President Donald Trump signs an executive order to impose tighter vetting of travelers entering the United States on Jan. 27. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Trump deserves credit for forcing a necessary immigration debate


There is nothing immoral about building a wall. A wall is a tool. Its aim is to separate between neighbors. To stop a ball from flying into your precious garden, to make it tougher for anyone to peep into your house, to prevent a child from walking without care into your swimming pool. Or to stop illegal immigrants from entering a country such as the United States.

There is also nothing immoral about a country wanting to keep tab on the people entering it. A country is defined by its citizenry and by its laws and by its borders. If there are no borders, there are no countries. Would a world with no countries be better than the one we have now? I doubt that. But even if the answer to this question is positive, no one can force a certain country to be the first one to forgo its borders – and test the proposition that a world without countries is a better world.

There is nothing immoral about a country having an immigration policy. In fact, all countries have immigration policies. Some stricter, some more loose. Some emphasize cultural characteristics; some emphasize economic abilities. Moreover: a country can alter its immigration policies – if its citizens, represented by their political leaders, decide that a new era requires a new policy.

Even using harsh language is not always a bad idea. At times, it is necessary to signal that the intentions of a leader are serious. At times, it is necessary for people in other countries to understand that they better look for options other than the country they thought about if they wish to immigrate.

Banning immigration from a certain country or region, banning immigration of people who speak a certain language, have a certain color, believe in a certain God, is what sovereign countries often do explicitly or implicitly. Of course, if a country bans black people, or Jews, or poor people, or Muslims, or citizens of Mexico, from entering it – this country tells us something about itself: that it favors a certain religion, or a certain race, or an economic status. That it has a prejudice against a religion, or a race, or an economic status. In other words: the rules with which a country governs its entry gate reflect on the country no less than they reflect on the people barred (or allowed) from getting in.

The Trump administration seems to want to reduce the number of people from certain backgrounds who enter the US. It also seems to want to make it harder for anyone to enter the US illegally. Both goals could be legitimate. Are possibly wise. Are arguably feasible.

Still, there is a debate – and as usual, it is confused, and noisy, and chaotic. In fact, no less chaotic than Trump himself.

What’s the debate all about?

In truth, the debate is about (or ought to be about) two important things and one unimportant (but potentially important) thing:

1. Important: Is the policy advocated by the Trump administration wise? Is it wise to limit the number of immigrants? And is it wise to limit the number of immigrants from Yemen or Iraq?

2. Important: Does the policy – the way it is devised, and even more so the way it is sold and advertised – reflect the values America stands for?

3. Not so important: Was the Trump administration efficient and savvy in implementing the new policy in the way it did?

Obviously, the debate about the third question is the easiest debate, and the most common. That is, because we all tend to argue about the things we see before our eyes. For example, a family that already seems to have its license to enter the US when it is stopped at the airport. For example, a court having to deal with a blunder at airports.

And, of course, for a certain family, or a certain person, the question of efficiency can make a huge difference. But for the nation the question of a policy’s initial efficiency is not the most important. We witnessed this with the initial blunder of the Obamacare website, and we witness it again today, with Trump’s initial immigration policy blunder. There is a tendency to confuse a debate about a policy with a debate about competence.

But these two debates are different. That is why you hardly ever see people who argue that Obamacare is great, only the Obama administration was not the right administration to implement it – and that is why you will hardly ever see people arguing that the Trump policy is great, only that the Trump administration is not the right administration to implement it. Generally speaking, the people who become angry with the implementation of a plan, with the competence, or lack thereof, of the administration, are the same people who oppose the policy to begin with. Only it is more convenient for many of them to talk about competence than to talk about their real motives – to oppose the policy itself.

So leaving competence aside (it is pretty clear that competence was not quite there when the president implemented his hastily crafted plan) we are still left with the two important questions: is the Trump policy on immigration wise? does the Trump policy on immigration reflect the values of America?

Is it wise?

In some ways, it certainly is. Walls work. Making immigration more difficult stops people from coming in. In some ways, questions remain: why Yemen and not Pakistan? Why Iraq and not Saudi Arabia? In some ways, it depends on one’s goals: Is it Trump’s goal to prevent excellent Muslim engineers from coming to work in the US? This is a question of weighing priorities. One could say: This is not economically wise (because the people of the US want good engineers to come to the country). One could also say: This is culturally wise (because the people of the US want to preserve a certain cultural coherence – and a large Muslim community disrupts such coherence).

Does it reflect America’s values?

In some ways, it certainly does. America voted for Donald Trump knowing full well what he intends to do. If the values of America are the values of Americans – and if Americans voted for the exact policy Trump is currently implementing – then the policy reflects what are currently the values of the American people.

In some ways, questions remain: Does current-day America believe in profiling groups rather than looking at specific persons? Does it judge people by their religious beliefs and life circumstances rather than their behavior? Does it speak in such a dismissive way about other people, who were not lucky enough to be born American citizens? Half of America doesn’t seem to want to do these things, and their values are also American values.

In some ways, it depends not strictly on values but rather on one’s evaluation of risks: All Americans want to save American lives, and all Americans feel for the refugees from war-torn Syria, but not all Americans agree about the level of risk America would be taking, or ought to be taking, in letting refugees from Syria enter the country. The values – keeping America safe and helping refuges – are shared. The risk assessment makes the difference.

So what is the bottom line of all of these points?

A. That immigration policy is complicated. In fact, it is one of the most complicated acts of any government. Crafting an immigration policy is a balancing act for any society. The debate about immigration can be harsh, but at bottom it is a healthy debate, because it helps clarify for the people of any country what is the cultural environment they prefer as they envision the future of their country. With all the many problems that rightly alarm the critics of Trump, the new president deserves some credit for refusing to let the current status quo (and more than an ounce of intellectual and bureaucratic laziness) shape America’s cultural future.

B. That hollow slogans cannot capture the complexity of this matter – neither Trump’s slogans, nor his critics’. Trump, by being blunt and contrarian, makes it hard to agree with his policies which seem to be lacking in thoughtfulness and compassion and respect for people whose only sin is to want to join the American bandwagon. His harshest critics, by failing to differentiate between what is reasonable (having a secure border) and what is questionable (talking derogatively about Muslims), also make it hard for Americans to trust their judgment.

From Grizzly Bears to Gaza Rockets: Alaskan olim head for Israel


Rebecca Scoggin lived in a lot of places growing up: Juneau, Nome, Fairbanks, Homer, Anchorage. But except for the two years she lived in Seattle after high school, she never lived outside Alaska.

At least she hadn’t until a few months ago. Inspired by a Birthright trip she took at age 19, Scoggin decided to pick up and move to Tel Aviv.

“It was kind of a random decision. There was no real reason for it,” Scoggin, 23, told JTA in a recent phone interview from Anchorage, where she was back visiting family. “I fell in love with Tel Aviv and sun. It’s become more home to me than any other place.”

Scoggin is not your typical immigrant to Israel, and not just because she hails from the 49th state. Scoggin has no family in the Holy Land, hasn’t had much Judaism in her life and has a Christian father. But something drew her to Israel.

“I’m not religious, I grew up celebrating Christmas my whole life, but I do feel that connection to my land,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s my Jewishness or if I just like the heat.”

Scoggin is one of several Jews from Alaska immigrating to Israel this year. Among the others making aliyah are a 51-year-old CT scan-MRI technician who wants to get away from the ice; a 51-year-old expert on refugee resettlement who is relocating with her son and Scottish husband; and a 58-year-old former corrections officer and deputy sheriff from Anchorage.

“It’s not every day that we are privileged to take care of new olim from Alaska,” said Erez Halfon, vice chairman of Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization used by the Israeli government  to handle the logistics of U.S. immigration to Israel. “It’s astounding and inspiring to me that Jews living in a kind of paradise, with a comfortable and luxurious life, are deciding to leave home, work, community and friends to move to the other side of the world — especially these days when Israel is under fire.”

The technician, Donn Ungar, whose aliyah flight left from New York on Monday, says he’s not nervous about going to Israel despite the rocket fire from Gaza.

“It’s crazy over there now, but it doesn’t change my decision at all,” Ungar said. “It’s not a reason not to go there. I know they have wars. I’m going to be a part of Israel and a part of the community. You can’t pick and choose.”

Karen Ferguson, director of the refugee program at Catholic Social Services in Anchorage, where she works with refugees from Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Bhutan and Burma, has a similar take. She will be moving to Haifa in August with her 13-year-old son, to be followed in December by her husband, Stewart.

“I don’t think you can pick a time and hope that will be a time of peaceful tranquility in Israel and say that’s when you’re going to move,” Ferguson said. “This is the reality of Israel. We’re going there to immigrate and be part of the country. You have to take the country for all it is — the good and the bad.”

Ferguson’s move will be the latest stop in a lifetime marked, she says, by “a desire for change and adventure.”

After meeting her Scottish, non-Jewish husband in Ohio and marrying in Nova Scotia, Canada, the couple soon moved to the Pacific island nation of Samoa, where their daughter was born. When they moved to Anchorage 17 years ago, they planned to stay just a year or two.

But with good jobs, young kids and a fondness for catching their own wild salmon, they decided to stay put for a while.

Every year the family catches up to 55 pounds of salmon (their legal limit) using dipnet fishing: Stewart affixes a large, circular net to the end of a long pole, then dips it into the ocean where the salmon swim into an inlet. Karen chops off the heads, guts the fish and takes the meat to a facility that turns it into lox and smoked salmon and filets. The family hasn’t had to buy salmon in 15 years, Ferguson says.

But now they’re ready to say “So long, and thanks for all the fish.” With their daughter off to college and their son about to start high school, they’re set for a new phase in their lives.

“We’re in this window of opportunity now,” Ferguson said. “We could continue doing what we’re doing or try and do something different. My husband and I decided we really wanted to take on new horizons.”

 

So why Israel?

“I haven’t quite figured out how to articulate it. It’s a place I would love to have lived in and been a part of,” said Ferguson, who has raised her children as Jews, though her husband has not converted.

“There’s just something about Israel that is both dynamic and magnetic. The intellectual and historical experiences when I’m there are very challenging. And for me, I grew up never being around very many Jews. We were a very secular Jewish family. I went to an Episcopalian boarding school. I work for Catholic Social Services. There’s something really appealing for once about being among my own and having the holidays be the Jewish holidays.”

Unlike many immigrants, Ferguson says she’s not necessarily thinking about Israel as a final destination. She will be starting a master’s program in peace and conflict management at Haifa University; her husband will telecommute to his job doing telemedicine for small, rural communities around Alaska.

“We’re going to Israel looking for a connection and a place to be our next home,” she said. “You really can’t predict well whether a place you stay for a while will become your home. Things unfold for you.”

That was how Ungar ended up spending 17 years in Alaska. He decided to move there after falling in love with it while on vacation from Florida, found work quickly and made good friends. But after a brutally cold winter three years ago that never seemed to end, Ungar, who is single, began thinking about an early retirement destination. He wanted someplace simple and inexpensive.

But Israel, where his family unsuccessfully tried living for a few months in 1971 and where Ungar now has a brother and other relatives, kept popping into his head. Ungar went there on a three-week vacation in February and was smitten.

“The energy just felt amazing,” he said. “That’s what brought me to Alaska in the first place — the feeling that this is where I should be at that point in my life. Now I was feeling that for Israel. I’ve learned to listen to that little voice in my head.”

So he contacted aliyah authorities, packed up and got rid of his most prized Alaska possession: a fur bomber jacket. It was the warmest thing he ever owned.

“People say to me, ‘Why are you going?’ ” he said. “I say, ‘I have no idea. It’s just where I’m supposed to be.’”

NGO: Eritrean asylum seekers pressured to leave Israel


Israel attempted to deport 25 Eritrean asylum seekers in violation of international conventions, according to an Israeli NGO supporting the rights of migrants.

A group of some 25 Eritrean refugees were pressured by Israeli immigration officials to sign a declaration saying they would agree to be deported to Uganda and then discovered that they were scheduled to fly to Eritrea, the Hotline for Migrant Workers charged. The Eritreans refused to get on the plane.

