‘Every moment we don’t separate from the Palestinians is a clear threat to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.”
It’s not really important who the author of that statement is. It might be any one of Israel’s many “centrist” politicians who claim that Israel must relinquish territory in order to preserve its Jewish majority. These include the late Ariel Sharon, as well as Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid and many others (though it was Lapid that made the statement above).
Even security-minded Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has taken to routinely speaking of Palestinian statehood as a cure against Israel becoming a bi-national state.
But what if Israel’s Jewish majority could be preserved without relinquishing strategic territory, uprooting tens or hundreds of thousands Israeli citizens, or creating a terror-tolerant or supporting state? In a speech last week to the Conference of President of Major Jewish Organizations, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman suggested such a positive option, when he declared that he aimed “to bring an additional 3.5 million Jews from the Diaspora in the next 10 years so that the Jewish population in Israel will exceed 10 million.”
The context of this goal was avoiding an Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria but preventing the assimilation of Diaspora Jewry and strengthening Jewish education outside of Israel. Liberman in fact professes support for the “two-state solution” and has proposed to drastically redraw Israel’s boundaries to remove Arab areas.
Yet if 3.5 million Jews were added to Israel’s existing demographic mix, the elimination of demographics as a factor in policy regarding Judea and Samaria would be an obvious result – too obvious to go unnoticed by a nationalist politician.
Setting a grand goal of increasing Israeli Jewry to ten million within 10 years also fits with the Jabotinskyite tradition of Zionist territorial maximalism, a tradition which Liberman also claims to be a part of (his party, Yisrael Beytenu, claims to be a Jabotinskyite party).
In April 1925, Jabotinsky organized the first conference of the Revisionist Zionist movement, which resolved that “the aim of Zionism is the ... transformation of Palestine (Trans Jordan included) into a Jewish Commonwealth ... under the auspices of a Jewish majority.”
During the interwar period, Jews were a minority in Palestine. Zionists did not have the luxury to speak of “preserving” a Jewish majority. Many Zionists considered the creation of a Jewish majority (and a Jewish state) anytime soon as fantastical, even as millions of Jews around the world were vulnerable and in distress.
For Jabotinsky, Zionism was the salvation of these millions and vice versa, since they could create the Jewish majority necessary for Jewish statehood.
Jabotinsky revived the 1919 proposal of Herzl’s ally and first prominent convert to Zionism, Max Nordau. Nordau had proposed immediately settling 600,000 Jews in Palestine.
With world Jewry in greater distress than ever before, Jabotinsky proposed evacuating 1.5 million to Palestine over 10 years, calling it the Nordau Plan. He later modified it to an immediate transfer of one million.
Jabotinsky’s call was dismissed as demagoguery instead of utilized for what it was – a call meant to capture the imagination and make bringing Jews to Palestine the top priority of the Zionist movement and world governments in an increasing desperate world.
In his speech to the Conference of Presidents, Liberman extensively quoted the Pew Center’s October 2013 survey on American Jewry, which showed high levels of intermarriage and assimilation, which he characterized as a “demographic catastrophe.”
Of course this catastrophe is nothing like the “hurban” Jabotinsky warned of. But the vanishing of a great portion of the Jewish people as such, and along with them a portion of the potential for the survival and success of the Jewish people and the Jewish idea, is a indeed a catastrophe.
The Jewish state could be the solution to Diaspora Jews looking to lead a fully Jewish life and secure their children’s Jewish identity, and they could be the solution to Israel’s demographic worries.
Liberman’s plan to combat the looming catastrophe and to bring 3.5 million Jews to Israel is to create “a global network of Jewish schools” of a “superior” standard, which would provide a “Jewish and Zionist education.”
Israel, he said, should invest $365 million in the project. To his credit, such a school system is a laudable project.
It is indeed Herzilian in scope, as Liberman suggested when he recalled Herzl’s saying, “if you will it, it is no dream.” But even if such a school network were immediately established, it would not bring 350,000 Jews per year to Israel over the next 10 years, though it might churn out greater number of olim years to come.
Nor is there reason to believe that Israel could more effectively run Jewish schools around the world than local education professionals and Jewish communities.
If the goal is to increase Israel’s Jewish population, and it should be, a multi-faceted approach might be more effective.
Such an approach would involve more actively attracting olim by increasing Zionist education abroad, preferably by offering programs in existing Jewish schools, but also offering them to families, who as Liberman pointed out, cannot afford a Jewish education.
Such programs should especially include Hebrew-language instruction, with an aim to make Jewish children proficient in Hebrew, thereby eliminating a major barrier to immigrating to Israel and nurturing Jewish national identity.
Absorption benefits offered to new olim should be increased and tailored to address the primary hardships they face in their absorption: overcoming the language barrier and finding suitable employment. Thus, those who need it (most) should be offered an additional semester of intensive ulpan and a job-placement program to ensure that a job awaits them upon completion of ulpan.
Olim are also not the only Israelis who require successful absorption. Thousands of Israelis emigrate per year, offsetting a significant portion of the demographic gains of aliyah.
A survey commissioned by Haaretz in December 2012 found that 37 percent of Israelis consider emigrating, most of them because of the inability to advance economically.
A study of emigrants between 1995 and 2002 sponsored by the Shalem Center found that high taxes, the high cost of living, low wages and inability to find work in Israel all figure highly in the decision to emigrate.
Economic policies aimed at easing the tax burden, job creation and raising salaries could shrink emigration rates for both native Israelis and frustrated olim.
Already growing Jewish-Israeli birthrates might also be accelerated. One way to ease the decision for many parents to have more children would be to substantially increase the monthly child subsidy (currently a mere NIS 140) and/or the child income tax credit. This could be doubly effective if applied at higher rates to olim since it would ease their absorption and specifically target Jewish birthrates.
If thousands more Jews per year could be brought to Israel and be properly absorbed, if thousands of emigrations avoided, and Jewish birthrates could be increased – the net result might not come close to 3.5 million in 10 years, but it could be substantial. It might offset higher but declining non-Jewish birthrates, until they equalize with Jewish birthrates.
“Ten million in 10 years” may be impossible – especially if solely based on immigration. Jabotinsky spoke of evacuating distressed European Jews, not wealthy and proud American Jews.
Nevertheless, by setting a high national benchmark for which we can strive, “ten million in 10 years” could be a rousing call in the Herzlian and Jabotinskyite tradition applied to the modern era.
The author is an attorney and a Likud Central Committee member.