Erdan: Israel needs a 'mental shift' to bring olim, connect to Diaspora

Co-chair of Knesset Caucus for Western Aliya is intent on increasing immigration.

erdan gilad aj 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
erdan gilad aj 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
"Israel needs more aliya. That's our vision for the Jewish state, and it will make this country more successful," says Likud MK Gilad Erdan, co-chair with Kadima MK Yoel Hasson of the Knesset Caucus for Western Aliya. Still, Erdan acknowledges, nearly all Jews living outside Israel reside in Western countries, and they aren't hurrying to make aliya. While organizations such as Nefesh B'Nefesh work diligently to connect olim to one another and to find jobs for them, and the Jewish Agency tries to bring immigrants in communal groups rather than as individuals, these recent improvements to the process have not brought aliya to the dramatic levels Erdan wants. That's why aliya policy needs "a mental revolution. This can't come from the Knesset, but I think our caucus can create pressure on the next prime minister. We have to spread knowledge about Israel in the Diaspora. I'm not sure the Foreign Ministry, or even the Jewish Agency, have what it takes to teach about Israel and the Zionist dream in terms that can be heard in the US or Britain," he says. The Knesset Caucus for Western Aliya was founded earlier this year, but has been relatively inactive as its chairmen were kept busy in senior positions in their respective parties. Hasson is the outgoing chairman of World Kadima and incoming coalition chairman, and Erdan served as chairman of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee until last week. Now Erdan plans to become active in encouraging Western aliya. While he is impressed by the "excellent work" of private organizations such as Nefesh B'Nefesh and Ami, he believes that significantly increasing aliya - or at least creating a deeper connection between Israel and the Diaspora - will require a new effort. "The Zionists said Israel is the only place in the world to which Jews could flee when they're hunted," he explains. "But in the English-speaking countries, especially in the US, this threat never materialized, and it doesn't look like it ever will." At the same time, the mobilizing power of Israeli vulnerability is reduced. "Israel doesn't look anymore like a country in existential danger that needs a mobilized Diaspora to fight for it. Israel itself looks at its future differently now, so the feeling of emergency [among Diaspora Jews] is weaker." Yet, while a sense of shared danger is disappearing in the Diaspora, there are other ways to connect to Jews in the West, he believes. "You don't establish a Knesset caucus unless there's some gap, something more that can be done." Beyond the new "mental revolution," the caucus will investigate more concrete ways to connect to the Diaspora. This involves making the experience of aliya more welcoming by removing bureaucratic obstacles, connecting olim to local communities and offering new financial incentives, he says. "If you're a lawyer or an optometrist, for example, we want to make sure you can start working in your profession without being kept out by all sorts of professional guilds. To help with local problems, perhaps we could create a system where an MK could be an address for an area, or for a group of families. To get olim working in those first critical years, we need to offer employers a financial incentive through the National Insurance Institute to employ them," Erdan says. These and other ideas will be examined in the coming months by the caucus. "It's nice to think that all the world's Jews want to come to Israel, and that this is enough to bring them, but it's not true," he laments. "Surveys show that even among Israeli youth, Israel is no longer seen as fighting for its survival, and the world has turned into a global village offering them opportunities all over the world. But this country is strong, modern, and we can offer competitive incentives. This is the American model, and we don't have to be embarrassed to use it. Even if someone comes to us for the tax breaks, Israel will become his home down the road." While Israel tries to teach about itself to the world's Jews, Israelis are themselves guilty of ignorance toward the Diaspora, Erdan admits. Having passed through all levels of the Israeli education system, "I myself only got to a general course on American history in my master's studies," he says. Erdan laments that this ignorance prevents Israel from learning important lessons from the Diaspora. "When I was younger, in yeshiva, I was dead-set against Reform and Conservative Judaism. But then I went backpacking in the Far East, and I saw our kids going to Dharamsala [a northern Indian town that is the seat of Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama] to find spirituality. "Israel's religious parties only take care of their own, and the media constantly shows [the Orthodox sector] as getting more than its share of the pie, so our young people are antagonistic toward anything that smells like Judaism. Between that and the lack of Jewish studies in the education system, today a child growing up in a Jewish community in America knows more [about Judaism] than those being raised in the education system in Israel. This terrifies me. Without Judaism there won't be a state of Israel." A traditional Jew, Erdan clarifies that "I'm not for adopting the Reform model, but [Israel should look at] the existence of other systems that allow people to connect to Judaism and study the beautiful sides of Jewish tradition. This is a good thing. I can't rule out that we should be studying the American educational model."