(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Perhaps someone ought to give Jewish Agency chairman Ze'ev Bielski a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People. Why would an Israeli official deeply involved in Israeli-Diaspora relations say that American Jews "have no future as Jews" - a sentiment that he himself called "a mistake" when author A.B. Yehoshua said the same thing just a short time ago?
"Assimilation is unstoppable and inevitable in a country of this size and with such a mobile population," Bielski elaborated to The Jerusalem Post from the UJC's General Assembly in Los Angeles, known as the world's largest annual gathering of Jewish leaders. "We have to get them to move to Israel, and then Ariel Sharon's vision of one million olim from America will come true."
The problem with Bielski's statement is not that it is true but impolitic. There is, indeed, much validity to Bielski's concerns, and it is generally appropriate not to simply paper over or ignore serious threats to the Jewish future. And sometimes it is worthwhile and even necessary to risk offending good friends.
The problem is that Bielski's comment is difficult to regard as constructive criticism; rather, it seems to mainly wave the white flag of surrender.
The demographic crisis facing American Jewry cannot and should not be denied. Yet the idea of wholesale aliya as the solution makes no sense even if it were not bordering on the delusionary.
Let's say, for a moment, that a million American Jews - about one-fifth of the community - moved to Israel. How would this address the demographic trends facing the remaining 80 percent of the world's second largest Jewish community?
If anything, siphoning off the most Jewishly-identified Diaspora Jews could be expected to accelerate assimilatory trends. While it is true that Jewish birthrates are higher and assimilation much lower in Israel, the difference is not enough to compensate for the loss of millions of Jews abroad.
In this context, Israel's first priority must be to help Diaspora Jewry start growing instead of shrinking, rather than pretending that aliya is the only, or even central option.
In New York on Friday, Bielski also urged American Jews to spend more on "Jewish education and outreach because they're providing me [the Jewish Agency] with quality aliya material: 'more Jewish' olim who are more aware of Jewish, history, traditions, and rituals."
We could not agree more regarding the urgency of investing in Jewish education and other means of building Jewish identity. But the purpose of this should be to fuel existing efforts to spark a Jewish renaissance in the US for its own sake, not just, or even mainly, to spur aliya.
There are only about 13 million Jews in the world: fewer than on the eve of the Holocaust almost 70 years ago. Even if the absolute numbers remain steady, which is unlikely, the Jewish people continues to shrink steadily as a proportion of the US and world populations.
Aliya, as welcome as it is, is not the solution to this problem. Israel has an overwhelming responsibility and interest to help the Diaspora grow, rather than stand around and predict its demise.
The obvious first step is to increase support for programs such as birthright israel and Masa, which bring Diaspora Jews to Israel and thereby contribute to both Jewish identity and to strengthening the Diaspora-Israel bond.
This week, a substantial proportion of the cabinet, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, is attending the General Assembly. We join them in thanking American Jewry for an incredible $330 million raised in the Israel Emergency Campaign launched during the war in Lebanon, and for the solidarity behind the money. This outpouring of support shows that even though there is a disturbing generational trend toward reduced ties to Israel, overall ties are still impressive, important and real.
Israel must reciprocate - not by denigrating American Jewry, but by extending concrete moral, communal and financial support for Jewish revival. Israel could, for example, help provide bank guarantees for a comprehensive student loan program to greatly reduce the financial burden of Jewish education in America. The Jewish state should be a source of out-of-the-box solutions, not off-the-wall insults.
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