A spokeswoman for the Population, Immigration, and Borders Authority, Sabine Haddad, told JTA that she did not know about a group of Eritreans facing possible return, but did say that hundreds of north Sudanese have agreed to be repatriated in recent months, as well as a small number of Eritreans.

Haddad added that her office is checking this particular incident, and said that in no case does Israel deport migrants against their will.

The Hotline for Migrant Workers told Haaretz that the asylum seekers were told they either can be repatriated to Eritrea or remain in prison in Israel for at least three years.

As a signatory of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Israel cannot deport asylum seekers. Israel grants Eritreans protection, but does not recognize them as refugees.

Eritreans make up more than 60 percent of the more than 60,000 illegal African migrants are who are believed to be in Israel, according to Haaretz.

Asylum seekers who return to Eritrea are in danger of persecution or even death at the hands of the Eritrean regime, rights groups say.

If Romney wins: Five things every Jew should know about Mormonism


1. Devout Mormons can be found all across the political spectrum.

The Mormon Church doesn’t endorse candidates or political parties, and although most American Mormons are Republicans, a Mormon Democrat has served as the Senate Majority Leader for the last five years. Owing to our history of persecution and emphasis on self-reliance, there is also a noteworthy group of Mormons with libertarian sympathies who do not easily identify with either party.

Mormons can be found on all sides of most issues. On immigration, for example, many Mormons tend to be more liberal than other Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter). Many of us have served missions abroad, and tend not to be too judgmental of people who come here seeking a better life. Although Mormons generally agree on many important moral issues (see below), there is no consensus on economics and the proper role of government. We all agree, for example, that we have an obligation to help the poor. However, the extent to which government should help meet their needs by taxing others is a point of contention among followers of most faiths, including ours.

2. Mormonism is part of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Our church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) bears the name of the Christian Savior, we believe in the God of Israel, we accept the Hebrew Bible and New Testament as Scripture, we worship in chapels and temples, and we consider ourselves to be covenant Israelites. Mormons follow the Ten Commandments and are Noahides. In addition, the Abrahamic Covenant is central to our faith. Like Jews, the family is central to our faith, and our idea of heaven is to live with our spouses and families for eternity.

3. A Mormon president would not take orders from Salt Lake City.

If Mitt Romney wins, he’ll undoubtedly have the same arrangement with top church leaders that other Mormons have with local leaders: They don’t tell us how to do our jobs, and we don’t tell them how to run the church. Even Romney’s most intractable foes haven’t accused LDS church headquarters of drafting Romneycare in Massachusetts, and it’s safe to assume that church leaders aren’t behind Harry Reid’s shameful promotion of Las Vegas gambling interests in Washington. Mormons are used to looking to their leaders for spiritual advice, not professional guidance. While I would certainly expect Romney to consult with Mormon leaders as part of his general outreach efforts to faith communities (including Jewish leaders), I am confident that he will be his own man when it comes to formulating policies for the nation. I am also confident that Mormons will not be overrepresented in his administration, as Romney has a history of hiring capable people from all backgrounds to work for him.

4. On moral issues, Mormons are not extreme right-wingers.

A closer look shows the views of most Mormons on these issues to be much more nuanced. Let’s take abortion, for example. The LDS church is very much against it but does allow for possible exceptions in the case of rape, incest, a threat to the mother’s life or when the baby is not expected to survive childbirth. That’s pretty much Romney’s campaign’s abortion platform.

On gay issues, it is accurate to say that Mormons oppose state-sanctioned, same-sex marriage. However, it is both inaccurate and insulting to say that we are anti-gay. We can and do support many other issues that are important to gays. For example, former LDS Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) introduced a Senate bill that would have added sexual orientation to the list of protected categories for hate crimes. Every Mormon I know is opposed to discrimination against gays in education, employment and housing. We also support rights for same-sex couples regarding hospitalization and medical care, probate rights, etc., so long as the integrity of the traditional family is not affected. As for theology, the LDS church teaches that homosexuality is not sinful in and of itself, as long as one remains chaste.

Although Mormons tend to have more children than the national average, our church doesn’t take a position on birth control. In addition, the church takes no position on capital punishment, stem-cell research, evolution or global warming. As a result, faithful Mormons are advocates for positions on all sides of these issues. 

5. Mormons are philo-Semites and pro-Israel. 

One of our basic Articles of Faith affirms: “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes.” In 1841, LDS Apostle Orson Hyde offered a prayer on the Mount of Olives dedicating the Land of Israel for the gathering of the Jews. Israel went on to receive at least 11 apostolic blessings before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. For more than five decades (1870s-1920s), the church seriously considered establishing a Mormon colony in Palestine. Today, Brigham Young University has a beautiful center on Mount Scopus with the best view of the Old City in Jerusalem.

In the United States, Mormon pioneers arrived in the Utah territory in 1847. The first Jews arrived two years later, in 1849. The first Jewish worship service was held in 1864 in Salt Lake City. Rosh Hashanah was celebrated in Temple Square (the city center) in 1865. Brigham Young donated his personal land for a Jewish cemetery in 1866. In 1903, church President Joseph F. Smith spoke at the ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone for the state’s first Orthodox synagogue, which was largely paid for by the church. The second and third Jewish governors in the country were elected in Idaho (1914) and Utah (1916), the two states with the highest percentage of Mormons. Salt Lake City had a Jewish mayor by 1932, more than four decades before New York City.

Most Mormons in this country are very pro-Israel, and Romney is no exception. He has a close, decades-long personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who looks likely to be elected to another term. If Romney is elected, Jews and Israelis can be assured that they will have a true friend in the White House.


Mark Paredes writes the Jews and Mormons blog for the Jewish Journal and is a member of the LDS church's Jewish Relations Committee for Southern California. Read the Jews and Mormons blog at

Editorial Cartoon: ‘Brothers’ in the fight against terrorism


Israel will solve African migrant problem, Netanyahu assures


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decried violence against African migrants following a night of violent protest.

“There is no place for either the expressions or the actions that we witnessed last night,” Netanyahu said Thursday, a day after a demonstration in south Tel Aviv against illegal African migrants turned violent. “I say this to the public at large as well as to the residents of south Tel Aviv, whose pain I understand.”

Netanyahu said the problem of the infiltrators would be solved.

“We will complete construction of the fence within a few months and we will soon begin repatriating infiltrators back to their countries of origin,” he said.

Wednesday night’s violent protest in south Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah neighborhood, involving about 1,000 protesters, ended with 17 arrests.

Protesters attacked African migrants who passed the demonstration, and smashed the windshield of a car carrying three migrants as well as other car windows. They also set trash bins on fire and threw firecrackers at police, Ynet reported. The rioters also broke into and looted shops associated with the African migrant community.

Meanwhile, the head of Peace Now, Yariv Oppenheimer, called on Israel’s attorney general to investigate three Israeli lawmakers who he said incited violence and racism during their speeches at the protest.

The lawmakers who participated in the protest were Miri Regev and Danny Danon of the Likud Party and Michael Ben-Ari of the National Union Party. Regev, for example, called the Sudanese “a cancer.”

The Israeli daily Yediot Achronot reported Thursday that the Public Security Ministry is considering deploying Border Guard troops in south Tel Aviv to prevent problems between residents and African migrants, and to fight crime associated with the migrants.

Israel’s Justice Ministry announced Wednesday that migrant workers from South Sudan could be returned to their country after it is established that they are not eligible for political asylum.

More than 50,000 African migrants and asylum seekers are living in Tel Aviv alone, according to government reports. Most entered through the border with Sinai.

On Sunday, Netanyahu said that the surge of illegal African migrants into Israel “threatens national security and identity.” Last week, Interior Minister Eli Yishai told Army Radio that most African migrants in Israel are involved in criminal activity and should be imprisoned and deported to their countries of origin.

U.S. Jewish groups condemn anti-African violence in Tel Aviv


Jewish groups called on Israel to protect African migrants in Israel after riots in Tel Aviv.

“We hope and expect that the authorities will take effective measures to protect this population from further violence and that legitimate requests by refugees to remain in Israel based on fear of persecution in their home countries will be considered humanely and with due process taking into account internationally accepted norms,” Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the community’s public policy umbrella, said in a statement on Thursday.

Wednesday night’s violent riots in south Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah neighborhood ended with 17 arrests. The violence followed a rally against the presence of the migrants.

Africans who passed by the rally were attacked. Rioters smashed the windshield of a car carrying three migrants as well as other car windows. The rioters also set trash bins on fire and threw firecrackers at police, Ynet reported.

The rioters also broke into and looted shops associated with the African migrant community.

The Anti-Defamation League said it was “seriously concerned about the growing tensions in Israel over the issue of African migrants, and reports of lawlessness and violence committed by and directed against the migrants.”

“While we recognize the complexity involved in properly addressing this issue, and sympathize with Israeli citizens whose personal security has been compromised by the lawlessness and violence of some migrants, we are disturbed by inflammatory public statements made by certain Israeli officials, some of which has veered into racism,” the ADL statement said. “It is imperative that reasonable solutions be found to confront these challenges, one that humanly treats the migrants while ensuring the security concerns of Israeli citizens are properly addressed.”

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism condemned the violence.

“Such violence has no place in any civilized society, much less Israel, the nation state of the Jewish people who have throughout history known similar horrors rooted in ethnic and religious differences,” the RAC’s director, Rabbi David Saperstein, said in a statement. “It is shameful that yesterday’s rally instead devolved into chaos and brutality. It is also shameful that members of the Knesset made inflammatory statements that likely contributed to an atmosphere conducive to such violence.”

All three groups welcomed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s condemnation of the violence.

Tel Aviv protest against African migrants turns violent


A demonstration in south Tel Aviv against illegal African migrants turned violent.

More than a thousand protesters gathered Wednesday in the Hatikvah neighborhood carrying signs reading “South Tel Aviv a refugee camp” and “Infiltrators, leave our home.”

Protesters attacked African migrants who passed the demonstration, and smashed the windshield of a car carrying three migrants. They also set trash bins on fire and threw firecrackers at police, Ynet reported.

At least nine protesters were arrested.

Protests also were held Wednesday in Bnei Brak, Ashdod, Ashkelon and Eilat.

Israel’s Justice Ministry announced Wednesday that migrant workers from South Sudan could be returned to their country after it is established that they are not eligible for political asylum.

More than 50,000 African migrants and asylum seekers are living in Tel Aviv alone, according to government reports. Most entered through the border with Sinai.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the surge of illegal African migrants into Israel “threatens national security and identity.” Last week, Interior Minister Eli Yishai told Army Radio that most African migrants in Israel are involved in criminal activity and should be imprisoned and deported to their countries of origin.

Israel, U.S. agree on immigration fast track


The United States and Israel are set to add Israelis to a fast-track immigration system.

Yediot Achronot reported Thursday that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have agreed to add Israel to the “Global Entry” program. The agreement was negotiated during a recent trip by Homeland Security officials to Israel.

For a $100 fee, frequent business travelers undergo a thorough security clearance. Once cleared, they enter the United States through a biometric fingerprint check, skipping passport checks.

According to Yediot, six countries already had joined the program—Britain, Holland, Qatar, Austria, New Zealand and Japan—and 250,000 American citizens have registered.

Israel to increase number of Ethiopian immigrants


Israel will increase the number of immigrants from Ethiopia for the next several months after bringing in many fewer than it had promised.

Some 1,000 Falash Mura, Ethiopians whose ancestors converted from Judaism to Christianity, will be brought to Israel over the next four months, about 250 per month.

Officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Jewish Agency, the Interior and Immigrant Absorption ministries, and Ethiopian immigrant advocacy organizations met Sunday night and arrived at the plan, Haaretz reported.

The Israeli government in October 2010 reportedly had agreed to bring in 200 Falash Mura each month until the remaining 4,500 approved for immigration were in Israel, but only about 110 have been arriving each month. The government has said it cut the number due to dwindling available space in absorption centers.

The Ethiopians are waiting in a refugee camp in the Gondar province before coming to Israel.

