Avigdor Liberman’s goal of bringing 3.5 million immigrants to Israel over the next decade came under harsh criticism by several leading researchers on Wednesday.
The foreign minister announced his plan at a gathering of American Jewish leaders on Tuesday along with a proposal to subsidize education in the Diaspora.
Referring to increasing assimilation and intermarriage abroad, Liberman asserted that “education and aliya have to become the most important goals of the State of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora.”
Acknowledging that “this might sound unrealistic to some,” Liberman cited Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism, stating that “if you will it, it is no dream.”
“This has been the rallying call for the attainment of so-called unrealistic goals for over a hundred years and we have consistently managed to achieve the impossible, especially when our future depended on it,” he added.
However, despite his optimism, experts have scoffed at Liberman’s figures, indicating that they believe that it is highly unlikely that such a massive migration could occur, especially among American Jews.
“This is absolutely impossible,” Gabriel Sheffer, professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an expert on Israeli-Diaspora relations, told The Jerusalem Post.
A recent Pew Research Center study on American Jewry, alluded to by Liberman during his speech, showed a nearly 60 percent intermarriage rate among those married since the year 2000 and a significant decrease in the strength of Jewish identity among those of the millennial generation.
A total of 32% of millennials “describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.”
However, while overall “emotional attachment to Israel has not waned discernibly among American Jews in the past decade,” the report stated, such sentiments are “markedly stronger” among those who define their identity in religious terms and those belonging to the older generation.
This, Sheffer believes, is an impediment to a mass Jewish migration.
“All data shows that the numbers of Jewish Diasporans who are closely related to and interested in Israel are not very large.
Especially younger Jews in the Diaspora, half of them intermarried, are not thinking about immigrating to Israel,” he said.
“Avigdor Lieberman’s comment shows how crucial it is for Israel to develop true experts on American Jewish life, who can properly interpret American Jewry to the public,” Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, quipped. “Ignorance in Israel concerning the largest Diaspora Jewish community in the world underlies his unfortunate comment. While scholars may disagree concerning the present and future of the American Jewish community, I know of none who would draw his conclusion.”
“What we really need is a reverse Taglit-Birthright program so that Israelis like him would better understand the American Jewish community, and promote deeper ties between Israelis and their American Jewish counterparts,” he recommended.
In order to meet Liberman’s “admirable goal,” Steven Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew Union College and an adviser to the Pew study, said that aliya would have to increase to “30,000 annually from the US, roughly 15 times the current rate of aliya.”
“Perhaps we can get there if most Masa and Birthright participants lost their passports and return flight tickets upon arriving in Israel.”
According to a paper by sent to the Post by Prof. Sergio DellaPergola, a leading expert on Jewish Demography and Statistics at the Hebrew University, there is likely to be a “future stabilization of Jewish international migration, including aliya, at low levels of mobility unlike most of the past experience.”
While shifts in the configuration of the geopolitical world system could change that, he wrote, it would be difficult to predict such a seismic shift.
Reactions among those connected to Diaspora Zionism was somewhat more mixed than those of the academics.
“The only way you would have a massive increase of Jews making aliya is if you have a massive increase in anti-Semitism in America and around the world,” Zionist Organization of America president Mort Klein told the Post.
Klein indicated that he believes that only an economic disaster, coupled with intolerable brutality against Jews, would result in a mass exodus.
“You can see an increasing number of Jews leaving France, but even with the increased hostility and violence you don’t see an astonishing increase in aliya. You see a significant increase but not to the type of numbers that Liberman is predicting,” he said.
“This is wishful thinking,” Michael Jankelowitz, the Jewish Agency’s former spokesman to the international media told the Post. “At the [Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly] in Jerusalem in November 2003, then prime minister Ariel Sharon called for 1 million olim [immigrants] over 10 years. In reality almost 200,000 olim came during that period.”
Eli Cohen, the head of the Agency’s aliya department until 2011, disagreed with Jankelowitz, however, telling the Post that “increased immigration is possible and practical.”
“We have already proven that we know how to increase the number of immigrants,” he added.
Liberman’s words stand in stark contrast to recent statements by Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, who recently told the Post that “with the change in circumstances we need to change the objective.”
“For the past 65 years we’ve had sets of institutions that did certain things, primarily raised money abroad and sought to bring Jews to make aliya. The whole relationship between Israel and Jews abroad needs to change and the objective needs to change, because the situation has changed.”
The government, he added, has “made a strategic decision to change the objective... to keep Jews Jewish and connected to Israel regardless of whether they make aliya or not.”
A source in Liberman’s office responded to the harsh critiques of his plan by accusing the “naysayers” of “dooming this plan under the current circumstances.”
“It is no coincidence that the plan to significantly raise aliya numbers is intrinsically linked to the idea of establishing a high-level international network of Jewish schools which would imbue its students with a strong Jewish and Zionist identity and a greater understanding of the historic and unique Jewish experience and traditions, alongside first-rate secular studies. If we can change the current growing disengagement from Judaism and Zionism among Diaspora youth then aliya will return to becoming a serious option for many,” the source said.