TEL AVIV (JTA) – Founded with the express purpose of “ingathering of the exiles” – but with no more large groups of Jews to save – Israel is facing the end of the era of mass aliyah.
Recent reports that the Jewish Agency for Israel was considering shutting down its flagship aliyah department have prompted discussion about the future of immigration to Israel even as agency officials quickly denied the department was closing.
“Israel cannot throw away the idea of aliyah because it is one of basics of the ideology of having a Jewish state,” said David Raz, a former Jewish Agency emissary abroad. “You have to create a situation that people will want to come, from the element of being together with Jews. But it’s not simple. There is a trickle, but basically from the free world the majority does not want to come.”
The crux of the matter is that immigration of necessity – also called “push aliyah” – is largely at its end, with few Jews left in the Diaspora who need the Jewish state as a haven from persecution or dire economic straits. The Jews of the Arab world fled to Israel in the 1950s, Russian-speaking Jews flocked here in the 1990s and Ethiopians came over the course of the past 25 years.
With nothing pushing mass immigration of Jews today, all that remains are the few immigrants of choice – also known as “pull” immigrants. Officials involved with aliyah say they expect no more than 15,000 or so new immigrants to Israel this year.
“You have Jews in the West who live very comfortably under pluralistic governments that give them unprecedented social and economic opportunities and let them live Jewish lives,” said Uzi Rebhun, a demographer at Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry. “In turn, aliyah to Israel has gone down.”
With the pool of potential push immigrants drying up, officials like Oded Salomon, the director-general of aliyah and absorption for the Jewish Agency, are thinking about how to pull Jews to Israel in new and different ways.
Salomon says the focus now is on educational programs that bring young Jews to Israel in the hope of fostering lifelong connections to the Jewish state and creating new immigrants.
The Jewish Agency wants to create a special visa for visiting Diaspora Jews who want to explore the idea of aliyah by living in Israel for a few months. Such arrivals would be assisted with finding volunteer or work positions and Hebrew study.
Aliyah officials also are embracing the notion of “flexible aliyah” in which immigrants split their time between Israel and the Diaspora. About 10 percent of immigrants who have made aliyah with the assistance of Nefesh B’Nefesh, which facilitates aliyah from North America and Britain with cash grants and assistance, divide their time between Israel and jobs abroad.
Other ideas to attract a new kind of aliyah being discussed include retirement communities near Eilat for American Jewish retirees to the creation of an all-French-speaking town.
Israel has experienced other periods of sluggish immigration, such as the 1970s and 1980s, but in those eras there were large communities of Jews unable to emigrate and come to the Jewish state, such as those in the Soviet Union.
Today, however, the Jews who remain in the former Soviet Union are either too old to immigrate or prefer to stay put in countries where improved economies and more democratic freedoms have made life in the Diaspora more attractive.
Mass immigration from Ethiopia – where politics, economics and religious ideology sent tens of thousands of Jews to Israel over the past quarter century – is expected to end some time this summer. The Jewish Agency plans to shut its Ethiopian offices and bring home its staff when the last arrivals come.
Yuli Edelstein, the former Soviet refusnik and prisoner of Zion who later served as Israel’s absorption minister, said Israel must make sure it can provide both meaningful professional opportunities and meaningful Jewish life if it wants to see significant immigration to the country.
“This is a real period of rethinking,” Edelstein told JTA, noting the economic and professional opportunities Jews have in the West. “Without a Jewish motivation for being here, it will be much more difficult to attract people.”
Among Israelis, too, the ethos of aliyah has dampened in recent years, a far cry from when it was described by the drafters of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 as the part of the vision of “the prophets of Israel.”
“I don’t think aliyah is on the agenda of Israeli society,” Rebhun said.
Despite the country’s founding mission, he said, “Sixty years after the State of Israel was established, most Jews still live outside of Israel.”
Sergio DellaPergola, a demographer from Hebrew University who also is associated with the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, says many potential immigrants are put off by the bureaucracy and difficulties of Israeli life, not to mention Israel’s security situation.
DellaPergola says major reforms are needed to help ease the path of immigrants, especially when it comes to accepting degrees and professional credentials earned abroad.
Despite plans for a new set of tax breaks for new immigrants and other ideas to help pave the way for potential immigrants, at the end of the day immigrants will come to Israel only if they see in the Jewish state the promise of a fulfilling Jewish life, DellaPergola said.
“If it’s a country just like any other,” he said, “then why come here?”