“The Jewish Agency is thrilled by this decision and will do everything in our power to bring this historic aliyah to its completion as quickly as possible,” Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said in a statement.

Israeli citizenship law: Human rights vs. demographics


It was an important decision, and not a trivial one, when Israel’s Supreme Court upheld a law last week that prevents most non-Israeli Arabs who marry Israelis from living in Israel. The court was split almost in half: Six justices sided with the majority ruling, and five justices — Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch included — opposed the ultimate decision. The numbers reflect the magnitude of the dilemma, they reflect the fact that this could not be an easy decision for any country, and they reflect the delicate balancing act with which Israel has to live. Thus, it is good that five justices did not want to uphold the law, good to have a sizable opposition for such a ruling.

The law in question is problematic. It is meant to prevent the immigration of non-Israeli Arabs — mostly Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza —into Israel by way of marrying Arab Israelis. It states that the interior minister can grant citizenship only when an applicant has convinced him that he identifies with the State of Israel or in cases where the applicant or his family members have contributed to Israel’s security.

Civil rights advocates have argued that such a law infringes on the rights of Israeli citizens to a family life. The Israeli authorities claimed that Palestinian immigrants-by-marriage pose a security threat — a claim that is not easy to prove: The number of Palestinians that have been allowed into Israel through marriage and later were caught engaging in terrorist activity is relatively small. Civil rights advocates also argue that the real story behind the law is not one of security, but rather one of demography: The state wants to maintain its Jewish majority. It is a claim that’s hard to deny with a straight face, and was definitely one of the reasons for lawmakers to propose and support the legislation.

That the court was split, then, should not be a surprise. Here was a collision of the most basic and sacred principles of the Jewish state — Israel’s liberal principles versus Israel’s constant need to stand alert against its enemy; Israel’s democratic nature versus Israel’s ultimate desire to maintain a Jewish majority and a Jewish character (whatever that means).

One should not be surprised by the nature and tone of response to this ruling of the court. Naturally, Arabs were not happy with the court’s decision. Leftist Israeli lawmakers joined in the condemnation, saying that “the [Supreme] Court’s power has been weakened in the fight against racism.”

At the other end of the political spectrum, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar mocked the protestations from the left. “Respect for the rule of law and for judicial decisions cannot only be when those decisions are consistent with one’s own world view,” he said, reminding Israelis that speakers on the left are usually the first to defend High Court decisions, and the first to see any criticism of the court as a sign of a weakening democracy.

That the court has been influenced by the public mood is possible. That it is influenced by realities “on the ground” is also a possibility. This just might be one of these cases where reality has to trump theory. On paper, this law is not an easy one to defend. In reality, eliminating a law that is quite sensible under the current circumstances is also not easy to defend. On paper, the law (and the court’s decision) might seem like a blow to human rights and human dignity. In reality, human rights can’t be defended out of context and can’t be judged as a stand-alone value. Yes, security matters, and, yes — as unfashionable as saying it might seem — demography also matters. Preserving a Jewish majority is very important — it is at the heart of why Israel was established. Is it more important than “human rights”? That is not a fair question. This law doesn’t cancel “human rights,” but rather limits one right for some people for the sake of preserving other rights of other people — the right of Israelis to be safer, and their right to defend the character of their Jewish state.

Is this an easy call? I wouldn’t say it is — the legislators and the court have limited the rights of Arab Israelis. I therefore understand the frustration and even the indignation of the people opposing the court’s decision. The Supreme Court, though, is not a one-cause institute for human rights. It has to consider human rights, and security, and long-term goals of the state, and the current state of affairs, and, yes, at times, even the public mood — and then balance them all. This time, the scale tipped toward preserving a controversial law, a problematic law, a difficult and sticky law. Not because it is a good law, but because it is better than the alternative.

Ethiopian Israelis demonstrate against discrimination


Hundreds of Israelis of Ethiopian descent and their supporters protested in the southern Israeli community of Kiryat Malachi against housing discrimination.

Tuesday night’s demonstration, with estimates of up to 2,500 participants, came after what the Ethiopian residents of the city say is a pattern of refusal to sell or rent housing to them.

A residential committee of a block in Kiryat Malachi reportedly signed residents to a contract committing that they would not rent or sell to Ethiopian Israelis.

In a meeting Wednesday, just hours after the end of the demonstration, Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver told an Ethiopian activist to “Say thank you for what you got.” Landver immigrated from Russia in 1979.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday instructed his adviser on Ethiopian immigrant affairs, Alali Adamsu, who met Tuesday night with the organizers of the demonstration, to act to eradicate racism against Ethiopian immigrants.

“We are full of admiration for Ethiopian immigrants. In the face of obstacles and difficulties, they came here and are integrating into Israeli society, which we are encouraging in every possible way,” Netanyahu said in a statement issued from his office. “Racist phenomena are infuriating and have no place in Israeli society. The ingathering of exiles from Ethiopia and everywhere else in the world is an inseparable part of the character of the State of Israel.”

On Sunday night, at least 18 cars in Kiryat Malachi were spray-painted with graffiti against Israelis of Ethiopian descent and the haredi Orthodox, according to reports.

Israeli court delays deportation of migrant worker’s child


An Israeli court delayed the deportation of a 4-year-old girl born in Israel to a Filipino mother.

The Tel Aviv District Court ordered the stay Tuesday just moments before the girl and her mother were set to board an airplane to the mother’s home country. Also Tuesday, Sara Netanyahu, the wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wrote a letter to Interior Minister Eli Yishai asking him to halt the deportation.

The court will hold a special hearing Thursday in the case.

The Israeli government says the child did not meet new criteria set out last year, but only enforced from March, to allow her to stay in the country. The criteria includes studying during the past school year in an Israeli state school; being enrolled for the next year in first grade or higher; being born in the country and speaking Hebrew; and residing in the country for five consecutive years.

According to the Interior Ministry, the child was not enrolled in a state preschool or kindergarten last year or for the coming year.

The girl’s father has been living in Israel legally for more than a decade with a permit, making his daughter a legal resident of Israel, according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. The father requested the stay in part because he was not granted an opportunity to say good-bye properly to his daughter.

ACRI says the attempted deportation is “the first time in Israel’s history that a child, born and raised in Israel, enrolled in kindergarten in Tel Aviv and integrated into Israel’s public education system has been deported by the Interior Ministry.”

Israel’s inclusion on terrorist watch list was a mistake


Israel was included erroneously on a U.S. Department of Homeland Security terrorist watch list, a U.S. official said.

Gillian Christiansen, a spokeswoman for then U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the department, said Israel’s recent appearance on a list compiled by the department’s office of the inspector general was a mistake.

“The addition of Israel in the OIG’s list of ICE’s ‘Third-Agency Checks’ (TAC) was based on inaccurate information provided to the OIG during the course of its audit,” Christiansen said in a statement sent by e-mail to JTA. “The U.S. does not and never has considered Israel to have links to terrorism, but rather they are a partner in our efforts to combat global terrorism. The United States maintains close intelligence-sharing relationships with Israel in order to address security issues within its own borders and in our mutual pursuit of safety and security around the globe.”

The list does not fault government policies and instead recognizes the likelihood that a suspect traveler from that country might have terrorist ties.

If a traveler from one of the countries is detained, the country’s inclusion on the list triggers a special check by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The list, attached to a May 10 document from the DHS Inspector General’s office, was reported last week by CNS News, a conservative news service.

The list of 36 nations includes a number of other close U.S. allies such as Turkey, Bahrain, Morocco and Philippines, as well as nations beset by internal fighting like Sudan and Somalia.

U.S. immigration includes Israel on watch list


Israel is on a list compiled by U.S. immigration authorities of countries that might harbor terrorists.

The Department of Homeland Security list of 36 nations does not fault government policies and instead recognizes the likelihood that a suspect traveler from that country might have terrorist ties.

If a traveler from one of the countries is detained, the country’s inclusion on the list triggers a special check by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division.

The list, attached to a May 10 document from the DHS Inspector General’s office, was first reported this week by CNS News, a Christian news service.

An ICE spokeswoman, Gillian Christensen, told CNS that appearance on the list did not suggest a country backs terrorism.

“The U.S. does not and never has considered Israel to have links to terrorism, but rather they are a partner in our efforts to combat global terrorism,” Christensen said. “Countries may have been included on the list because of the backgrounds of arrestees, not because of the country’s government itself. The United States maintains close intelligence-sharing relationships with many of these countries in order to address security issues within their own borders and in our mutual pursuit of safety and security around the globe.”

The list includes a number of other close U.S. allies, like Turkey, Bahrain, Morocco and Philippines, as well as nations beset by internal fighting, like Sudan and Somalia.

North American immigrants lead in Israel’s nonprofit sector


When David Portowicz was a new immigrant to Israel from Brooklyn in the 1970s, he began research on poverty in Jaffa that would lead to his life’s work: the creation of a nonprofit organization that now serves thousands of disadvantaged children and their families.

A doctoral student in social work at the time, the small NGO he co-founded in 1982, the Jaffa Institute, today is a veritable force of nature with 35 programs and an annual operating budget of $6 million. The institute runs afterschool activity centers to help keep kids off the streets, offers university scholarships for 170 graduates of Jaffa programs, has shelters for runaways and even provides music lessons.

“It’s a mission of love,” Portowicz says. “You work hard.”

Portowicz is one of many immigrants from North America who along with other English-speaking immigrants to Israel have played an outsized role in Israel’s growing nonprofit sector. For many, the same idealistic instincts that prompted them to leave comfortable lives in North America, Britain and elsewhere for Israel led them to top roles in the Israeli nonprofit sector, and they have brought with them a mixture of can-do enthusiasm, background in grass-roots activism and fundraising skills that have helped make their projects successful.

“We are talking about the kind of people who are immigrants by choice,” said Alon Tal, an immigrant from the United States who founded one of the most influential environmental groups in Israel, Adam Teva V’din, Israel Union Environmental Defense.

“Many of us grew up in youth movements where you are raised on the idea that you are supposed to change the world,” Tal said. “It’s a certain kind of person willing to take a chance and who could have been very successful” in their home country. “For some of us, the thought was that if you are coming here, you might as well have an adventure.”

Over the last decade, the number of nongovernmental organizations in Israel has multiplied as Israel’s traditionally socialist-leaning welfare system has significantly downsized. Some 12,000 NGOs are now active in Israel. English-speaking immigrants have found their niche not only in reaching out to the socio-economically disadvantaged, but also in civil society areas like the environment, human rights, religious pluralism and Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

“It’s likely because Anglos come with a much more developed idea of civic society than other ethnic groups in the country, and so they get involved,” said Sydney Engelberg, a faculty member at Hebrew University’s program in nonprofit management.

“Part of my Zionist feeling was that if I can help anyone, I want to help children in Israel,” Portowicz said. “I think I made a bigger difference here than I thought I would make.”

When Tal came to Israel in 1990 at the age of 29, he vacillated between joining the just-established Environmental Ministry or establishing an environmental advocacy organization. He went with the latter.

“A large percentage of many Israeli nonprofits come from international Jewish philanthropy, so there is a home-court advantage for American immigrants in terms of English skills and cultural affiliation,” Tal told JTA.

Miriam Garmaise, an immigrant to Israel from Canada, also became a prominent environmentalist. She is the executive director of Shomera for a Better Environment, a nonprofit established in 1998 by Tamar Gindis, a fellow Canadian immigrant, that focuses on national, cross-sector projects. Their current flagship project is promoting a gray-water recycling initiative intended to jump-start the practice of recycling shower and laundry water as a way to save up to tens of millions of cubic meters of water a year.

Garmaise traces her interest in activism to growing up in Canada, where her parents were active in the Jewish community and projects to help Israel.

“The fact that people like me moved to Israel is because we consider Israel a very important place to be and to contribute to once we are here,” she said.

As for the bureaucratic and other stumbling blocks they face here, Garmaise is upbeat.

“I have come to respect the need for time and patience to make things happen,” she said.

Portowicz adds, “You persist. You don’t take no for an answer.”

