Diaspora Week: The questions we should ask ourselves - Opinion

Dr. Haim Ben Yakov, director general of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, discusses the new reality for Jews in the Euro-Asian region.

  Dr. Haim Ben Yaakov (photo credit: EURO-ASIAN JEWISH CONGRESS (EAJC))
Dr. Haim Ben Yaakov

Multiple global processes, including a large-scale immigration crisis, have affected Jewish life in the countries of the Euro-Asian region. As a result, a new reality has emerged with complex issues that need to be addressed. Marking this year's Diaspora Week, we once more turn our eyes to the current problems of post-Soviet Jewry.

During the past year, the Jewish communities of Ukraine and Russia were divided into three parts. First – those who immigrated to Israel. Despite a significant number of repatriates last year, we know that fewer people chose this option than expected. This leads us to the second group: those who migrated to countries in Western Europe, North America, and other FSU states. And finally, the third group: those who, despite circumstances, decided or were forced to stay for whatever reason.

Although we understand the main directions of Jewish migration, estimating the numbers is much more challenging. Unlike the first group, where we have exact figures for Israel (in 2022, about 60,000 people made Aliyah), it is as easy to identify Jews in the flow of migrants to other countries.

This complex migration picture has presented the state of Israel, European and American Jewry, as well as regional and international Jewish organizations, the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress included, with many complex questions.

The first question is what to do with the communities that chose to stay. Their activities have been significantly reduced and reformatted. However, many Jews have remained in their communities, which have become places of unity and much-needed assistance. At the same time, we are unable to guarantee the safety of these Jews today. It raises an ethical dilemma. Should we encourage emigration to Israel or other safer places or continue supporting local activities? And if we support, to what extent, given that activities, though much reduced, have narrowed to direct questions of survival and most basic needs. This issue is exacerbated by a significant loss in the solvency of the population and local donors who used to take an active part in financing Jewish life.

The second question is what do we do with Jewish refugees in Europe? Will they assimilate into the local non-Jewish society, integrate into the system of existing Jewish communities (and can those communities accept them), or remain a separate, autonomous unit, forming their own institutions?

And once more, should we motivate them to make Aliyah, while the large wave of the last year raised the same old question: is Israel ready to accept new waves of olim?

Last year we arranged a dedicated forum, which showed that the repatriates of the latest wave face not only major bureaucratic problems and inflexibility of the state but also a lack of understanding of the needs of today's olim, which questions the efficiency and relevancy of the absorption processes. While the Israeli system continues to work according to old patterns, the situation's urgency and the changed face of repatriation require new approaches and reforms.

The conflicts and tensions over this issue peak in light of the considerable debate over changing the Law of Return and the abolition of the so-called "grandchildren clause."

We believe that in this matter, it is necessary to consider the specifics of the post-Soviet Jewry identity.

For the majority to consider themselves Jewish means belonging to the Jewish nation, its history, culture, and traditions (about 70%).

As former President of the Supreme Court of Israel, Aharon Barak, stated during the conference organized by the EAJC and the Jerusalem Post, the Law of Return should be treated as the Basic Law, given its utmost importance and symbolism for the State of Israel.

Hence, any change to it should reflect the deep consensus in society and be carried out with great caution. We couldn't agree more. The Euro-Asian Jewish Congress is working to maintain an in-depth and comprehensive discussion regarding a possible change in the Law of Return due to its uniqueness and the obligation to voice the opinion of the Diaspora.

We recently met with the Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Amichai Chikli, and Minister of Aliyah and Integration, Ofir Sofer, where we discussed the cooperation between our groups. We also conveyed the message that Jewish leaders all over the world pin their hopes and expect to see thoughtful and balanced policy regarding Diaspora relations.

In the last decade, the State of Israel has become, in the eyes of many Jews from the Diaspora, a symbol of a prosperous country and a source of inspiration and pride. According to surveys we conducted in 2019, the State of Israel would have enjoyed the solidarity and support of an absolute majority of the Jews of the former Soviet Union communities. But in the years since then, many voices of concern and doubt have also been heard. Lack of understanding and genuine fear of the ongoing political crisis, along with difficulties integrating into the labor market, the cost of living, housing prices, etc., cause many potential immigrants to look for and, to a large extent, find better conditions elsewhere.

It is in our power to change the absorption system, upgrade it according to modern criteria and improve the experience of the immigrants during their initial stages of life in Israel. And even more crucial – to overcome the current political crisis. It's time to demonstrate responsibility and cease the feeling of hostility and polarization. The Jewish world watches us with great expectations. They need us to be strong, united, and dependable. And we must stand the test.

Dr. Haim Ben Yakov is Director General of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.