Action Aliya

It’s a matter of Jewish life and death. We can no longer afford to be relaxed about the Diaspora. The writer is co-chairman of the governing board of the World Jewish Congress and president of the executive council of Australian Jewry.

IN “Never the twain shall meet” (The Jerusalem Post, May 27), Michael Oren criticizes President Weizman’s appeal to Jewish leaders at a recent World Jewish Congress meeting. The president urged that they review their attitude to aliya and recognize that “the future of Jewry is Israel.”

One cannot quarrel with Oren when he says we need to appreciate the mutual enrichment of Israel and the Diaspora, adding that Israelis must respect the integrity of Jewish communities abroad which are developing their own life and Jewish ethos.

But given the real crisis we are facing, such sentiments aren’t really relevant.

The president had the courage to articulate a few facts of life. His message, effectively, was: I fear for your future, because your children will be marrying non-Jews, and you will be losing your Jewish identity. Only in Israel, he added, can you have confidence about the Jewish continuity of your offspring. Encourage them now to come and join us.

Even 15 years ago, Weizman’s words would have sounded radical and chauvinistic. The intermarriage rate in the US and Europe then was some 25 percent – disconcerting, but not necessarily a catastrophe.

But since then, the demographics of Diaspora Jewry have undergone a marked change. In North America today, 62 percent of Jews getting married choose a non-Jewish spouse.

This is unprecedented in the history of the Jewish people, and forces us to confront the real possibility that Diaspora Jewry could be heading toward extinction.

In the light of this, we must re-examine our priorities as a people and as a community. What good are millions of dollars spent in fighting antisemitism, constructing Holocaust museums or building synagogues and hospitals if there will hardly be any surviving Jewish communities in half a century?

THE great panacea we have religiously promoted over the past 20 years – Jewish education – has not proven a sufficient barrier to intermarriage. It is now abundantly clear that in today’s liberal and open Western societies, education – unaccompanied by a practicing Jewish life-style – is only marginally effective in warding off intermarriage

There is a Jewish revival, but it is largely limited to the Orthodox and small clusters of activist Conservative, Reform and secular Jews embracing in all only 10 percent of Jewry, whilst the overwhelming 90 percent move toward voluntary extinction.

Paradoxically, it is the dramatic breakdown in barriers between religious, social and ethnic groups in liberal societies that has paved the way for the possible dissolution of an ancient Diaspora which managed to survive despite continuous persecution and expulsions.

As witness to these dramatic changes, Jewish leaders must respond in two ways. First, they must resist current trends by intensifying Jewish education combined with Jewish outreach; and second, they must embrace the one stratagem we know works so effectively: bringing young Jews, in unprecedented numbers, to Israel for educational and cultural programs.

Jews who have studied in Israel and lived with Israelis are unlikely to face Jewish identity problems. More important, many will return on aliya.

In the current climate, Weizman’s call for a new approach to aliya was justified. Today, as the Diaspora shrinks, the future of the Jewish people clearly becomes more and more dependent on Israel’s wellbeing.

Up till now, aliya has largely been generated by Jews seeking a haven from persecution. Today, aliya should be viewed as a haven from spiritual extinction.

Jewish leaders have to recognize the extraordinary changes that are taking place and determine what is to be done. The World Jewish Congress is currently in the process of setting up a Commission of Inquiry into the Survival of World Jewry in the 21st Century. A wide variety of scholars, rabbis and leaders from the Diaspora and Israel will review developments and outline a program of constructive action.

The president’s call for a new approach to aliya was timely and will be justified by history.