Seth Farber, a Modern Orthodox rabbi who immigrated from the United States and founded ITIM, the Jewish Life Information Center, knows all about persistence. He fights what he says often seems like an interminably uphill battle to help Israeli and Diaspora Jews navigate the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which holds a monopoly on issues of religion like conversion and marriage.

Farber believes his American background has been helpful in his work, specifically his knowledge of how other Jewish religious leadership models work.

“In Israel people don’t feel as responsible for their Jewish life, so it can sometimes have less meaning,” Farber said. “What I can bring to the table is a middle ground, an opportunity for people to have their say.

“Americans put a lot of belief into the third sector to have power and make a difference,” he adds. “Because I’m a Zionist and this is the center of the Jewish people now, this is where I want to make my impact.”

Another American-run Israeli NGO involved in efforts to reduce tensions between religion and state is Tzohar, founded by a group of Modern Orthodox rabbis in 1996, soon after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist.

The organization’s current executive vice president is Nahum Rosenberg, an American immigrant.

“It’s important to be not only bilingual but bicultural and live in both worlds,” Rosenberg said.

He says Americans bring advantages when it comes to fundraising and the culture of management.

“We may be nonprofits, but that does not mean we are not performance organizations. So you need to have that side,” he said, referring to professional Western standards for NGOs. “And you need to have that Israeli flair for ingenuity and perseverance with the ability to stretch every shekel as far as it can go.

“If you can seize on both traits, you can use them to your advantage.”

When Africa Comes to Israel


There is a new threat to Israel, although the people raising it are entirely innocent. The threat is represented by a growing population of African refugees, mainly escapees from the hellish dictatorships of Eritrea and Sudan, who are pouring over the Egyptian border into Israel and settling in some of the country’s poorer neighborhoods, especially in Tel Aviv. They’re now coming at the rate of more than 1,000 each month, according to recent government statements.

In summer 2006, when the presence of these new immigrants first gained public notice, the State Attorney’s office numbered them at fewer than 200. Then, they were strictly a humanitarian concern. And this continues to be so: The people from Darfur and Southern Sudan have fled annihilation; those from Eritrea fled war, lifetime military conscription and persecution. A substantial proportion of refugees from both places were tortured along the way, many of the women have been gang raped by their Sinai Bedouin guides, and all the refugees dodged brutal imprisonment or death at the hands of Egyptian border guards.

The African migration through Sinai to Israel began in 2005 with tiny numbers of Sudanese leaving Cairo, where they had been hounded by police, denied the right to work and treated with ruthless contempt by racist Egyptians. After a police massacre at the end of that year of at least 30 and as many as 200 Sudanese refugees outside the United Nations’ compound in Cairo, the routes through Sinai to the Israeli border began heating up.  

The first arrivals were held in an Israeli prison for a year, or more. But Supreme Court challenges and pressure from the U.N. and the media got them out in 2006. They began moving to Eilat, to sympathetic kibbutzim, and to South Tel Aviv. The cell-phone grapevine between Israel and Cairo told of a relatively great life here.

Soon, the Eritreans started coming, too, and the numbers of African refugees entering Israel each month grew from dozens to hundreds. 

Three years ago, prime minister Ehud Olmert, under pressure from American Jewry because of the worldwide concern over Darfur, granted temporary residency — which means the right to work and to receive Israeli social benefits — to the roughly 500 Darfurians in Israel at the time. Since then, about 2,000 more Darfur refugees have arrived, and they have not been given temporary residency. And, now, even Darfurians from among those original 500 say the Interior Ministry is refusing to renew their temporary residency, according to attorney Anat Ben-Dor, who represents many of them.

Israel’s leading activist on the refugees’ behalf, Sigal Rozen, former director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, estimates that 19,000 refugees in Israel are from Eritrea, 8,000 from Sudan and another 4,000 or so from various other, mainly African, countries. As these numbers continue to increase, they also signal a danger, potentially an existential one to this country, whose entire population is 7.5 million and whose size is roughly that of New Jersey.

“The flood of illegal workers infiltrating from Africa [is] a concrete threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the country,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said at a July cabinet meeting.

Officially, the Africans are called “infiltrators,” a misleading term because not only do they not hide from Israeli troops after crossing the border, they give themselves up eagerly. They are taken to Saharonim holding facility in the Negev, then released, usually within days, with a bus ticket to Beer Sheva. Afterward they usually head for Tel Aviv and settle wherever they find work.

A refugee family from Eritrea with their Israeli neighbors — Jewish immigrants from Uzbekistan.

None of them has been linked to terrorism or any kind of security offense, according to Deputy State Attorney Yochi Gnessin and William Tall, the representative in Israel for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Most are young men who live together in rented apartments, several to a room, and they take on whatever work is available, “doing the rough, dirty work that no normal person would do, for whatever money they can get,” said Dror Krispi, who runs an all-night snack bar in Hatikva Quarter, where many refugees have settled. Most commonly, they work as garbage collectors, gardeners, packers in outdoor fruit-and-vegetable markets, house cleaners, janitors and dishwashers in the Tel Aviv area and as menial staff in the hotels of Eilat.

Yet in those poor neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv, Eilat, Ashdod, Bnei Brak and other cities where they’ve settled by the thousands, they have set off a wave of xenophobia. The backlash, once confined to nonviolent expressions, now appears to be heating up. In early December, a gang of teenagers in South Tel Aviv reportedly attacked some refugees, and an apartment building in Ashdod, where several refugees live, was torched, although it has not been determined who committed the arson or why.

Meanwhile, the asylum-seekers continue to come over the Egyptian border into Israel. To use Ehud Barak’s phrase from the bad old days of the Intifada, Israel proper (not counting the occupied territories) is a “villa in the jungle” — a democratic, relatively tolerant, prosperous country in the middle of the impoverished, repressive, sprawling Third World. To quote Netanyahu from late November, it is also “the only developed country that you can reach on foot from the poorest countries in Africa.”

Also since November, Israeli bulldozers have been building a security fence along the 150-mile border with Egypt. It is expected to take two and a half years to complete, said Udi Shani, director-general of the Defense Ministry, at a recent Knesset hearing. Construction of a detention camp is planned in the Negev desert, near the Egyptian border, to house up to 10,000 refugees. Netanyahu has given assurances that they will receive “humane” treatment; the Prime Minister’s Office’s official English-language term for the camp is “open housing center.” Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, however, has noted that a camp meant to keep people in cannot at the same time be “open.” The refugees are to be prohibited from working.

The government’s hope is to find foreign countries to take the refugees in, reportedly with financial inducements. But U.N. representative Tall calls this plan “a non-starter.”

“Other countries are already dealing with much larger numbers of refugees, they don’t want to take in Israel’s, too,” Tall said. In early December, he said, some 150 Southern Sudanese refugees were flown back home, with their consent, via an unnamed third country, joining a similar number who repatriated last year to Southern Sudan, which is in the process of gaining independence.

But even though 300 refugees are gone, at least that many new ones are coming across the border from Egypt every week.

Three (financial) reasons to make aliyah


When my old Harvard friend Ronnie and I decided to meet after many years, the first place that came to mind was the Brasserie. Located just across from Rabin’s Square, the Brasserie is one of the most chic, sophisticated places to eat out in Tel Aviv.

The French-Italian cuisine it offers is indulgent; the jazzy music played in the background is an appetite-booster and the vibe dominating the scene is juvenile and intoxicating. If anything, the Brasserie has always reminded me of my favorite Harvard restaurant, Cambridge One, with its intellectually dazzling style.

What I didn’t know about the Brasserie, though, is that it had a valet service — one of the only three restaurants in Tel Aviv that offers this elitist luxury. While waiting for Ronnie outside the restaurant, and watching the handsome Israeli valet boys handle their customers with a pseudo-IDF smile, I could not but think to myself, “Geez, Israel has come a long way in 60 years. Shouldn’t more Jews enjoy this jewel, especially now?”

And thus I came up with three (financial) reasons for Americans to make aliyah (immigration to Israel) sooner, rather than later.

1. “Jonathan the Plumber” vs. “Joe the Plumber”

While U.S. banks aren’t in their heyday, American consumerism is going down and recession is just around the corner, Israel’s economy seems to be handling the global crisis pretty well. Credit is still as prevalent as before, not a single bank has collapsed, and the Israeli public still trusts both in its financial leaders (such as ex-MIT professor Stanley Fischer, now chair of the Central Bank of Israel) and the financial system as a whole. There’s much less panic on Israel’s Main Street than there is on Wall Street. The explanations are numerous, but let me give you just one: Israel’s financial system is far less complex, and far more transparent, than the United States’. While the credit crunch in the United States stemmed from the implosion of secondary markets (and specifically, of financial instruments such as MBSs and CDOs), Israel was fortunate enough to evade the contagion because it did not have such secondary markets to begin with. The securitization of mortgages that accelerated the crisis in the United States simply didn’t exist in the Tel Aviv stock exchange. Which means, except for a few Israeli tycoons that suffered from the crash of U.S. banks, the Israeli “Jonathan the Plumber” is still doing pretty well.

2. In Israel, You Can Profit From Being American

If you are an American businessman or businesswoman, or at least think like one, I’d argue you could live off of your Americanness in Israel, just by being American. Globalization has made most young Israelis crazy about living, working or studying in the United States for at least a few years in their lifetime. Israelis crave a U.S. college or graduate degree. But the great majority of Israelis have no idea where to begin and how to make themselves attractive in the eyes of U.S. institutions. That’s where you and your family can step in. Your contribution then becomes a two-way street: You help Israelis realize their dream, and they help you feel like a Sabra. (It shouldn’t be a population-swap, either, simply because many of these young Israelis return to Israel more educated, more experienced and wealthier.)

3. Israel Can Profit From You

The latter point could not be stressed enough: your contribution to Israel’s society can be huge in terms of long-term economic growth. Israel is a country full of really smart people. The problem is that sometimes, because we’re located in the midst of a faraway desert, we forget how good we can be and how high we can aim. That’s why the professional and academic interactions between Israelis and Americans in Israel can be vital: it reminds (or teaches) us what standards are required for professional and academic success, U.S.-style. Americans who come to Israel with this kind of mindset can help Israel make giant steps on the road to prosperity. And eventually, the same prosperity is shared jointly by all of Israel’s citizens, newcomers and Sabras alike.

If you’ve contemplated making aliyah to Israe and never thought it was a feasible idea, now may be the time to reconsider. Just think of the 15,000 expatriates who are expected to return to Israel from the Diaspora in 2009, largely due to financial reasons. Despite the crisis, Israel is booming economically and is still growing faster than most Western countries. Your contribution to Israel’s growth can be immense. So what if no one has mentioned financial Zionism before?

Shira Kaplan is a 25-year-old Harvard College alumna from Herzliya. She is currently a Milken Institute Fellow in Tel Aviv, researching regulation in the Israeli stock market. She is also the founder of the Exigo Group, which coaches Israelis on how to leverage their academic and business talents. The views expressed in this article are hers alone.


Final aliyah flight leaves Ethiopia for Israel, U.S. revokes Fulbright winners’ visas


Last Ethiopian Airlift Heads to Israel

The last official airlift of Ethiopian Jews was scheduled to land in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, bringing to an end a state-organized campaign that began nearly 30 years ago and brought in some 120,000 immigrants from the east African nation.

The Jewish Agency for Israel said its emissary to Addis Ababa had been recalled, though Jerusalem officials could still be sent out to help an estimated 1,400 Ethiopian crypto-Jews, apply to immigrate as part of efforts to reunite them with relatives already in Israel.

“But we will no longer be seeing anything on the scale of Operation Moses or Operation Solomon,” Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski told Israel Radio, alluding to major missions to bring in Ethiopians by air and sea in the 1980s.

He called on the government to reinvest its energies in helping the Ethiopian community in Israel, many of whose members live in poverty and complain of inadequate social integration.

U.S. Revokes Visas for Palestinian Fulbrights

The United States revoked the entry visas of three Palestinian students who won Fulbright scholarships.

The State Department announced Monday that the three Gazans would not be admitted to the United States after “new information” was received about them. U.S. officials declined to give further details.

