The Answer Isn’t…

Aliyah is the oat bran of the Jewish people. We know it’s good for us. We know we should be having more of it. But truth is, we just find it hard to swallow. And we certainly don’t like it shoved down our throats.

While in Israel last week, I heard several Israeli officials, from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on down, proclaim that increased Jewish immigration to Israel is crucial to the country’s long-term well-being. And each time I heard an Israeli or American Jewish leader say that, I thought: "Uh-oh."

If Israel’s well-being depends on tens of thousands of us Diaspora Jews packing up and moving there, the country is in worse trouble than I thought. The numbers of Jews who immigrate to Israel from Western nations — never a very large figure — has greatly declined of late and shows no signs of reviving.

"Where are they going to come from?" an Israeli official — who preferred not to be identified — asked me. "The ones who had to come here came; the ones who wanted to come here came. There just aren’t that many Jews left to rescue. And even the ones who are in trouble don’t want to come here."

Aliyah from Western countries has never been huge. Israel’s numbers have swelled more as a result of what analysts call the "push" immigration — Jews who have been pushed out of the homelands — rather than from "pull" — Jews who feel drawn to Israel not out of need, but desire.

About 9,200 immigrants arrived in Israel in the first half of 2003, and most of these were pushed there. Over half — 5,100 immigrants — came from the former Soviet Union, 500 arrived from Argentina and 1,500 from Ethiopia. That means approximately 2,100 arrived from the rest of the Jewish world: France, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa and the United States.

These numbers represent a drop of 39 percent, as compared to the same period the previous year. Although many Orthodox Jews and yeshiva students still immigrate to Israel, aliyah from North America is half of what it was in 1984, prior to the outbreak of the first intifada or Palestinian uprising.

The aliyah equation is even more lopsided, especially when balanced against emigration from Israel. Many Jews from the former Soviet Union have actually chosen to return there. Israelis who have any native rights in European countries are seeking passports for themselves and their children.

Last week, an article in Ha’aretz revealed that about 700,000 Israelis actually live outside the country. An earlier survey found that a significant proportion of Israeli youth saw little future for themselves in Israel. A friend of mine, who immigrated to Israel more than 20 years ago from the United States and raised his children there, said he suspects all of his kids will immigrate to America.

Behind the call for a magic carpet of aliyah lay an odd mixture of hope and despair. Aliyah is — excuse the expression — the Hail Mary strategy of an Israeli government that sees no other way out of a looming demographic disaster.

Sharon’s government has advanced no serious long-term strategy for dealing with the fact that within several years, the Palestinian population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean will outnumber the Jewish population. For years, Israelis on the center and the left have pointed out that when this happens, Israel will have to choose between being a Jewish State or being a democratic one.

One solution is for Israel to dismantle Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and return to (roughly) its pre-1967 borders. Another is bringing in more Jews. As ludicrous as it seems given the numbers, that’s the only solution advanced by Sharon in a speech last week to some 5,000 North American Jewish supporters of Israel.

The fact that Sharon’s call for aliyah received a sustained ovation perplexed me. After the speech, I asked various audience members if they planned to take up the prime minister’s call and move to Israel. Of course they thought I was joking.

"Remember the old saying," a journalist friend reminded me. "An American Zionist is someone who gives his own money to send someone else’s kid to Israel."

The situation in Israel is grave. The economy is depressed, security is tight and most Israelis I met were gloomy about their country in the short-term, at least. Anti-Semitism abroad may yet create a wave of "push" aliyah to Israel, but it’s not something you want to depend upon.

"It would be preferable if the Israeli society were to flourish thanks to its own power of attraction and not because of the existential weakness of Diaspora Jewry," said professor Sergio Della Pergola of the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Aliyah is identity politics carried to the extreme. The small percentage of Jews who are actually pulled to live in Israel represents a much larger percentage of Jews who choose not to live in Israel, but who feel close and supportive of it nonetheless. I suspect the decline in one number reflects a decline in the other. As Israel’s own existential situation worsens, both these numbers are bound to deteriorate.

On the way home from Israel late last week, I noticed a counter set up at Ben-Gurion International Airport. A charming American-born woman stood behind an array of informational pamphlets on aliyah. Don’t just visit the dream, the booth advertised, come live it.

I couldn’t help notice that in the three hours I spent in the busy terminal, not a single person visited the woman at her booth. The duty-free counter, needless to say, was packed.