Misplaced aliya priorities

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Are we spending too much on free trips to Israel for teens, and not enough on actually promoting aliya among potential immigrants?

Over the past six months immigration to Israel has dropped sharply. The figures are now 30 percent lower than they were last year at this time. Notwithstanding the vast array of Jewish Agency aliya emissaries scattered throughout the world, a minuscule aliya from Western countries in recent years has been reduced to a mere trickle.

Yet we recently witnessed a remarkable drama unfold among US Jews whose miserable level of aliya amounted, on average, to less than 1500 per annum – from a community numbering close to 6 million.

In the midst of the intifada, with Israel undergoing a major economic crisis, an obscure group of Jews quaintly calling themselves Nefesh B’Nefesh succeeded this year in filling charter loads of aircraft with over 1,000 American Jewish immigrants.

This is equivalent to more than half the total annual intake of American aliya processed though normal Jewish Agency channels. While predominantly Orthodox, the immigrants also include a substantial number of Conservative, Reform as well as secular Jews.

Despite some media depicting them as eccentric wayfarers, they represent the best and most productive kind of immigrants Israel could obtain. They will be an asset to the nation. Of those who came last year the overwhelming majority have found jobs and remain employed. Over 90 percent have settled within the Green Line.

This extraordinary movement, Nefesh B’Nefesh, was launched one year ago, when most observers predicted it would be an once-in-a-lifetime event. Yet despite terror and unemployment, this year Nefesh B’Nefesh has delivered more than double the number of last year. Indeed its organizers insist that had they received additional funds they would have been able to bring another 2,000 immigrants.

Immigrants making aliya through Nefesh B’Nefesh receive larger loans and grants than other immigrants. The group allocated $2 million for the 1,000 immigrants it brought over – but they are likely to rapidly become self-sufficient. Indeed, economic difficulties have sent one in four American immigrants back to the US from 1989 to 2002.

The Nefesh B’Nefesh per-person expenditure is in line with what the Jewish Agency outlays per capita if one takes account of the cost of emissaries and other overhead.

IF ALIYA is to be a genuine national priority, not merely a politicians’ clich , it is vital we identify how that priority is best promoted. Should our primary obligation be to encourage entire families and motivated individuals to settle here permanently, or to bring youngsters to Israel for an all expenses paid, 10-day quick fix at a cost of $1,500-$2,000 per head?

I do not minimize the benefits of birthright israel, and if it was being funded exclusively by private donors no one would object to youngsters being seduced to visit Israel even for a single day.

But that is not the case. And since we only have finite sums of public money at our disposal, I submit that our first priority must be aliya proper.

It is surrealistic that funds provided for this Nefesh B’Nefesh project did not originate with the Jewish Agency, Keren Hayesod or any other Jewish funding bodies. They were provided by Evangelical Christians via the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews headed by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. The intermediary who brought the partners together was Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Initially the Christians were only asked to provide half the funds ($1 million), but when the Jewish establishment demurred over paying the balance, they paid the entire sum.

So we have the bizarre situation of this year’s Zionist dream of aliya from North America being fulfilled primarily through the generosity of Evangelical Christians, while the Jewish establishment takes pride in its success in bringing kids here for 10-day stints.

We should be under no misapprehension. Evangelical Christians are wonderful people devoted to Israel and its welfare. Indeed, many Israelis fail to appreciate the extent of their commitment, and often even take them for granted. This was exemplified recently at the arrival ceremonies of the Nefesh B’Nefesh groups, when politicians had a field day even as the Christians who sponsored the project were not invited to participate.

That non-Jews are at the forefront of such an important aliya activity must surely oblige us to reappraise where we are going.

Indisputably today there are pressing demographic and ideological reasons justifying the intensification of the national effort to promote aliya. While increasing numbers of Jews facing anti-Semitism will continue turning to Israel as a haven, it is incumbent on us to create a climate which will also encourage Jews to settle in Israel by choice rather than as refugees.

PRIME MINISTER Ariel Sharon has repeatedly underlined the critical importance of aliya. But his vision will not be achieved unless the government implements policies that conform to the rhetoric.

The elimination of economic incentives and tax breaks for immigrants will impact only marginally on the budget. But such actions send a wrong message and could deter many Western immigrants, for whom financial considerations represent the major challenge to be overcome before making the move to Israel.

Nor can we simply continue to rely on the Jewish Agency bureaucrats. Fresh approaches are required incorporating the kind of enthusiasm that motivates Nefesh B’Nefesh – which obviously touched a responsive chord.

Aliya needs a radical change of focus, and we need to fund concrete projects. Of course we would like to bring Jewish youngsters to Israel for 10-day freebies, but when the chips are down and the fight for allocation of funds takes place, are we are not obliged to give preference to a target of 100,000 productive immigrants over a 10-year period? Isn’t that better than freebie visits for 100,000 youngsters over a similar period?

And however much we appreciate the generosity of our Christian friends, it is unquestionable that funds for such a strategic goal should originate from Jewish sources.

Until very recently Nefesh B’Nefesh was paralyzed because the Jewish Agency turned down its $2.3m. budget request.

However, a few days ago reliable rumors began circulating that $2 million in new funding had been raised from Jewish donors. This augers well for the future. But it also highlights the burning need for the established Jewish leadership to review the situation and determine its priorities.

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