In June, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came out in support of the three Fulbright scholars after Israel, citing security concerns, refused to give them permits to leave the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Four other Palestinians who won Fulbrights were allowed to leave Gaza.

Israel ‘Knows’ Where Shalit Held

Israel knows where Gilad Shalit is being held captive, the Israeli armed forces chief said.

“We know who is holding Shalit, and where,” Israel Radio quoted Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi as saying Monday in an address to new military draftees.

The remarks stirred speculation that Israel could be preparing an operation to rescue Shalit, a tank crewman who was abducted to the Gaza Strip by Hamas-led gunmen in June 2006 and has been kept mostly incommunicado since.

But Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter told the radio station that there has been no change in Israel’s intelligence gathering on Shalit or policy of holding Egyptian-brokered negotiations on his return.

Hamas has demanded that Israel free hundreds of jailed Palestinian terrorists in exchange for Shalit, but Jerusalem has balked at the asymmetry of the proposed swap. Israel Radio quoted Ashkenazi as saying that retrieving Shalit is crucial so that all those serving the Jewish state know they will not be abandoned on the battlefield.

Israeli Family Leaves Girl, 3, at Airport

A 3-year-old girl was found wandering at Ben-Gurion International Airport after the rest of her family boarded a plane to Paris.

Police accompanied the girl to the boarding gate but the plane already had taken off with her parents and four siblings aboard. The girl was flown to Paris later Sunday, and her family met her at the airport.

Police will question the parents upon their return to Israel.

Last week, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that an 8-year-old boy traveling alone was flown by El Al Israel Airlines from Ben-Gurion Airport to Brussels instead of to his destination in Munich.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.


Jewish life in the City of Lights


Fortunately I traveled to Paris before Pesach, because missing buttery croissants and oven-fresh French baguettes would have been ruinous to my experience. Indeed, France is most famous for its delicacies—wine, cheese, pastries, foie gras—but it is also home to a vibrant Jewish community; one that has prospered for the better part of 2,000 years, but currently suffers from a malaise of bad press. 

Despite the historic turbulence of Jewish French life, current population statistics suggest there are between 500,000 and 600,000 Jews living in the region, the majority of whom reside in the cultural capital of Paris. The figure is surprising, considering frenzied media depictions of French anti-Semitism, recent waves of Jewish French immigration to Israel and also because the population was estimated at 300,000 prior to World War II, which suggests that, even though France is depicted as less than empathetic to the Jewish community, the Jewish population there has actually grown.

However, the aftermath of Nazi occupation in France left the country scarred, with a visibly guilty conscience, which I investigated during my stay in a 16th century walk-up on the Ile St. Louis.

In a bustling student cafe on Rue Saint-Guillaume just across from the elite French university Sciences Po, a young Parisian typed on his laptop before striking up conversation about the thesis he is writing on generational divides. He seemed well informed, so I asked, “Is it true that the French are hostile to their Jews?”

He laughed, and said that too many people argue politics about the Arab-Israeli conflict without knowing the history, essentially implying that if there’s hostility toward the Jews it’s related to Israel. But it also begged the question: Is argumentation or even Palestinian empathy what the world perceives as hostile to French Jews?

The following night, Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai attended a screening of his new film, “Disengagement” at an artsy independent theater in Place Saint Germain. The film, a French-Israeli co-production (and a good sign of comity in the arts), depicts a woman’s search for the daughter she abandoned, set against the backdrop of the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. The film was, in short, riveting; and the Q-&-A that followed revealed French cineastes. were provoked by its content.

Dressed in black with a white scarf draped around his neck, Gitai, 58, stood aloof at the front of the room, fielding question from critics and fans, brooding during one man’s rant about the film’s lack of a Palestinian portrayal. 

“This is an Israeli story,” Gitai said, explaining that the conflict in the film was not between Palestinians and Israelis, but between Israeli soldiers and the Israeli citizens they were ordered to remove from their homes; a conflict between secular Jews and religious Jews.

Scrubbing aside content and politics, there was still the idea that an Israeli filmmaker—telling an Israeli story—had been invited to screen his film at a distinguished arts venue, in a city ensconced in highbrow cultural snobbery. Perhaps more importantly, a famous and beautiful French actress (Juliette Binoche) figured prominently on the theater’s marquee, wrapped in an Israeli flag. 

Whether fueled by guilt or regret or just plain reparation, Jewish culture is pervasive almost anywhere you go in Paris: There’s the sophisticated bookstore, Librairie Gallimard, which contains shelves full of books about the Holocaust, French resistance fighters and Nazi occupation, along with a special section devoted to Israeli literature; there’s the Holocaust Memorial on the Ile de la Cite, just behind the Notre Dame cathedral, certainly one of Paris’ most popular destinations; there’s the Jewish quarter, Rue de Rosiers, undeniably well situated in the trendy Le Marais, with some of the city’s best shopping, and near the historic Place des Vosges, an opulent 17th-century manse built for royalty.

So for the few-thousand French Jews who have made aliyah since 2004, there emerges new hope, like Gitai’s crosscultural storytelling or the Paris-born, Israeli-raised pop singer Yael Naim whose shows sung in Hebrew, French and English sell out among young, bourgeois Parisians.

In the song “Paris,” Naim’s enchanting ode to her beloved birthplace, she best captures the conflicting sentiments Jews feel for the City of Lights: I came here / A bit disenchanted / This beautiful illusion of mine / The country is so good to me here / So why do I cry and get upset?

Well, because it’s hard choosing between Paris and Israel. But still, it’s delightful to have that choice.

Fending off the end of aliyah


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 discussions 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 and 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.

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 said in an interview, 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 part of the vision of “the prophets of Israel.”

Despite the country’s founding mission, Rebhun 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?”

Impact of Soviet Jewry drive still resonates in U.S. today


When Jacob Birnbaum began knocking on dormitory doors at Yeshiva University in the spring of 1964, he only half-believed anyone would answer.

The young British activist had come to New York to mobilize a grass-roots campaign to draw attention to the plight of 3 million Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain — a cause that was being largely ignored by the world Jewish community.

He turned first to the Modern Orthodox campus with its high concentration of Jewishly committed students.

“New York City is the largest center of Jewish life in the world, and from New York we could generate pressure on Washington,” explained the now-80-year-old Birnbaum, who still lives in New York and was honored recently by Congress for his key role in the Soviet Jewry campaign.

“The goal was always Washington — first to convert the Jewish community and then convert Washington,” he said.

His door knocking launched a national student movement, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), whose first public effort was a May 1, 1964, demonstration outside the Soviet mission to the United Nations. More than 1,000 students from Yeshiva, Columbia, Stern College and other campuses marched, demanding freedom for Soviet Jews.

The protest became a movement, and the movement swelled into a worldwide outcry that 25 years later not only ripped open the Iron Curtain, leading to the largest Jewish exodus in history, but also contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, cemented the role of human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy and heralded the emergence of a strong, independent American Jewry able and willing to speak out for its oppressed brethren around the world.

“It was probably American Jewry’s finest hour,” said historian Henry Feingold, author of a newly published work, “Silent No More: Saving the Jews of Russia, the American Jewish Effort 1967-1989.”

While debate continues as to the role the Soviet Jewry campaign played in bringing the Soviet Union to its knees, virtually no one disputes the impact it had on the American Jewish community.

The movement galvanized American Jewry, producing many of today’s top Jewish leaders and a public relations-savvy Jewish voice in Washington.

Haunted by the memories of American Jewish inaction during the Holocaust and emboldened by Israel’s triumph in the Six-Day War, the activists vowed never again to ignore Jews in danger.

“This was something we talked about, that we’re not going to stand by and let this happen the way we did in the Holocaust,” recalled Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, who was a young Orthodox rabbi in 1964, when he became involved with the SSSJ.

While many of the initial activists came from Modern Orthodox circles, they were joined by other young Jews, excited by the civil rights and anti-war struggles, who now applied the energy of those movements to a Jewish cause, many for the first time. That synthesis set the tone for many of the Jewish and Israel-oriented organizations of the 1970s and ’80s.

Many of today’s communal and religious leaders cut their teeth in the Soviet Jewry movement.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of San Francisco’s Jewish Community Relations Council, was a student at UC Berkeley in 1969, when he attended his first Soviet Jewry rally. It was “transformational,” he said, leading to his active involvement and later decision to become a Reform rabbi.

“My formative years coexisted with the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the Six-Day War,” he said. “My activism was motivated by my sense of Jewish values, but I didn’t feel confident in my own grounding in Judaism, so I entered rabbinical school.”

Rabbi Arthur Green, rector of Hebrew College Rabbinical School, was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the early ’60s, active in civil rights and the anti-war struggle. He said the Soviet Jewry campaign helped him connect those two parts of his identity, “the caring for people and their release from oppression and the Jewish issue — this was something that affected Jews in a very personal way.”

In 1973, he and his wife visited “refuseniks” in Ukraine, one of many American Jews who over the course of the movement secretly carried names, phone numbers and packages to Jews denied permission to leave the Soviet Union.

“It was a formative experience for us,” he said, echoing Kahn’s words.

Birnbaum’s notion of a public, ongoing grass-roots campaign to free Soviet Jewry did not immediately catch fire with the American Jewish establishment. Through the 1960s, the SSSJ labored in virtual isolation on the American scene, holding rallies and demonstrations in New York, Boston and a few other cities organized by a handful of core activists. The Jewish mainstream favored quiet diplomacy over public protest, and the ultra-Orthodox feared the campaign would jeopardize their underground religious activities behind the Iron Curtain.

Israel, of course, had been conducting its own secret operation on behalf of Jews within the Soviet Union for years through Lishkat, the Israeli government’s Liaison Bureau. And the Cleveland Council on Soviet Anti-Semitism was created in 1963, although it remained fairly quiet until it was later renamed the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews and went on to play a strong role in pushing Washington to back the Soviet Jewry campaign.

It was Israel’s stunning victory in the June 1967 Six-Day War that really catalyzed the movement, lighting a fire under young Jews both in America and in the Soviet Union who previously had not expressed their Jewish identity.

For the first time, large numbers of Soviet Jews began applying for exit visas — they were refused — and large numbers of American Jews began clamoring on their behalf.

“The campaign was already by that time quite visible and active,” said Mark Levin, who was a young teenager when he joined his first demonstration in Lafayette Park across from the White House in 1969.

“The difference is, after the Six-Day War, you didn’t find as many Jews hiding their Jewish identity,” said Levin, the longtime director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. “The Six-Day War and the struggle for Soviet Jewry together redefined the type and level of activism in the American Jewish community.”

Israel’s Darfur refugees require worthy action


I was in Jerusalem in early July when a news story about Sudanese refuges demonstrating in front of the Knesset caught my eye. From the press accounts, it was difficult to fully understand who these refugees were or under what circumstances they had arrived in Israel. Some seemed to be refugees from the genocide in Darfur, but clearly, not all of them were.

It was not even entirely clear what they were hoping the Israeli government would now do for them or what the government had — or had not — done up to this point. But the story seemed to nonetheless vibrate with moral and Jewish historical significance, and I set out to understand it.

One phone contact led me to another until I finally reached Eytan Schwartz, a semicelebrity in Israel who won an Israeli reality TV show a few years ago. Schwartz is today the head of CARD (the Committee for Advancement of Refugees of Darfur) and has emerged as the chief advocate for the Sudanese refugees in Israel.

Schwartz invited me to meet him at a shopping mall in Herzilia, from where we would go to meet two men who had made the journey from Darfur to Israel. I could never have guessed how familiar their stories were going to sound.

We arrived at a dusty, off-the-beaten-track moshav just before sundown. We pulled off the moshav’s dirt road at a random-seeming spot, parked and were greeted by Abdel and Ayman.

They escorted us to a small open area hemmed in by farm equipment. We sat with them at a small, round plastic table, and they poured us some juice. Just beyond the table was what looked like a large shipping crate, containing two beds, a fridge, a small stove and a satellite dish on the roof.

