As 2015 draws to a close, the news on the aliya front is decidedly mixed, and it is imperative that the government take action to boost the number of Jews moving here. After all, for the sake of our collective future, Israel needs more Jews. And there are some relatively simple steps that can be taken to bring this about.
But let’s start with the good news. For the first time since 2002, more than 30,000 Diaspora Jews will have moved to Israel this year, as French and Ukrainian members of the tribe continue to flee mounting anti-Semitism and conflict.
This is a rise of more than 10 percent over the 26,500 new immigrants who arrived here in 2014, perhaps suggesting that an upward trend may be in the making. Over the past three years, for example, some 18,000 French Jews and 15,000 Ukrainian Jews have decided to make Israel their home. Barring any unforeseen changes in the situation in Paris and Kiev, it seems safe to assume that many more are on the way.
On the other hand, in the larger scheme of things 30,000 people is a drop in the bucket, representing just two-tenths of a percent of world Jewry. At that pace, it would take more than 500 years for the return to Zion to be complete.
Moreover, of those 30,000 intrepid souls who have planted themselves in the land this year, just under 10%, or approximately 2,900 people, will have come from the United States, which is home to the largest Jewish population in the world outside of Israel.
In other words, despite the valiant efforts of organizations such as Nefesh B’Nefesh, the potential for immigration from America remains largely untapped.
Aliya, of course, is one of the foundational pillars of the Jewish state, which was created to serve as both a refuge and a homeland for Jews everywhere. It is Israel’s raison d’etre, and it serves as a key engine of national growth and economic development. Our society is enriched by the wide variety of Jews from different backgrounds who move here, bringing with them their talents, energies and dreams. Indeed, that is why it is so crucial to ensure that the number of Jews moving here continues to grow. A strong and resolute Israel is made even stronger and more purposeful by each Jew who settles in this land.
Practically, there is a simple and immediate measure the government could take to boost the number of new immigrants: open the door to communities of “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people.
There are tens of thousands of them or more, ranging from the 7,000 Bnei Menashe of northeastern India to the 15,000 Subbotnik Jews of the former Soviet Union.
The Subbotnik Jews are descendants of Russian peasants who converted to Judaism two centuries ago, and the Bnei Menashe are remnants of a lost tribe of Israel.
In addition, there are untold numbers of Bnei Anousim, whom historians refer to by the derogatory term “Marranos,” spread throughout the Spanish- and Portuguese- speaking world. Their Iberian Jewish ancestors were compelled to convert to Catholicism in the 14th and 15th centuries, but many continued to cling to their Jewish identity and faith in secret, passing it down through the generations. In recent years, large numbers of Bnei Anousim around the world have begun to return to their roots, embracing the faith of their forefathers and looking to rejoin the Jewish people.
Taken together, these three groups – the Subbotnik Jews, the Bnei Menashe and the Bnei Anousim – provide an enormous pool of potential immigrants and returnees to the Jewish people, large numbers of whom wish to make aliya. Obviously, questions about their precise status would need to be adjudicated by rabbinical authorities, and solutions can be found. But we owe it to them and to ourselves to bring our lost Jewish brethren back. The government recently approved the aliya of the remaining Falash Mura from Ethiopia, thanks to the tireless efforts of MK Avraham Neguise (Likud).
But why stop there, when there are so many other lost Jews around the world longing to return? As chairman of Shavei Israel, I have been working with these communities, as well as others, for more than 15 years, and I am convinced we are on the verge of a tidal wave of return that will reshape the Jewish future in the coming decades. If we are wise enough to seize this opportunity, we can profoundly strengthen Israel both spiritually and demographically.
Moreover, swinging open the door for the “lost Jews” would underline this country’s commitment to its Zionist ethos as well as inspire Jews worldwide by reminding them that our destiny lies in this Land and nowhere else.
Writing in his monumental work, Israel: A Personal History, David Ben-Gurion noted four decades ago that, “The major objective of Israel – the ingathering of the exiles, that thousands-of-years-old legacy of faith and hope bequeathed by our Prophets and teachers – is still far from fulfillment.” Those words were true when they were penned back in 1971, and they remain so today.
Our challenge is to bring that dream to fruition. So let’s gather in all the disparate elements of the entire Jewish people, including those who were once lost to us, and finally reunite them together as one in Zion.
The writer, a former adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is the founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to the Jewish people.