Keep dreaming: Head-in-the-sand Zionism

Even when Jews do bolt their countries of birth, it’s generally not to the Land of Israel.

JAFI head Natan Sharansky wishes success yesterday in Paris to French Jews about to make aliya. (photo credit: JAFI)
JAFI head Natan Sharansky wishes success yesterday in Paris to French Jews about to make aliya.
(photo credit: JAFI)
Another prognosis destined for the trash can of prophesy. In the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s convincing showing in the UK elections, pundits began predicting a wave of aliya from Britain, urging the hapless Jewish citizens of the Commonwealth to make their way to the one country in the world that wants them and where they’d be safe. In their myopic view, the strong support for Labour was fueled by its leader’s alleged antisemitism and pro-Palestinian views – as if the Brits had nothing else on their minds when going to the polls.
I only hope they’ll still be room for them here after the mass migration from the United States forecast following Donald Trump’s victory, which followed fast on the heels of the yet-to-be realized projection of a mass exodus of French Jews due to the spike in attacks on them.
Alas, statistics tell a different story – as they have for over a century. Even at its peak in 2015, French aliya brought us just 7,500 newcomers. While quadruple the number that had arrived in previous years due to the untiring efforts of those charged with encouraging and absorbing the new immigrants, they constituted only 1.5% of the estimated 500,000 French Jews.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Disappointed, maybe, but not surprised. Even when Jews do bolt their countries of birth, it’s generally not to the Land of Israel. Less than 3% of the 2.5 million who left Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1914 came to rebuild our ancient homeland. And in the last half-century, while the Jewish population of South Africa declined from an estimated 135,000 to 70,000, only some 17,000 made their way here. Or take Venezuela. While the Jewish population dropped from an estimated 30,000 in 2000 to some 7,500 today, during most of those years fewer than 100 members of the community made their way to Israel, rather than to Miami or Panama.
So much for the cult of catastrophe that has buoyed the spirits of head-in-the-sand Zionists since Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress 120 years ago.
Refusing to be confused by the facts, there are still those out there preaching the negation of the Gola (Exile), convinced that highlighting the fragility of Jewish life in Galut will increase the number who choose to come home.
That classic doomsday Zionism didn’t die with Ben-Gurion. A position paper recently prepared by a prominent Zionist leader argues that we need to educate Jewish youngsters throughout the Diaspora toward a feeling of alienation from the societies in which they live. Can you imagine even those rabbis who are Israel’s staunchest supporters preaching to their congregants that they will never be at home in America? If they did, the message would be lost on my niece in Brooklyn – and on the hundreds of thousands like her – who told me that kids in her high school class lied on their college applications that they were Jewish because they believed that would help them get into the best universities.
Even when antisemitism is recognized it has proven itself an insufficient impetus for moving to the Promised Land.
Two days ago, this paper reported that a lawsuit had been filed against San Francisco State University for its “long and extensive history of cultivating antisemitism and overt discrimination against Jewish students.” That should have the local Jewish community packing its bags, right? I checked the figures. Over the past half-decade, an average of 34 Jews a year left the Bay Area for Israel, a meager 0.0087% of the estimated local Jewish population of 391,500.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’d love to see Jews moving to Israel en masse. But that’s not going to happen because of an election in one country or an outbreak of antisemitism in another. If we are going to increase the number of Jews coming to Israel, we are going to have to do two things: a) inculcate a passion for living a full Jewish life profoundly bound to the Jewish collective, and b) ensure that Israel is the place with the greatest potential for doing that. At present, that’s a hard sell.
Also reported in the paper this week was the initiative being advanced by Shas and United Torah Judaism to have the cabinet repeal what 18 months ago was hailed as its historic decision to grant a modicum of recognition to the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism by providing them with a measure of equality at the Western Wall. It doesn’t matter how many would actually pray there. The symbolic significance of such a retraction, alongside the entrenched discrimination against non-Orthodox practice in matters ranging from conversion to matrimony to education, sends a clear and estranging message to the vast majority of Jews across the world.
But this only makes the tasks at hand all the more important: connecting young Jews everywhere to their heritage and their homeland, as well as ensuring that homeland will feel like home to the entirety of the multi-faceted Jewish people. As these undertakings are the mutual responsibility of Jews in Israel and abroad, it is gratifying to know that we have steadfast partners throughout the world prepared to shoulder the responsibility.
Many of them will be coming to Israel next week for meetings of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, itself a partnership of the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Federations of North America and Keren Hayesod. Rather than waiting in vain with their heads in the sand for antisemitism to do the work for them, rather than perpetuating a Zionism rooted in insecurity and fear, they will be promoting a positive agenda for ensuring the future of a connected, committed, global Jewish people with a strong Israel at its center.
The writer is the deputy chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a member of the Zionist Executive, and the senior representative to Israel’s National Institutions on behalf of the worldwide Masorti/Conservative movement.
The views expressed herein are his own.
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