The following is Abdel’s story: He was born and reared in Darfur, a son of a well-to-do family that owned 400 head of livestock. His older brother tended to the family’s livelihood and Abdel became a teacher (I presume of the Quran), holding classes for the residents of the village.

In early 2004, he was accused by the Sudanese government of teaching anti-government propaganda, charges that he flatly denies. Soon thereafter, he was abducted at gunpoint, blindfolded and driven several hours away from his village. He found himself in a remote area with other abductees from other villages around Darfur.

Abdel quickly realized that each morning, several of the prisoners were sent out to collect wood, and that upon their return, they were burned at the stake with the very wood they had collected. On the morning that Abdel was to meet the same fate, he proposed to one of the others in his group that they try to escape.

“If they catch us, they will shoot us,” he said. “But this is better than being burned.” When the whistle was blown, signaling that it was time to return, they hid. And aided by a heavy rain that began to fall, they then began to run.

After hours of running, Abdel and his friend arrived at a village at which they were clothed and fed. It was there that he learned that the Janjaweed had come to his village, killed his older brother and taken all the livestock. Abdel immediately returned to the village to be with his family, and it was while he was there that the entire village was set ablaze.

On the run again, Abdel sought shelter in various locations within Sudan, but realizing that no place in Sudan would be safe, in December of 2004, he crossed the border into Egypt and made his way to Cairo. There he found hundreds of others who had fled Darfur just as he had.

Cairo was not hospitable to the refugees, as they encountered virulent anti-Sudanese prejudice and hostility there. But like others who had arrived from Darfur, he was given a “yellow card” by the U.N. office in charge of refugees, which guaranteed him some degree of protection for a period of six months.

While awaiting further processing of his case, Abdel met and married a fellow Darfur refugee who had also fled to Cairo. Many months passed, and the U.N. refugee office in Cairo had still not addressed the refugees’ cases in any meaningful way.

They were stuck in legal limbo, facing a rising level of hostility on the Egyptian street. In December of 2005, frustrated and fearful, Abdel and his new wife joined 1,500 other Sudanese refugees gathered in front of the U.N. headquarters in Cairo to hold a demonstration.

The Egyptian army moved in and violently broke up the demonstration, killing 27, wounding many others and forcing the remainder onto buses that would remove them from the demonstration site. As he was being loaded onto a bus, Abdel saw his wife, apparently hurt, being taken away in a police car.

For days afterward, he searched every hospital, inquiring after her whereabouts. Everywhere he was denied entry or information. After several days, he discovered that she was dead. She had been two months pregnant.

With Egypt clearly providing no future, he began to contemplate where to run next. He decided to try Israel.

“Why Israel?” I asked him. While there were probably several reasons, the ones he gave me were these: “Because I knew from reading the Bible that Jews were commanded to be kind to the stranger. And also, I knew about the Holocaust” (Abdel had read about World War II growing up in Darfur.)

And so he set off to wander in the Sinai Desert in the cold of winter, relying for navigation only on occasional Bedouin assistance and prayers to God. After several days of walking and almost despairing, he finally crossed what was clearly a border. But a border with what?

He thought he might have been in Gaza, Jordan or Israel. When the sun rose, he saw several army Jeeps in pursuit.

Yom Ha’Atzmaut 2007: What Israel means to me


From a chapter in the book, “What Israel Means to Me: By 80 Prominent Writers, Performers, Scholars, Politicians, and Journalists,” edited by Alan Dershowitz (John Wiley & Sons, 2006).

I was born in Tel Aviv, in 1936, and, quite naturally, my feelings toward Israel are suffused with the love, pride, memories, music and aromas that nourish and sustain all natives of any
country.

Yet, remarkably, as the years pass, I discover that these same feelings towards Israel are echoed by people everywhere, including many who have never set foot in that country.

My family’s love affair with Israel begins in 1924, when my grandfather, a textile merchant and devout Chassid in the town of Ostrowietz, Poland, decided to realize his life dream and immigrate to the land of the Bible.

Family lore has it that my grandfather was assaulted one day by a Polish peasant with an iron bar shouting: “Dirty Jew!”; he crawled home then, wiped his blood and announced to his wife and four children: “Start packing! We are going home!”

In the weeks that followed, he sold all his possessions, and, teaming with 25 other families, he bought a piece of sandy land about seven kilometers to the northeast of Jaffa. That land was near an Arab village called “Ibn Abrak,” described by the newspaper Haaretz (July 1924) as “a few mud-walled huts surrounded by a few scattered trees.”

The Arab real-estate broker in Jaffa had probably no inkling why a group of seemingly educated Jews, some with business experience, would pay so dearly for a piece of arid land, situated far from any water source, which even the hardy residents of Ibn Abrak found to be uninhabitable.

But the 26 Chassidic families knew exactly what they were buying — Ibn Abrak was the site of the ancient city of Bnai-Brak, well known in the biblical and rabbinic days, the town where Rabbi Akiva made his home and established his great yeshiva.

The sages say that it was to Bnai-Brak that Rabbi Akiva applies the famous verse: “Justice, Justice shalt thou pursue. (Sanhedrin. 32b)”

The vision of reviving the spirit of that ancient site of learning was well worth the exorbitant price the broker demanded, the dusty winds, the merciless sun, the lack of water, and all the daily hardships that pioneering agricultural life entailed.

My father was 14 when his family arrived at Bnai-Brak in 1924, and whenever he reminisced about that early period of hardship, he always referred to it as the “rebuilding of Bnai-Brak,” as if he and my grandfather had been there before, with Poland and the whole saga of the Jewish Diaspora merely an unpleasant nightmare.

We, the children who grew up in Bnai-Brak, had not the slightest doubt that we had been there before. Every Passover, when our family’s reading of the haggadah reached the well-known story of the five rabbis who were sitting in Bnai-Brak, reciting the story of the Exodus, my grandfather would stop the reading, look everyone in the eye, issue one of his rare mysterious smiles, and continue with emphasis: “She’Hayu Mesubin b’Bnai Brak….” The message was clear: “We never really left home!”

A short distance from our school, there were two steep hills that almost touched each other. The older boys told us that the two hills once were one, and got separated when Bar Kochba — the heroic figure who led a futile Jewish rebellion against Rome in the second century C.E.. — rode through them on his famous lion, causing the gully between.

We had no doubt that it was only a matter of time before we would find Bar Kochba’s burial place; we needed only to dig deep enough into these hills — which we did enthusiastically for hours and hours. It was only a matter of time, we thought, before the earth all around us would ooze and unravel the mysteries of our historic infancy.

It was this cultural incubator that shaped my childhood — an intoxicating enthusiasm of homecoming and nation rebuilding.

Those who say that this sort of culture no longer inspires youth in our generation are mistaken. Seventy-eight years after my grandfather first set foot in Bnai-Brak, in a desolate shed in Karachi, Pakistan, his great-grandson, Daniel Pearl, stood before his captors-murderers and said: “

Post-war belt-tightening: Israel could cut Falash Mura dreams in half


Israel’s Finance Ministry is proposing substantial cuts to Ethiopian immigration next year as part of widespread belt-tightening following Israel’s war in Lebanon.

The plan, announced on Sept. 5 as part of Israel’s proposed budget for 2007, would halve the number of Ethiopian immigrants brought to Israel per month, to 150 from the current rate of 300.

If adopted, the change would represent a major setback to U.S. backers of Ethiopian aliyah, who launched a $100 million campaign last year designed in part to pressure the government to increase the rate of Ethiopian immigration. Israel’s Cabinet decided in March 2005 to double the rate of Ethiopian immigration to 600 people per month, but the decision was never implemented.

“I hope the Jewish leaders overseas will understand this breaks all the rules, all the agreements, all the understandings,” said Shlomo Molla, an Ethiopian-Israeli politician and head of the World Zionist Organization’s department of Zionist issues. “We won’t let this happen. It’s a scandal.”

The proposal to slash Ethiopian immigration signals the failure of a complex agreement reached a year and a half ago to complete mass Ethiopian immigration to Israel by the end of 2007.

That agreement would have seen the takeover of Jewish aid compounds in Ethiopia by the Jewish Agency for Israel, the end of lobbying campaigns for immigration by the main Jewish advocacy group in Ethiopia and the raising of more than $100 million by North American Jews to help Israel foot the bill for the airlift and absorption of up to 20,000 additional Ethiopians.

The collaborative effort was intended to bring the mass Ethiopian aliyah to a close in under three years.

Now it seems the estimated 12,000 remaining Ethiopian petitioners for aliyah — known as Falash Mura — will have to wait even longer in shantytowns in the Ethiopian cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa before they can emigrate to the Jewish state, if at all.

“I think it’s morally reprehensible,” Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, said of the proposed budget cuts. “We’re going to obviously ask the government not to go in that direction.”

The Israeli government repeatedly has delayed implementing the decision to accelerate the aliyah, with various ministries shifting the blame. Under the current budget proposal, an increase in the aliyah rate wouldn’t be reconsidered until the 2008 budget discussions.

Last year, the United Jewish Communities umbrella group of North American federations launched a campaign called Operation Promise to raise $100 million for Ethiopian aliyah and motivate the Israeli government to move ahead with its March 2005 decision.

The UJC raised about half of the amount before the campaign stalled and was overshadowed this summer by special emergency fundraising for the war with Hezbollah.

“Even considering a cut from the current level of 300 a month would be unacceptable,” said Howard Reiger, UJC’s president and CEO. “UJC and the federations will continue their partnership with the government to help populations most in need, including the Falash Mura. We hope and expect that the government of Israel will keep its commitments in this regard as well.”

Some U.S. Jewish leaders say they’re not sure whether the proposed slash in the Ethiopian immigration budget is a legitimate cutback resulting from the war or just an excuse to avoid bringing more Ethiopians to Israel.

One federation official said he’s beginning to doubt Israel’s commitment to accepting the Falash Mura as immigrants.

“I think there will be great skepticism that this is not about something beyond money,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York. “I think many of us are aware of the complexity and costs involved, but the signal that will be sent if the number is in fact reduced will, in my judgment, weaken the partnership with world Jewry.”

“Every prime minister has said to us over and over again that the issue of aliyah is a No. 1 priority,” Ruskay said. “The rabbinate has indicated that these are Jews. Ultimately, this is an issue in the hands of the Israeli public and the Israeli political system.”

The government’s reticence to bring the Falash Mura to Israel has been both economic and ideological — and, some charge, racist.

Each Ethiopian immigrant costs the state approximately $100,000 over the course of his lifetime, according to Israeli government estimates. The Ethiopians are considered far more expensive than other immigrants, since the background they’re coming from is so different than Israel, and they need extensive support services after immigrating.

Many Israelis also doubt the Falash Mura’s Jewish credentials, despite their being classified as Jews by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and the three major religious denominations of American Judaism.

The Falash Mura are Ethiopians of Jewish ancestry whose progenitors converted to Christianity several generations ago to escape social and economic pressures. Now they have begun returning to Judaism — in order to immigrate to the Jewish state along with their extended families, some charge.

Given the state of record-keeping in Ethiopia, the Falash Mura’s Jewish pedigree is virtually impossible to prove. Unlike Ethiopian immigrants who came to Israel in Operations Moses and Solomon in 1984 and 1991, the Falash Mura have not continuously maintained Jewish traditions and practice, so Israel has been accepting only those Falash Mura who can demonstrate a familial connection with Ethiopians already in Israel. Some of those now coming to Israel have no claims to Jewish heritage at all and are linked to descendants of Jews only by marriage.

It’s not clear exactly how many Falash Mura remain in Ethiopia, though aid officials say the number is probably not more than 12,000.

The longer it takes Israel to bring the current group of Falash Mura, the more petitioners for aliyah there will be, warn Israeli and American Jewish officials stationed in Ethiopia.

It’s a perfect day to move to Israel


It’s just before 8:30 a.m., and the sound of a shofar blasts through the bustle on the tarmac of Ben Gurion Airport. In front of the cavernous hangar, which is set up for a party, a band plays “Heivenu Shalom Aleichem.” Two rows of mostly female soldiers flank the walkway, and hundreds of people wave Israeli flags and hold signs saying things like, “Welcome Home.”

