Fundamentally Freund: How to reverse the decline in aliya

The best way to mark Israel's 60th anniversary is to recommit ourselves to encouraging aliya.

michael freund 88 (photo credit: )
michael freund 88
(photo credit: )
What a sight to behold. This past Sunday, the entire Israeli cabinet convened for a special session dedicated to the environment. But it wasn't just any ordinary governmental get-together. Forgoing the usual setting in the Prime Minister's Office, the ministers instead made their way north to Beit Shearim, in the lower Galilee, where they crowded together inside a large, illuminated cave and held forth on various issues. The rather unusual choice of venue was ostensibly intended to underline the government's commitment to preserving the ecosystem. As Prime Minister Ehud Olmert put it, the goal was "to tell all of the country's citizens that we love the country and its natural resources, and that these must be safeguarded as a matter of routine." And so, in the spirit of the day, or perhaps under the influence of the remarkable scenery, the cabinet members backed proposals to establish camping sites and bicycle paths throughout the country and stressed the need to respect the wonders of Creation. Cynics will no doubt view this as a transparent public-relations exercise intended to boost the sagging popularity of the government. After all, there is no better way to score a few points, and earn some much-needed positive headlines, than to embrace the cause of nature. Nonetheless, that doesn't take away from the value of the exercise itself. For, however fleetingly, it concentrated the minds of decision-makers, the media and the public, on the ever-important issue of our natural surroundings. And that is surely a good thing. In fact, it is such a good thing, that it is time for the government to take things a step further and start using a similar approach to train the spotlight on matters of even greater concern to the future of this country. A good place to start would be with aliya, which is no less an issue of national security than borders, diplomacy or military defense. ANY FIRST-YEAR economics student will tell you that mass immigration, generally speaking, serves as an engine of economic growth, one that spurs long-term expansion across a wide range of industries and fields. More importantly, it is a fundamental pillar of Israeli society, one that represents the raison d'etre of this country. But despite its importance to the vitality of the state, aliya is a subject that the government has yet to tackle seriously. Indeed, for nearly a decade, the number of Jews immigrating to Israel each year has been diminishing, falling from 76,766 in 1999 to just 18,129 in 2007 according to Jewish Agency statistics. That is a drop of more than 76 percent in just eight years. Much of the drop, of course, is because aliya from the former Soviet Union has all but dried up, going from 50,816 in 2000 to just 6,502 last year, a decline of more than 87 percent. At the same time, there is no mass movement afoot in places such as the United States, France and England, where most of Diaspora Jewry remains comfortably ensconced. If aliya to Israel were measured in terms of a stock price, we would clearly conclude that something is amiss. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and that is why it is time to start thinking about aliya outside of the box. WITH A dash of creativity and some good old-fashioned vision, solutions can be found to reverse this dangerous trend. As a first step, the government should convene a special day-long cabinet session at an absorption center for new immigrants in order to underline the nation's ongoing devotion to aliya. The immigrants themselves, and their representatives, should be given a chance to speak and to present suggestions and ideas for improving the process from start to finish. But instead of a one-time event, this discussion should be used to launch a national dialogue about the centrality and future of aliya, one that would give greater voice to private groups such as Nefesh B'Nefesh, Ami and Shavei Israel, the latter of which I chair. There could be no better way to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state than to recommit ourselves as a nation to encouraging and promoting Jewish immigration. Practically, there is a simple and immediate step the government could take to boost the number of new immigrants: open the door to communities of "lost Jews" seeking to return to the Jewish people. There are thousands of them, from the 8,000 Falash Mura still in Ethiopia hoping to come here, to the 15,000 Subbotnik Jews of the former Soviet Union, to the 7,000 Bnei Menashe of northeastern India. The Subbotnik Jews are descendants of Russian peasants who converted to Judaism two centuries ago, and the Bnei Menashe are remnants of a lost tribe of Israel. Taken together, these three groups - the remaining Falash Mura, the Subbotnik Jews and the Bnei Menashe - number some 30,000, all of whom wish to tie their fate with the people of Israel, return to Judaism and make aliya. Thus far, the government has been hesitant to let them in, citing socioeconomic concerns and questions about their status. But swinging open the door for them in this, the 60th year of the Jewish state, would send a clear signal that the "ingathering of the exiles" remains firmly ensconced in our nation's vision and sense of purpose. And such a historic move would inspire other Jews worldwide, reminding them - and many of our fellow Israelis, too - that our fate as a people is in this Land, and this Land alone. So let's stop dilly-dallying and get to work. The time has come to bring our lost brethren home. The writer is chairman of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based group that assists 'lost Jews' seeking to return to the Jewish people.