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The annual figures for aliya are in and, as expected, in 2007 the trend downward continued. Since the tail end of the aliya from the former Soviet Union in 2000, when 61,813 new immigrants arrived, immigration has dropped to about 19,300 this year, down about 9.3 percent on 2006.
Within this figure, and also as expected, the number of immigrants from North America and the UK is up significantly, to 3,000, according to Nefesh B'Nefesh, the organization that has been facilitating immigration from some Western nations. This represents an 86 percent increase in aliya from North America and a 52% increase from the UK. Accordingly, the percentage of immigrants from North America has risen from 3% in 2000 to over 16% today.
Nefesh B'Nefesh believes there is much more potential to be tapped in encouraging aliya from the countries in which it works. The organization reports it has a waiting list of 20,000 potential immigrants asking for its support, which can be up to $25,000 per family for the costs of a transition to life in Israel and finding a new job. NBN co-chairman Danny Ayalon argues that the 12,000 immigrants the group has brought from North America in the last five years could increase by another 100,000 by 2015.
In September, the cabinet decided to make permanent the government funding for NBN and another private group promoting aliya from France, Ami. Funding had started on a trial basis in 2005, and is expected to be about NIS 18 million in 2008.
Bringing more immigrants to Israel is a good investment for the country, since the benefit to the economy of these immigrants is likely to be much more than the cost. This is before the strategic benefits and ideological considerations specific to the Jewish state are factored in, which make the case for supporting aliya even more compelling.
Support for aliya, however, should be considered part of a broader Israeli approach to the Diaspora. It is widely recognized that the old Israeli image of the Diaspora, as a place whose only function was to provide Israel with financial support and a pool of immigrants, has long become outdated. A much more symbiotic relationship has emerged in its stead. This new relationship is perhaps exemplified in Israeli government support for birthright israel - the program that brings young Diaspora Jews on free 10-day trips - which is now regarded by almost everyone as a central and successful means of bolstering Jewish identity and connections to Israel at the same time.
While rarely recognized as such, government support for a program like birthright, which enhances the connection to Israel but does not directly promote aliya, was a significant departure. But Israel should go even further, and recognize that promoting Jewish identity in the Diaspora is an important Israeli national interest, regardless of whether there is any direct connection to promoting aliya or to Israel.
The reason for this is two-fold. First, the Jewish state needs to see itself as the state of the Jewish people, regardless of whether Diaspora Jews want to live in or support Israel. Second, the support that Israel does and will receive from the Diaspora, whether moral, political, financial, cultural or demographic, depends on the Diaspora community's own internal strength and vibrancy.
There can be no aliya strategy, in other words, that does not work to ensure that the number of Diaspora Jews, their Jewish identity, and their connection to Israel are all increasing.
In practical terms, this might mean that the Bank of Israel should guarantee a student loan system that would make Diaspora Jewish day school education more affordable. Or that our government might help subsidize the education of Diaspora day school teachers in Israel. None of this, incidentally, should come at the expense of the crying need we have highlighted in the past to bolster Jewish identity among Israelis - to give the people who are already here a better sense of why this country matters.
The truth is that a growing economy, lower taxes and a better education system are the key magnets for aliya, bringing back wayward Israelis and preventing more from leaving. Such goals should be pursued in their own right, for all Israelis. But even a more attractive Israel will not work if there is a shrinking number of Diaspora Jews to attract.
As the state of the Jewish people, Israel's goal should be for both Israel and the Diaspora to grow at the same time, for the betterment of both. If we will it, it is no dream.
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