The subject of aliyah [immigration to Israel] has come up again recently in the wake of sketches poking fun at Taglit-Birthright trips on the popular television satire show “Eretz Nehederet” (“A Wonderful Country”) and criticism from journalist Nahum Barnea [who in a recent op-ed wrote about disagreements between the Jewish Agency and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry]. Aliyah was and will continue to be a fundamental value for Israel, and serves as one of the main elements ensuring the country’s continued existence. Aliyah reflects the idea that Israel is the state of the Jewish people.
During the country’s first decades, the Jewish Agency was active in rescuing Jews from countries in distress and saving them from crises. In the 1990s, we brought more than one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union to Israel after the Iron Curtain fell. Today, however, the reality is different. The majority of Jews immigrating to Israel live in free, welfare states and their aliyah is a personal choice, not an effort to flee. The era of immigration due to distress has ended and the period of immigration by choice has begun. Israel must invest in providing good conditions for new immigrants so they can integrate into the society in which they seek to live. However, such investments alone cannot significantly increase the number of immigrants who come to Israel in the future.
When Western Jews choose to make aliyah, it is a choice driven primarily by a sense of belonging and connection to Israel and the Jewish people. A satisfaction survey of immigrants from 2010 showed that more than 65 percent of immigrants from Western countries said their aliyah was motivated mainly by a connection to Israel and a sense of identity and belonging. The era of voluntary immigration is characterized by a phased process among mostly young immigrants. The process starts with a short visit to Israel, is followed by an extended months-long program, specialized professional training and, finally, settling in Israel.
The Jewish Agency, headed by Natan Sharansky, made a dramatic decision to put programs that enable young people to spend a short trial period in Israel at the top of their list of priorities. These unique aliyah tracks, dedicated to young people and young families, address the challenges of this new era of immigration.
Research studies have shown that visits to Israel have significant ramifications when it comes to young peoples’ decisions to immigrate to Israel. Every year, 20% of those who participated in Masa, one of the Jewish Agency’s year-long study and volunteer programs, make aliyah. Similarly, surveys also show a rising rate – by more than a third in fact – of people who say a visit to Israel is a significant parameter in their decision to immigrate.
Visits to Israel also have a positive effect on young people’s sense of belonging to the Jewish people. It increases their commitment to confronting assimilation and anti-Semitism and mobilizes them in the struggle against Israel’s delegitimization abroad. Data shows that graduates of such programs in Israel hold key leadership positions in world Jewish communities and donate more to Jewish causes and Israeli projects.
In 2011, Masa volunteer and study programs brought 10,500 young people from global Jewish communities to Israel; this number is more than 10% of the Jewish children born during the same year in the Diaspora. More than 2,000 young people came on dedicated aliyah tracks. The Jewish Agency’s support for the Taglit project helped bring another 33,000 young people to Israel in 2011. Additionally, more than 11,000 young people visited Israel through Partnership 2000 (P2K) programs, also managed by the Jewish Agency in conjunction with Jewish organizations abroad. All of these activities, which take place annually on a massive scale, strengthen young Diaspora Jews’ connection and sense of belonging with Israel, and increase the chance they will choose to live here. Instead of arguing about how to bring a few dozen people, the Jewish Agency chose to take dramatic steps that are likely to increase immigration from the West by the thousands.
This new way of thinking has won the support of Israel’s prime ministers in recent years, as well as Jewish community leaders around the world. Leaders in Israel and abroad understand that these visits to Israel are a strategic asset for Israel on two levels: They increase young Diaspora Jews’ sense of belong to the Jewish people, thus ensuring the continuity of the Jewish people; and they increase Israel’s resilience by attracting young immigrants from Western countries.
The writer is the director-general of the Jewish Agency for Israel.