and questions about their status, the government has hesitated to let them in. But at a time when aliya is in free fall, what could be more appropriate, and more Zionist, than to open the national door and let them in? This would not only bolster our demographic ranks, but would also serve as an inspiring act of historical justice. And that, after all, is what this country is all about. The writer serves as chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), a Jerusalem-based group that assists "lost Jews" seeking to reconnect to Israel and the Jewish people.
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