Analysis: Aliya policy lacking imagination

The enthusiastic new focus on expat Israelis brings into sharp relief the ideological crisis over record-low aliya.

nefesh aliya 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
nefesh aliya 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Israel's Immigration and Absorption Ministry has a new mission, it seems. The Israeli Diaspora - not the Jewish one - is the target of the ministry's most recent and most significant program, "Returning Home on Israel's 60th." Ministry Director-General Erez Halfon, who devised the program, has shepherded it through the governmental bureaucracy's wheel-and-deal process with breathtaking speed, suggesting that the idea of bringing home Israelis has struck a chord with government officials. This is not too strange. Of the 14,000 Israeli expats who returned in the past three years, 30 percent were academics, scientists, researchers, engineers or technicians, 40% had academic degrees and 54% were between the ages of 20 and 44. In short, returning expats tend to be skilled, educated and of working age. Is it any wonder plans - even expensive plans - to dramatically increase their number passed smoothly through the Finance Ministry and are making their way quickly to the Knesset floor? Yet, while the program is laudable and smart, its concessions generous and its logic unassailable, the enthusiastic new focus on expat Israelis brings into sharp relief the ideological crisis Israel is facing over the record-low - and shrinking - aliya figures. Is it significant that the government's flagship program for bringing Jews to their homeland is not, in fact, for aliya? Faced with the declining numbers, and the continuing difficulty in convincing Western Jews to move their lives to Israel, is the government surrendering to market forces and, in effect, quietly giving up on future aliya as a central plank of Zionist ideology? Aliya as we have known it in the past has dropped to a trickle as the Jewish communities under siege have all found their freedom, and the communities in the affluent West have little motivation - financial or ideological - to leave their homes. The Jewish Agency has defined this as "aliya by choice" from comfortable communities, with groups such as Ami and Nefesh B'Nefesh believing that organization and financial incentives will make the difference. Yet aliya from the West has changed only slightly despite the immense and expensive efforts on the part of all these groups. The lackluster results of the aliya efforts are disheartening. It is not unreasonable for the government to shift to investing in the measurably more attainable returnees. However, it is also a shame to see the government giving up so soon, before it has examined the problem in depth or debated creative solutions. Simply put, Israel may be giving up on new forms of significant aliya because it is suffering from a failure of imagination. The greatest barrier to bringing Western Jews, particularly American Jews who make up the vast majority of the Diaspora, is not financial or institutional - it is cultural. Westerners increasingly live their lives with more personalized expectations, choosing to belong to real and virtual communities from a large selection of possibilities. Particularly in America, but in Europe also, the general population and the Jews among them are also the most mobile societies in human history. As they make their identity choices and change their communal affiliations, they also divide these affiliations along different axes of their lives - religious, political, familial, professional, even sexual. They live in a continuum of choices that they believe, and are taught by their surrounding culture, are theirs to make. It is this Jew, mostly in America, to whom Israel must speak if it yearns for a new wave of aliya, or a strengthened connection across the cultural divide. An American Jew cannot be convinced to make aliya by removing financial obstacles, or even by handing him or her hard cash. Israel will be relevant to them only if they sense a cultural attachment to Israeli society, a bond worth pursuing because Israel represents a meaningful reality for them. A high-level government taskforce now meets weekly in the Prime Minister's Office to "redefine" the Israel-Diaspora relationship. Formed partly because of the danger of declining donations from world Jewry, the most resonant idea it has raised thus far has been to establish Israeli cultural centers worldwide modeled on the British Council. So while the government thinks in utterly institutional terms, and the Absorption Ministry, seeking new avenues for relevance as aliya trickles to a halt, focuses on expats, perhaps it is time for the government to pause to consider the problem of aliya - and Israel-Diaspora relations more generally - not from the institutional or financial perspective, but from the cultural one. Translating literature and cinema, expanding birthright and similar programs, developing the recently-discussed international Jewish service corps - in a flat world, connecting Jews in consistent, meaningful ways to Israel may be the next best thing to, and a powerful engine for, aliya.