Aliya is a fig tree, not Coca-Cola

Keep Dreaming: Jewish immigration to Israel is something the needs to be cultivated, not sold.

fig tree 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
fig tree 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
One of my favorite things about living in Israel is the huge fig tree I have growing in my tiny backyard, right next to the wild grapes. Together they create an aura of endless possibilities, evoking an era of prophetic fulfillment when, having hammered our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, we will be able to recline absentmindedly on hot summer afternoons under the shade of our vines and our fig trees, enjoying the gifts of prosperity and peace. Throw in the pomegranates thriving nearby and you have the three fruits harvested just last week by those whom Moshe sent to scout out the land, attesting to its bounty.
So my fig tree, with its biblical associations, keeps me dreaming. It’s also taught me a thing or two about encouraging others, living afar, to keep dreaming with me. Hence my allegory of the immigrant and the fig.
ONCE UPON a time, not many years ago, the Jewish Agency launched a 10-year campaign to bring a million new immigrants to Israel. It was put together by prominent businesspeople whose volunteer efforts and unstinting generosity I appreciate beyond words. Nevertheless, when the scheme was unveiled, I cringed. Essentially it was a marketing plan for soap detergent. When its creators then went out and hired a top-notch hi-tech exec to make it happen, I groaned.
Aliya is a fig tree, not Coca-Cola. It needs to be cultivated, not sold.
Needless to say, the campaign was not the success we had hoped for, and as a member of the Jewish Agency Executive, I share in the responsibility for that. While the 19,000 immigrants who arrived in 2010 do constitute a 16-percent increase over the number who came in 2009, they are nowhere near the 100,000 we had set our sights on. Not blind to reality, and more resilient than obtuse, we adopted a new strategic plan. We closed down the Aliya Department altogether.
As promoting and facilitating immigration to Israel has for decades been the mainstay and crowning glory of the agency’s work, accusations that we have abandoned our mandate and betrayed the values upon which we were founded are understandable.
They are also wrong.
Far from deserting the aliya objective, we have developed a long-term stratagem for meeting it. After successfully bringing home untold millions from persecuted communities, there is – fortunately enough – no longer a large reservoir of Jews in need of rescue.
If significant numbers are going to continue arriving here, they will only be coming out of choice. And they will only make that choice if they acquire a commitment to Jewish community and continuity, become enamored of this country, and develop an appetite for both the challenges and the opportunities it offers.
To that end, the Jewish Agency has changed both its focus and its modus operandi. We are investing more in developing a spiral of Israel experiences that will encourage participants to make repeat visits of ever-increasing length. We are devising innovative programs for those in between visits to nurture the seeds of devotion that germinate in each. We are creating frameworks for social activism involving Jews from abroad and their idealistic counterparts here so that together they might change the world and shape the Jewish state in a manner that gives expression to their values and vision. In short, we are educating, not selling, with the expectation that the array of experiences we are offering will lead people to make Israel their home on their own.
STILL, THERE is one element in all this that is missing. With the Jewish Agency retooling, there is no mechanism in place for harvesting the ripening fruit. This brings me back to my tree. For a number of years I’d patiently watch the figs grow with great anticipation, waiting until they were just right for eating. For years I would be disappointed.
Somehow the birds or the bees would inevitably get to them first, or they’d fall to the ground with a messy splat. I’d waited too long. Now I’ve learned, by the feel of it, just when to pick them so that after a day or two in the kitchen, they’ll yield up their luscious fruit.
The moral of the story is that we need to be out there actively feeling around for those who are ripe for aliya. This is the role that the World Zionist Organization intends to play in this story, complementing the efforts of the Jewish Agency. I don’t mean to suggest that the fate awaiting those whom we don’t reach in time is anything nearly as rotten as that of my unpicked figs, but I do believe we have to be active if we are to avoid missing a major opportunity – for them and for us.
There is also a part in this to be played by all of us who live here: ensuring that those who do come are received with open arms. A survey just published by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry reveals that a growing and worrisome number of our youth believe Israel should stop promoting aliya, primarily because they see those arriving as being a burden on the state while taking away jobs and resources that might otherwise go to them. They neither appreciate “the ingathering of the exiles” as a value nor understand the critical strategic importance of increased numbers joining us here.
Of course, to those considering aliya, I would hasten to add that contributing to a secure Jewish future is only a small part of the reason to move here. Much more important is the deep sense of satisfaction that awaits on so many levels. Personally I remember standing on the porch of a modest kibbutz home during the summer of my first Israel experience, looking out upon flourishing fields stretching endlessly to the horizon. There could be nothing more satisfying in life than this, I thought to myself, than taking in the outcome of the efforts of one’s own hands to turn dunam after dunam of barren, stone-saturated soil into fertile, life-bearing earth. Forty years later, the metaphor still works for me. And fortunately, there is plenty of land here yet to be tilled, both literally and fig-uratively.
This week, the Zionist General Council of the WZO and the Assembly and Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency are convening in Jerusalem. We need to set our sights on being as encouraging and welcoming as possible to those who would keep dreaming with us. More than that, all of us, together, need to dedicate ourselves to making of Israel a nation such that those who are ready to roll up their sleeves and join us in turning dream into reality will be inspired to pronounce, as did our scouts more than 3,000 years ago, “We came unto the land to which you sent us. Surely it flows with milk and honey, and this is the fruit of it.”
I have found my fig tree. Together we can help others find theirs. Then, when we are sweaty and thirsty from our labors, someone else can try to sell us a Coke.
The writer is deputy chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive. This column is dedicated to his father, a fig aficionado who revealed its secrets to him. The opinions are his own.