There is a contentious yet interesting conversation currently taking place amongst various segments of American Jewry and their Israeli counterparts surrounding an alleged disenchantment and a sense of disengagement by American Jews towards the Jewish State, particularly amongst its youth.
Recent articles in the media, including one by Shlomo Shamir in Haaretz, appear to add another layer to this debate suggesting that this supposed deep sense of disengagement by American Jewry has had a significant impact on aliyah, even suggesting that it has been removed completely from the agenda.
However, the facts do not bear this out. Firstly, a recent American Jewish Committee poll found that over two-thirds of American Jews felt “very” or “fairly close” to Israel. A year earlier, researchers at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies released a study showing that 63 percent of respondents felt “very much” or “somewhat” connected to Israel. 75 percent agreed that caring about Israel is an important part of their Jewish identities.
The authors of this study explain that the findings, when compared to earlier surveys asking similar questions, indicate an overall stability in American Jewish attachment to Israel over the past quarter-century.
Perhaps most significantly for the current conversation, this study demonstrates that there is no correlation between political ideology and attachment to Israel.
As for aliyah, not only has there remained a steady movement of American Jews to Israel in recent years, but since Nefesh B’Nefesh (where I am vice-Chairman) was created ten years ago, the number of North American Jews making aliyah has significantly increased.
To describe recent North American aliyah as "fringe" is not only a massive disservice to the immigrants themselves, but also distorts reality. These immigrants come from all backgrounds and all walks of life, and they have made and continue to make significant contributions to Israel and its society in all fields. The number of singles making aliyah in 2012 has increased by 38% from last year, amply attesting to the fact that many are choosing to begin their professional life in Israel.
Moreover, as opposed to the image of a uniform religious immigrant from North America, in actuality 65% of young professional olim are non-Orthodox.
We have never felt limited by its work throughout North America and our passionate message of practical Zionism is heard across the American Jewish map. In fact, far more people apply for our programs than actually arrive in Israel, perhaps proving that demand is even greater than supply.
One could argue, in opposition to Shlomo Shamir’s thesis that the reason less Jewish leaders are intensively engaged in aliyah is precisely because of the success of organizations dedicated to helping olim come to Israel that are bringing record numbers, defying trends that have stood for well over a generation.
I am uncertain how Shamir arrives at his figures, but our records demonstrate that aliyah from North America is around double the number that he suggested in his article.
Nevertheless, the success of pro-aliyah groups is not in its statistics. From 1970 to the beginning of the 21st century, over half of all olim from North America returned to their nation of origin. Of the total number that has made aliyah since then, a full 97% have remained in Israel.
This is a major quantitative difference that has only been achieved because of a strategic analysis of what sustains aliyah as well as what prevents many from immigrating to the Jewish state. In purely fiscal terms, a recently commissioned survey by Deloitte Consulting Group has discovered that the total net contribution to the economy from Nefesh B’Nefesh thus far is in excess of NIS 1 billion. This is a massive boost, not only to the current Israeli economy, but will continue to make a significant positive impact that will be felt for many years.
This incredible contribution in purely fiscal terms demonstrates the vital impact of North American aliyah and invalidates the notion that these olim are from the fringes of society.
However, while these figures are important, aliyah is more than just figures and net worth.
Aliyah is the first tenet and commandment of Zionism. It was the basis for the rise of modern political Zionism, it is enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and found its legal expression in arguably the most important law on Israel’s statute books, the Law of Return. While many continue to suggest that interest in aliyah is decreasing, our continued activities suggest otherwise. To argue that the age of mass aliyah is over is akin to closing the book on Zionism, its ethos and abrogating our obligations to the Jewish Diaspora.
On Israel’s Independence Day, this would not only be a cardinal sin, it flies in the face of reality. Aliyah from North America is at its strongest point in a generation and interest is only increasing.
Many governmental and non-governmental agencies continually strive to increase aliyah and to look at ways to make it more attainable and appealing. We know that many are receptive to our goals and we will continue facilitating the return of the Jewish People to our homeland.
Erez Halfon is Vice Chairman of Nefesh B'Nefesh and former Director- General of Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption
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