Fundamentally Freund: Introducing the 'Zionist Stimulus Package'

Fundamentally Freund In

A few months ago, the Jewish Agency was blessed with the appointment of a monumental figure to serve as its chairman, the heroic former Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky. It is the kind of inspired choice that almost renews one's confidence in the ability of weary and aging institutions to revitalize their agendas and reenergize themselves. As both an impassioned aliya activist and a veteran politician, Sharansky combines the heart of a campaigner with the head of an administrator. And this is precisely the blend that is needed to inject some new vigor and discipline into the establishment charged with bringing Jews to Israel. But the new chairman certainly has his work cut out for him. The financial crisis in the United States has led to a reordering of the Jewish community's philanthropic priorities, which were already becoming more locally oriented even before the recession hit. And the political and diplomatic onslaught against the Jewish state abroad has, at least in some quarters, made it decidedly less popular to identify with the Zionist cause. But perhaps Sharansky's greatest challenge goes straight to the core of what the agency is all about: how to bring more Jews to Israel at a time of sagging interest in aliya. If I were working at the Jewish Agency, and I had sufficient temerity to offer advice to my boss, here is a memo that I might send to him: Mr. Chairman, Earlier this week, buried away amid the torrent of headlines that regularly besieges us, was a small item that deserves a lot more of our attention. According to data compiled by our friends over at the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, the decade-long slowdown in aliya unfortunately continues apace. Indeed, if you thought the newspaper industry was in steep decline, you should see the latest figures for Jewish immigration. The ministry's statistics show that in the first nine months of this year, the pace of aliya has actually slowed when compared to 2008, which as you know was far from being a banner year in the history of the Return to Zion. From January 1 through September 30, just 11,939 Jews moved here from the Diaspora. At that rate, the total for this year may come in at around 15,000, which is even less than the number of people who think that US President Barack Obama deserved to win the Nobel Peace Prize. And when we put this into historical perspective, the picture becomes even bleaker. For example, 76,766 Jews moved to Israel in 1999. That means there has been a drop of more than 80 percent in 10 years. If the immigration rate had been a stock portfolio, we would have fired its managers long ago. Clearly, we need to do something dramatic to turn this situation around. Just like big banks in America are considered too important to fail, the same holds true for aliya. Israel, like the US Federal Reserve did, needs to implement a bailout. Hence, I suggest that you call for the creation of a "Zionist Stimulus Package," one that would harness the necessary government and private resources for the purpose of kindling anew the Zionist revolution. The first thing I think we need to do is to take a number of creative steps that will underline the centrality and importance of aliya as a core component of Israel's national mission. These might include adopting some of the imaginative ideas put forward by that pesky columnist for The Jerusalem Post - I think his name is Michael Freund, or Freud, or something like that. In any event, he has suggested a couple of ideas worth pursuing. The first is to establish a National Museum of Aliya that would tell the remarkable story of the Ingathering of the Exiles. We could do that right here, at the Jewish Agency's massive headquarters on King George Avenue, right in the heart of Jerusalem. What a message that would send! And then there is another proposal that the bespectacled columnist made: to launch a National Aliya Day, full of pomp and ceremony, to reinforce Israeli society's appreciation for the significance of aliya. You could utilize the occasion to offer an annual "Immigrants of the Year" Award, which would honor those brave souls who have made Israel their home and contributed in some way to making it a better place. This should be followed up by an annual National Conference on Aliya, which would bring together all the private and public organizations that deal with this issue and spark an ongoing national dialogue on the subject. TAKEN TOGETHER, these initiatives would return aliya to its rightful place at the heart of our national agenda. And this guy Freund also had another interesting idea that I think you should consider. He says that if we want to boost the aliya figures, then let's open the door for thousands of "lost Jews" around the world who are seeking to return to Israel and the Jewish people. They include the 7,000 Bnei Menashe of northeastern India, descendants of a lost tribe of Israel; the 15,000 Subbotnik Jews of Russia, whose ancestors converted to Judaism two centuries ago; and the remaining 8,000 Falash Mura in Ethiopia. Right there you have 30,000 people who want to come here now. That is twice the number of immigrants that we will otherwise get this year. At a time when the aliya rate is in steady decline, what could be more logical, and more Zionist, than to open our collective door and let them in? Sure, there are obstacles in the way, and our vaunted bureaucracy won't make it easy. But you, more than anyone, Chairman Sharansky, have demonstrated that when it comes to making aliya, there is no hurdle that cannot be overcome.