Analysis: What kind of aliya is best to ensure the survival of the Jewish people?

Aliya is down and that's bad news. But aliya from English-speaking countries is up and that's good news; isn't it?

US olim 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
US olim 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Aliya is down and that's bad news. But aliya from English-speaking countries is up and that's good news; isn't it? But what constitutes good news on the aliya front? For years, we've become accustomed to late-December headlines telling how many Jews took the plunge and decided to come to Zion from the four corners of the globe. That's what they are in the end - a number. Israel doesn't have a constitution, but the Law of Return, one of its most fundamental documents, defines the nation's raison d'etre - to be a haven for the entire Jewish people. This is Israel's DNA. But almost six decades after the country's rebirth, the definitions of statehood, emigration, nationality, citizenship, borders and travel have been revolutionized, while the state's and the Jewish Agency's definition of aliya is still stuck in the early '50s. Take some fundamental questions: Is aliya automatically the best solution to an outbreak of anti-Semitism anywhere in the world, or should Jews maybe stick around and fight? Should Israel encourage the younger generation in successful communities to emigrate when it might deprive that particular outpost of the Diaspora of its best and brightest? And should we be flexible with our definitions of Jewishness just to boost the aliya numbers? Does that mean accepting as citizens every tribe and indigenous people who have memories of their great-grandmothers lighting candles? Moreover, what will we do when the reservoir of potential olim runs out, begin converting foreign workers so we can keep the aliya machine running? Sometimes it seems as if Israeli politicians want to have it both ways: to enjoy the support of strong and influential Jewish communities in places like the US and Britain, and to tell the children of these communities that the only place they belong in is Israel. That certainly was the mixed message that Jewish Agency head Ze'ev Bielski was broadcasting when he told last year's annual General Assembly of North American Jewry in a closed meeting that Jews only have a future in Israel. Perhaps he's right, but he won't say it out loud, nor will he say the opposite. It's an issue that is much too important to be left to an individual functionary, but it is not being addressed anywhere in the Israeli government or by the senior leadership of any major Diaspora community. The two biggest initiatives established over the last decade to link the Diaspora and Israel have been birthright israel/Taglit and Nefesh B'Nefesh. Both were dreamt up by private sector activists and donors, with the Jewish Agency and the government tagging along. Did anyone sit down and think about the implications of these ventures? There is even a certain contradiction between the two, with birthright/Taglit designed to return Jewish teenagers to their communities with an imbued sense of their Jewish heritage, while Nefesh B'Nefesh is helping them leave those very communities. In a world where tens of millions emigrate annually between continents in search of work and a better life, and people shuttle weekly between homes and offices thousands of miles apart, the concept of aliya is in urgent need of an update. Rapid changes are already taking place in the field. The word yordim has lost much of its stigma; many Israelis who chose to live abroad are now regarded as success stories, and the old neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv were glowing last week with Christmas decorations, having been colonized by foreign workers. You'll notice we've managed to get through a whole column on citizenship without referring even once to the Palestinian question. One New Year's resolution that Israel and Diaspora leaders should be making is that before anyone trumpets or laments next year's aliya statistics, a serious discussion will have begun on what kind of aliya the Jewish people really wants and needs.