Analysis: What American aliya?

What American aliya

The Jewish Agency and Nefesh B'Nefesh are fighting again. Agency director-general Moshe Vigdor, perhaps unwisely, has lashed out at the private aliya organization for manipulating its numbers in a "brilliant" public relations campaign that purports to show the economic value of North American aliya. In fact, he said, Nefesh B'Nefesh's campaign amounts to the delegitimization of less affluent aliya. At least, that's what Vigdor urged agency officials to consider as a new public relations campaign meant to pull some of Nefesh's glamour toward the older, ailing organization. Outwardly, Nefesh has responded with caution. Internally, officials are extremely angry, and view Vigdor's attack as an effort to delegitimize a more successful competitor. In a sense, everybody is right. From Vigdor's perspective, the study by Deloitte Touche that showed Nefesh aliya from North America and Britain to be an economic boom for Israel did in fact "forget" the agency's role in aliya, and used an unclear definition of "Nefesh olim." Many of the numbers that went into the study came from Nefesh itself, and Deloitte's e-mail survey of the olim went through Nefesh's own e-mail lists. It is extremely probable that Nefesh was honest, but the fact remains that the study was not an objective outsider's endorsement of their work. There is reason to be frustrated at the ease with which Nefesh obtains spectacular media coverage, including in major international papers such as the Wall Street Journal. Yet Nefesh is also right to be angry. The agency's public relations problems are of their own making, and good publicity for Nefesh is good publicity for aliya itself. In the effort to increase aliya-by-choice from affluent Western countries, polish and marketing are essential. For Nefesh officials, the agency's worries amount to little more than small-minded jealousy that distracts from the work at hand. But in another sense, both organizations are wrong. And that's because aliya as a phenomenon, as a movement, as a national project, has come to an end. Some 3,000 American olim come to Israel every year from a community whose population is at least 4.2 million strong. (Estimates range from about 4.2 million to roughly 6.4 million.) That translates into less than one tenth of one percent of American Jews - a figure that shows it is not a phenomenon of consequence for a community that makes up 80% of the Diaspora. Aliya is statistically inconsequential compared to every other demographic trend happening to American Jews, whether their birthrate, intermarriage level, philanthropic decline or rise in affiliation. American Jewry is in profound flux, but these changes are not bringing them to Israel. Everybody promises to turn this reality around, to renew aliya through financial incentives, through marketing, through word-of-mouth networking, through better absorption into Israeli society. Yes, olim need the financial help and the social networking that Nefesh and, to a lesser extent, the agency offer them once in Israel. But no, these aren't the factors that make them uproot their lives and make the move. The Jewish people's two largest aliya organizations have fought each other for years, finally reaching a détente two years ago in the form of government recognition and funding for Nefesh and an Agency-Nefesh agreement regarding North American aliya. But friction remains, political maneuvering and pettiness remains. And that's a shame. Because for all intents and purposes, North American aliya is currently at zero.