It’s a perfect day to move to Israel.

Arriving any minute now will be a mass immigration of sorts, as three planes from Toronto, New York and Great Britain bring more than 500 people to live in Israel. This whole party, and the immigration, are courtesy of Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN), an American organization that helps people deal with the challenges of aliyah — moving to Israel. While immigration to Israel is not new, and neither is the organization, with today’s flights NBN will have brought 10,000 immigrants to Israel since its inception in 2002.

As it happens, these flights also are arriving just days after a cease-fire was achieved in the summer’s fight against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hence, the fanfare has become even more festive, with NBN’s usual live music, flags, clowns, balloons and food, as well as a ceremony where NBN officials will speak, and high-ranking government officers, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, will use the moment to highlight how terrorist attacks have not deterred immigration.

Portable stairs are rolled over to the El Al planes so that people can land in Israel the old-fashioned way — stepping out immediately into the Tel Aviv air, kissing the ground if they like — instead of going straight into the new Ben Gurion terminal directly from the plane, as happens at most international airports.

Adina and Amichai Strasberg are draped in an Israeli flag as they make their way down the stairs, and they break into a run when they see Amichai’s sister on the tarmac, embracing her in a jumpy, screaming hug. The couple, both 20, have dreamed of moving to Israel their whole life and started planning it with NBN last year when they got engaged.

As the Strasbergs stop jumping, they look around.

“We’re not American tourists, we’re not on a student visa, we’re full-fledged Israelis,” Amichai says.

His wife adds, “It’s amazing. We’re finally home.”

Evan Goldstein, 27, says that the moment the plane doors opened, he breathed a sigh of relief. Coming from Walnut Creek, Calif., he was nervous about making aliyah, he said, but when he stepped off the plane, “everything clicked.”

He’s wearing a blue button-down shirt and a big crocheted kippah, and he already looks Israeli — well, like an American Israeli from Jerusalem, where he plans to live “in the middle of things.”

Goldstein’s known for years that he wanted to move here, he says: “It’s a Jewish country, and the Jewish future is here, and my future is here.”

He started the process with NBN only last November, getting help with paperwork, as well as many other details, including this flight.

NBN seems to have bred a different type of oleh — people under 40, who often are single or starting families, who are professionally ambitious and interested in a quality lifestyle and not just focused on Israel under any circumstances.
Once, aliyah was a move only for the intrepid; only the most idealistic or the bravest could face the trans-Atlantic move to a foreign country. Moving to Israel wasn’t just a difficult move, it also meant coping with a complex and often random Israeli bureaucracy, whose laws were often changing regarding who is a Jew, what constitutes a legal marriage and what the foreign tax laws are, among other challenges.

Aliyah also used to be primarily for the wealthy, because moving a family and household was costly, and business opportunities in Israel were hard to come by. In its market research, NBN found that “one-time expenses incurred by olim when moving to Israel were, in many cases, a significant reason for North American Jews to delay aliyah.” As a result, most young people and new families delayed making aliyah, ultimately hurting the chances of it happening at all.

By streamlining the bureaucracy, helping new olim find jobs, assisting them financially with grants from $5,000 to $20,000 and following through on their aliyah process, NBN claims it has only a 1 percent failure rate among the 10,000 people it has brought to Israel, although since that the program has only a four-year history, it might be too soon to judge.

The organization was founded by Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, now the group’s executive director, who previously served as a teacher and associate rabbi at an Orthodox synagogue in Boca Raton, Fla., among other duties. After an Israeli relative was killed in a terrorist bombing, Fass joined with Tony B. Gelbart, a businessman and philanthropist and now the group’s chairman, to found Nefesh B’Nefesh. Since 2005, they have worked with the Jewish Agency for Israel, whose job is to promote immigration, but NBN’s success is an example of how American know-how and philanthropy can help improve upon the old Israeli way.

Efficiency is one of NBN’s strengths — helping one Encino family of five, the Posens, make aliyah in just three months. The Posens were one of 25 Californians arriving on the flights that day.

“We just decided in June, and we made it here now,” says Jennifer Posen.
Her eldest, Sasha, who attended Emek Hebrew Academy, was turning 10, and the family decided “it was time.”

Jennifer and her husband, Steven, had always dreamed of moving to Israel.
“We got married 13 years ago in Jerusalem with the intention of making aliyah, and it just took us a little longer than expected,” she says. Steven will run his business from Israel, Beit Shemesh, where they will live.

Like Steven Posen, many new immigrants make the move possible by continuing to run their businesses from Israel; others, like Goldstein, who is a mechanical engineer, telecommute. About 70 percent of NBN immigrants are religious.

But there are others, like Ben Frimmer, who just likes Israel’s lifestyle.

“My friends always said I’d fit in better here,” says Frimmer, a 26-year-old from San Diego. “I like to party, to hang out, to listen to loud music, to stay up late. I like to relax, to sit outside, to read; I don’t care about what car I drive.”

Frimmer is a musician, who came to Israel with the Birthright program in January. He stayed for two months and then decided to relocate permanently.

There are all types of people swarming around the hangar on this mid-August morning at Ben Gurion Airport — smiling and dazed new immigrants wear “Oleh” stickers; young kids are holding teddy bears and miniature suitcases; families and friends have come to greet them — grandparents, children, sisters and brothers are being reunited.

It’s an emotional moment even for the officials, fresh from the war.
“Wow! Three planes, three countries, one homeland, can it get better than that?” says NBN founder Gelbart. He promises that next time, there will be “four planes landing together,” and that the following year, they will bring 10,000 new immigrants.

“Today you’re capturing the hearts of all our friends and destroying the aspirations of all your enemies,” he says in his address to the group.
Olmert, welcoming the new olim, also refers to the recent crisis and the support the world gave Israel.

“The last few weeks have not been easy,” he said, “but there is no support that is stronger, more meaningful and more significant than that of the Jewish people throughout the world. There is no stronger statement of trust in the future of the state of Israel than your decision today to come live here.”

When 500 people move to Israel, it shows the world “we are afraid of no one,” and “we trust in the State of Israel.”

To the immigrants he says, “We are not an easy country to live in — and if you don’t know that, you’ll know that soon. But this is our only home.”

It was nearing noon by the time the ceremonies ended, and the olim parted with their families and friends, returning to the main terminal to collect their luggage, pass through customs and make their way to their new homes. By now, many appeared hot, sweaty and tired, showing the effects of a long day of traveling. People crowded on the tarmac, pushing onto the buses, as the NBN workers directed them, helping them to find their way. But still, the excitement hadn’t worn off.

“That’s the thing about aliyah,” Goldstein says. “Once you get it in your head, you can’t get it out. It ruins your whole life.”

Briefs


Presbyterian Church Fixes Divestment Damage
Two years after it angered Jews by passing a resolution calling for divestment from Israel, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is trying to undo the damage.

At this year’s General Assembly in Birmingham, a church committee agreed Saturday night to ask the full assembly to replace its 2004 resolution calling for “phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel” with a policy of “corporate engagement” that would restrict investments in Israel, the Gaza Strip and West Bank to peaceful pursuits. The full assembly was to vote on the resolution Wednesday.

The committee overwhelmingly agreed to the motion after days of deliberation in which it held open hearings and heard dozens of proposals.

Although the resolution does not formally rescind divestment, most took it to mean that the drive toward divestment had been stopped, and that the call for “corporate engagement” shows a more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The resolution approved by the church’s peacemaking and international issues committee:

  • Calls on the church to restrict its investments that relate to Israel, Gaza, eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank to peaceful pursuits;
  • Urges peaceful cooperation among Israelis, Americans and Palestinians, and Jews, Muslims and Christians;
  • Calls for dismantling Israel’s West Bank security barrier where it ventures beyond the pre-1967 boundary;
  • Aims to submit these proposals to U.S., Israeli and Palestinian politicians and religious leaders.

Klimt Paintings to Leave LACMA
Los Angeles’ loss is New York’s gain, with the sale by local resident Maria Altmann of an iconic Gustav Klimt painting to the Big Apple’s Neue Galerie, owned by Jewish cosmetics heir and philanthropist Ronald Lauder.

The gold-flecked 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Altmann’s aunt, was sold for a reported $135 million, the highest known price ever paid for a painting.

In addition to the portrait, four other Klimt paintings were recently returned to Altmann and her family by the Austrian government, after a seven-year legal and diplomatic battle waged by Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg.

The art works were seized from the Bloch-Bauer family by the Nazis, after their takeover of Austria in 1938.

Sale of the “Golden Adele” is a cultural blow for Los Angeles, and especially the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA), which is currently exhibiting all five Klimt paintings.

LACMA tried hard to keep the collection intact and permanently on home grounds, but was unable to come up with the necessary funds.

Altmann, a lively 90-year-old Cheviot Hills resident, is now planning a trip to Europe with her grandchildren, but doesn’t plan to change her lifestyle.

“I’ll stay in the house where I’ve lived for 30 years, keep driving my ’92 Ford, and I don’t need any new clothing,” she told The Journal in an interview earlier this year.

Angelenos have one more week to view the Klimt collection at the LACMA exhibit, which closes June 30. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Ethiopian Immigration to Israel to Remain Flat?
An Israeli ministerial committee recommended that the government postpone a decision to double the number of Falash Mura allowed into Israel from Ethiopia. The Falash Mura are descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity and who are now returning to Judaism. The government decided several years ago to increase the number allowed into Israel each month, from 300 to 600. However, the decision was never implemented, and the committee said the move should be postponed further because of financial considerations. The recommendation comes as Israel’s High Court of Justice is set to hear a petition next week on the government’s failure to expedite the aliyah.

Reform Movement Center Opens in Jaffa
The Reform movement in Israel inaugurated a $12 million cultural center in Jaffa on Sunday. The facility, to be opened officially in October, will be called Mishkenot Daniel. The decision to put it in Jaffa was part of the movement’s efforts to reach out to middle- and working-class families in Jaffa and Tel Aviv. The inauguration coincided with the first annual convention of the Association of Reform Zionists in Israel to be held in the Jewish state. The center is to include a youth hostel, auditorium, classrooms and a synagogue. Some prominent American Jews have donated to its building, and Israeli Reform movement officials hope local Reform congregants will help raise additional funds for the complex.

Israel Expands Residency Law
Israel expanded a law granting residency to children of non-Jewish foreign workers. On Sunday, the Cabinet approved a proposal by Interior Minister Ronnie Bar-On to ease the minimum age requirement for children whose parents work legally in Israel and who want to become citizens themselves. Previously, only children who were born in Israel or arrived before age 10 were eligible, but the bar has now been raised to 14. Other requirements for candidates are that they speak Hebrew and have lived in Israel for at least six years. After completing mandatory military service, they will become eligible for citizenship. The amendment was opposed by Cabinet ministers from the Shas Party, which said it would threaten Israel’s demographic balance. But Bar-On argued that it applied to only a few-hundred potential candidates.

Kosher Restaurant to Open in Turkey
Yediot Achronot reported Tuesday that Silence Park, a new holiday resort to be launched in the city of Antalya next month, includes a glatt kosher restaurant, the first in Turkey. The restaurant will serve both meat and dairy meals, using both local fare and products imported from Israel. Antalya is especially popular with Israeli vacationers given its geographical proximity and cheap prices.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

 

Nation & World Briefs


Israel Upholds Contested Immigration Law

Israeli Arabs are upset after Israel’s top court upheld a controversial law that prevents Palestinians married to Israeli Arabs from living in Israel.

By a vote of 6-5, the High Court of Justice on Sunday rejected petitions filed against the Citizenship and Entry Law.

While acknowledging that the law violates the human rights of the thousands of Israeli Arabs married to Palestinians, the High Court said national security must take precedence.

At least one of the Palestinian suicide bombers to have struck since 2000 was a resident of Israel through marriage, and Israeli Jews are all the more suspicious of Palestinians since they voted in a Hamas government earlier this year.

“The Palestinian Authority is an enemy government, a government that wants to destroy the country and is unwilling to recognize Israel,” Justice Mishael Cheshin wrote.

But Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the country’s population, voiced their opposition to the decision.

“On this day, the High Court effectively approved the most racist legislation in the State of Israel: legislation which bars the unification of families on the basis of national belonging: Arab Palestinian,” Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, said in a statement.

Adalah likened the ruling, which means that many Israeli Arabs will either have to live apart from their Palestinian spouses or move to the West Bank or Gaza Strip, to South Africa under apartheid. Israeli officials have long rejected such comparisons as false, given the open conflict with the Palestinians and other constitutional rights generally enjoyed by Israeli Arabs.

First passed in 2002 at the height of the terrorist attacks, the Citizenship and Entry Law all but banned residency rights for the Palestinian spouses of Israelis.

An amended version in 2003, when the High Court petitions were first filed, loosened the law to allow eligibility for female candidates older than 25, and men older than 35 — ages at which Palestinians are statistically far less likely to take up arms.

Then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said national security justifies the law. But she also cited growing fear of an influx of Palestinians seeking the better life on offer in Israel, some of them through fictitious marriages with Israeli Arabs.

“There is nothing wrong with looking to safeguard Israel’s Jewish majority by law,” she said at the time.

Her successor, Haim Ramon, said Sunday that he would seek to enshrine the Citizenship and Entry Law in Israel’s Basic Laws.

“The High Court ruling appears to apply to a certain population sector, but I intend to make a law that will apply to everyone,” he told Army Radio. “Under the law, a citizen of a hostile country won’t be able to adopt Israeli citizenship, except under certain circumstances that the state will determine.” — Dan Baron, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

American Teen Dies of Bomb Wounds

An American teenager died of wounds sustained in last month’s Tel Aviv suicide bombing. Daniel Wultz, 16, succumbed Sunday in Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, becoming the sole American fatality of the April 17 attack. Wultz, of Weston, Fla., was visiting downtown Tel Aviv with his father over Passover when they were hit by shrapnel from a Palestinian suicide bomber. Tuly Wultz, who suffered light injuries, went on to organize prayer campaigns for his son’s recovery. Daniel Wultz was the 11th fatality from the bombing, which was carried out by Islamic Jihad. Another casualty, 26-year-old Israeli Lior Enidzer, died last Friday. He had recently married.

Israel Gets Spot on U.N. Committee

Israel was appointed to a spot on the United Nations committee on nongovernmental organizations. The committee of the U.N. Economic and Social Council meets twice annually and reviews applications for special status with the commission. “Maybe our membership in the committee will help make Israeli NGOs more aware of this avenue and encourage them to seek a relationship with the economic and social council,” said Marco Sermoneta, a counselor at Israel’s mission to the United Nations. In addition, he said, membership would be a “good way to diversify our visibility in the United Nations.”

Poet Stanley Kunitz Dies at 100

Stanley Kunitz, a former U.S. poet laureate who made metaphoric use of the Talmud and other Jewish images in his poetry, died Sunday at 100. Kunitz, who was known for writing on themes ranging from life and death to gardens, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1959. The son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, he gave up his dream of earning a doctorate at Harvard after being told that non-Jewish students wouldn’t enjoy being taught English literature by a Jew. A pacifist, Kunitz was a strong opponent of the Vietnam War and, later, U.S. military involvement in Central America and Iraq.

Abbas Criticizes Hamas

Mahmoud Abbas assailed Hamas for harming the Palestinians’ image abroad. In a speech broadcast Monday, the Palestinian Authority president called on the Islamic terrorist group to renounce violence and accept peacemaking with Israel now that it’s leading the P.A. government.

“We must not resign ourselves to fiery speeches and slogans that could bring about international isolation,” Abbas said.

He added that by continuing to call for the Jewish state’s destruction, Hamas justifies Israeli arguments that there is no Palestinian partner for peace. Abbas also appealed to Israel not to implement Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s “convergence plan,” under which it will withdraw unilaterally from parts of the West Bank and annex others in the absence of peace talks.

Pilgrims Flock to Tunisian Synagogue

Thousands of people attended the annual Lag B’Omer pilgrimage to the Tunisian island of Djerba. The two-day celebration at the Ghriba Synagogue marks the end of a legendary plague 2,000 years ago. The synagogue was the site of a 2002 Al-Qaida terrorist attack that killed 21 people, mostly German tourists. The synagogue is the oldest Jewish house of worship in Africa and serves one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities.

Holocaust-Era Archives to Open?

A commission of 11 nations is expected to vote to open Holocaust-era archives. Representatives of the countries that oversee the former Nazi files met Tuesday. Germany recently agreed to open up the archive, which contains 50 million files and is administered by the Red Cross.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

 

Spectator – A ‘Return’ With Echoes


Sonia Levitin’s musical, “The Return,” based on her novel of that name, revolves around Operation Moses, the mid-1980s airlift that brought most of Ethiopia’s Falasha Jews to Israel. But in many ways, this tale of escape echoes the Holocaust in its descriptions of prejudice and massacres in a region of the world that has since endured a genocide in nearby Rwanda, the scourge of AIDS and, more recently, a humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

If these Jews had remained in Ethiopia, there might have been a second Holocaust, a point implied in “The Return,” which will be presented as a work in progress in previews this weekend at the MET Theatre before a planned run in the fall.

The Holocaust allusion resonates for Levitin, who was 3 years old when her mother escaped Berlin with her three children in 1938. Her mother is the inspiration for the wise older woman of the play, Weizero Channa, who vows to see Jerusalem despite her failing health.

While Levitin’s novel, “The Return,” won the PEN Award and National Jewish Book Award, one might ask if this is apt material for a musical.

Levitin had never written a play or even lyrics before, but calls the musical the “most wonderful, creative form,” an egalitarian template that can depict and appeal to anyone.

The subject matter is especially topical at a time of national debate over immigration. The Falashas, of course, were immigrants, as well, and became Israeli citizens roughly 20 years ago.

The origin of the Falasha Jews is “shrouded in mystery,” Levitin says. Her score includes a song about the Queen of Sheba, said to be the matriarch of the Falashas, who likely gave birth to some of King Solomon’s children some 3,000 years ago.

Although the show — directed by Bo Crowell, with choreography by Donald McKayle and music by William Kevin Anderson — contains a fledgling romance, with Channa acting as matchmaker, the musical is mostly about the pilgrimage from Ethiopia to Israel. Along the way, some are beaten; others are killed. But the immigrants’ spirit, embodied in the play’s title, cannot be extinguished or denied.

“The Return,” will be presented May 20, 3 p.m., and May 21, 7 p.m., at the MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave, Hollywood, (323) 957-1152.

Search for Similarity in Aliyah Tales


“Aliya: Three Generations of American-Jewish Immigration to Israel” by Liel Leibovitz (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95).

When the Pilgrims were making their way to the land that would become America, Liel Leibovitz’s German ancestors were moving to the Holy Land. A cultural writer for The Jewish Week, Leibovitz is a ninth-generation Israeli, now living in New York City. His own story of leaving Israel — for now — and his constant grappling with that question is the back story for his compelling and original book, “Aliya: Three Generations of American-Jewish Immigration to Israel,” in which he profiles three families who made aliyah at different points in Israel’s history: 1947, 1969 and 2001.

Since 1947, approximately 100,000 American Jews have made aliyah. Last year, 3,100 new immigrants from North America arrived in Israel, an increase of 15 percent over 2004, and the highest number since 1983. In fact, aliyah numbers have been rising steadily over the last three years, with a lull in Israeli-Palestinian violence and an improving economy.

Through detailed, intimate reporting about his subjects’ lives, Leibovitz describes their motivations, but comes to understand that stated reasons aren’t enough, that the “real answer simply isn’t available to the cognitive facilities. It must be felt. It is sensed when one walks down the streets of Jerusalem, realizing that one’s ancestors walked those same streets centuries ago.” As he explains, it’s a spirituality that has less to do with texts and ritual than with “the air and the hills and the sea.”

Leibovitz is not a character in this book; his politics are not expressed. But the book is the narrative he lives and thinks about daily, albeit with a twist, as he says in an interview. Rather than asking about why he decided to leave Israel and live here, he ponders, after living in America and coming to know the American Jewish community, “why people who seemingly have it all would leave a comfortable place for a place that’s still unsafe.”

Now 29, he traces the intellectual journey that led to this book back to his childhood in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya. His fascination with things American began when he was about 9 years old and visited relatives here; he was awestruck by the variety of food, television shows and movies. He remembers his absolute shock when he learned that these same relatives were making aliyah, giving up America.

After serving in the army and attending Tel Aviv University’s film school, he moved to New York, first working in a hardware store and then as a senior press officer for the Israeli Consulate. He later enrolled in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

“As much as I wanted to pretend that I was cosmopolitan at heart, once I came to live here, I realized just how Israeli I am at my core — it’s more biological than ideological,” he said. “I thought furiously about what my move meant, as opposed to the move of my cousins.”

At Columbia, when he began thinking about a book topic, he had no doubt about its theme. He spent two years researching, making 11 trips to Israel. To find the three families, he interviewed 180 people.

Stylistically, “Aliya” is in the tradition of serious nonfiction books by journalists that look at the events in ordinary people’s lives as a way of illuminating the historical landscape. Perhaps the first and best-known contemporary book in this genre is J. Anthony Lucas’s 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Common Ground,” which told the story of the court-ordered desegregation of Boston schools, through the stories of three families.

Leibovitz is a fine storyteller, and he succeeds in capturing the character and mindset of his characters. His three families represent the three main waves of immigration: the first, between 1947 and 1952, including people who had experienced World War II in some way; the second and strongest wave, between 1967 and 1972, inspired by the Six-Day War and the American sociopolitical culture of the late 1960s; and the third wave, from 1980 to the present, when the largest group of immigrants were Orthodox families.

Betty and Marlin Levin, an energetic couple now in their 80s, moved to Israel in 1947; their voyage by ship was their honeymoon. In New York, Betty worked as Hebrew teacher and Marlin, who fought in World War II, was a journalist and photographer. They were both passionately moved by the struggle for a Jewish homeland, and Marlin, after fighting the Germans, questioned how he could sit back while his own people were on trial. After arriving in Jerusalem and finding things not quite as they had pictured, the Levins were still determined to love their new city — “where strangers were virtually nonexistent” — and did. Marlin immediately found work with The Jerusalem Post and on his first day on the job, witnessed an explosion in the street. He continued to cover the city’s struggles as the nation was founded and war broke out.

Mike Ginsberg first moved with his mother and brothers to Israel before the 1967 war and they returned to the United States; he moved back in 1969, inspired by the Six-Day War. He fought in the Yom Kippur War and settled on a kibbutz in the north, where he has helped repel terrorist attacks. Over the years, he has spoken to many groups of American tourists and now is always moved when some young American-born Israeli soldier says that hearing Mike inspired him to make aliyah. He doesn’t think it’s necessary for every Jew to move to Israel. “The most important thing, he tells anyone who will listen, is to make the Jews united, in the United States and all over the world, to make them united in their support of each other and in their love for Israel. That, he says, is what he lives for.”

Sharon and Danny Kalker, the parents of four children, are the most recent arrivals — they moved to Israel from Queens in 2001, settling in Hashmonaim, a community just outside the Green Line. Making aliyah was something they considered for many years, and they were inspired by their oldest daughter’s decision to stay following a post-high school year there. Their religious and working lives are quite different than they expected and eventually very satisfying, although in the course of getting adjusted to their new lives, their marriage breaks up. Leibovitz explains that he gave them the option of not appearing in the book once they decided to divorce, but they chose to have their story told.

What the three families — who never met one another — share is a passionate commitment to Zionism and, on a certain level, to Judaism, Leibovitz explains. He also points out the tremendous hardships all have accepted: All of them, in different ways, have dodged their share of bullets. But for the most part, these are not people who questioned their decisions to move.

At home on the Upper West Side, Leibovitz and his wife, an American who has lived in Israel, speak a private blend of Hebrew and English, and move among several communities. He has come to believe, like Mike Ginsburg, “that it doesn’t matter where you live, it matters what’s in your heart.”