Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski did not like the recent attempts of Ruth Gavison and Shlomo Avineri to initiate a public discussion on restricting efforts to bring non-Jewish immigrants to Israel. Prof. Gavison also suggested considering the option of establishing tests for Jewish immigrants in order to measure their ability to integrate into the country. "If such a discussion would have been held in the 1950s, it is doubtful I would be here, because my parents arrived here without any family, had nothing and built a home in the State of Israel," says Bielski. Under no circumstances, he adds, is it legitimate to conduct such a discussion.
In response to the question of whether Israel should even have an interest in bringing in thousands of immigrants from the Third World, he says, "That would have been a good question had I been a journalist in Australia. In the 1950s, we absorbed waves of immigration, which according to these rules, we should not have done. You'll see that in the coming generations, the Ethiopian Jews, those who were born here, will eventually become like the average Israeli and will be a part of Israeli society."
Gavison released a position paper entitled "The necessity for strategic thinking: A constitutive vision for Israel and its implications," in which she argues that changing the Law of Return should be considered. She noted, among other things, that there is no reason to allow those who have no connection to Jewish life to immigrate to Israel, something that ostensibly applies to many immigrants from the former Soviet Union and members of the Falashmura, Ethiopian's who ancestors converted from Judaism to Christianity. Prof. Avineri also published a position paper for the same institution, the Technion's Shmuel Neaman Institute. While he did say in an interview with Haaretz that the Law of Return should not be altered, he pointed out that its application should be changed. In other words, one should no longer seek to ingather non-Jews interested in emigrating from the Third World, and the fact that immigration to Israel has come to an end should be accepted.
Bielski is convinced that the Law of Return must not be touched and that the clause granting a non-Jewish grandchild of a Jew the right to immigrate to Israel should not be changed. "As it stands, the law provides an adequate framework for the immigration of Jews and their important connection to the State of Israel. It leads to a lot of Jews supporting the State of Israel as if it was their only country. Any attempt to touch it would undermine the basis of the State of Israel and its centrality to the Jewish people."
Ruth Gavison suggests instituting tests to measure connection to Judaism and ability to integrate as a condition of aliyah (immigration to Israel).
"If they had held entrance exams when the state was established, it is doubtful a state would have been established at all. The moment acceptance into the national home of the Jewish people requires exams, it will not be the same home. It's preferable to deal with things like we do right now rather than close off the State of Israel to the Jewish people. Those who founded the state would turn over in their graves if they heard that today the foundation of the State of Israel has become contingent on entrance exams measuring wealth, as well as professional or immediate benefit to the state."
If the grandchild of a Jew wants to immigrate, the state can bring him in, but why should it search for him?
"That's not the situation. If only we had the option of searching for Jews wherever they may be. I can assure you that we don't search in places where there are no Jews or in order to fill a quota. We bring those eligible under the Law of Return to the State of Israel. The immigrations of communities in distress have nearly ended. Today most immigrants are immigrants by choice, and therefore I assume that those people who approach us and want to immigrate to the State of Israel are people who want to come to a Jewish state."
Avineri also called on the Jewish Agency to bring home its emissaries, but Bielski argues that there is hardly anyone left to recall. The Jewish Agency, he says, has only a few dozen emissaries left and their numbers are gradually declining. This is primarily due to the use of the Internet and local aliyah organizations. Many of the emissaries are immigrants who return to the countries they came from and they can share their own experiences with potential immigrants, he says.
More than 15,000 Falashmura, two-thirds of the potential immigrants, have already arrived in Israel. Another 8,000 are still waiting to come. If they immigrate at the current rate of 300 a month, then the process will take another two years. If the pace is doubled, as the Jewish Agency would apparently like to do, their immigration would be concluded within a year. Bielski asserts, "The State of Israel will not collapse from the immigration of 300 or 600 people a month."
Will there be an end to this aliyah?
"In handling this matter, we will determine who is eligible and thereby bring about an end to the immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel."
Would they have brought the Falashmura to Israel without pressure from organizations in the United States?
"With all due respect to those or other organizations, I don't think the Israeli government makes its decisions based on pressure."
Over the last ten years, more than 1,000 members of the Bnei Menashe have arrived in Israel from India. Many of them have moved to communities in Judea and Samaria. But Bielski says the Jewish Agency has brought only 216 Bnei Menashe, who converted in India. They arrived at the end of last year's war in Lebanon and settled in the Galilee and that is "a worthy Jewish deed." He feels that the way in which the Bnei Menashe preserved their Jewish way of life in the midst of a billion non-Jews is admirable.
All of these immigrations seem like a kind of demographic battle.
"If someone thinks that 216 Bnei Menashe will change the demographic balance in the State of Israel, he doesn't know what he's talking about."
Perhaps, as Avineri says, the time has come for you to accept that the aliyah process has ended?
"There is no need to say that aliyah started or aliyah ended. The State of Israel is a country open to every Jew. If he wants to, he'll immigrate and if he doesn't want to, he won't immigrate. The Jewish Agency invests most of its efforts in bringing the young generation of Diaspora Jewry closer to the State of Israel. Last year, we brought 50,000 young people to visit Israel through different programs. We hope that eventually some of them will come as immigrants, but our primary mission is to connect them to Israel."
The Weinroth plan
In the four and a half years since the Tal Law (granting the ultra-Orthodox the right to defer their military service) went into effect, "no one has done a thing," says senior ultra-Orthodox attorney Yaakov Weinroth, who was a member of the Tal Commission. "After all, the state went to the High Court of Justice (against the Tal Law) totally helpless after it did not provide the yeshiva students with information on the option of completing civilian national service. This whole business is a dead letter.
"So they told the High Court of Justice that the Tal Law failed. But the one responsible for its failure is the State of Israel, and the High Court of Justice is falling into this trap and not asking the state some tough questions. No one in the yeshivas knows anything. Ask any person in a yeshiva and he'll tell you that they haven't even enacted the Tal Law. That's what he knows, and he's right. What's the problem with informing the people?"
Weinroth tells of a series of options for drafting yeshiva students in which he was involved in recent years. Not one of them got off the ground. His conclusion is, "The truth is that they don't want the ultra-Orthodox in the army. They want them in the mire so they will be able to spit on them. That is the simple truth. No one really wants to resolve the problem. Israeli society may lose the ultimate other. The other is always the dark-skinned, the fanatics, the leeches and the parasites. It's a necessity. And it's impossible to uproot this necessity with ideas and a logical course of action. The present situation is just too comfortable."
Among other things, Weinroth revealed a plan to resolve the problem of the army service deferral arrangement, which he worked out with the Israel Defense Forces' OC manpower, Major General Elazar Stern. "It could have changed things in a massive way. It could have made sure that the IDF does not have to burden itself with the ultra-Orthodox population. A person of a certain age has to be given an opportunity to enter a military framework that continues until age 50. He will undergo two weeks of basic training. Not at a military base. Come in the morning and return home at night. Learn to shoot a rifle. Then he will have three tracks that he can choose from."
The three tracks proposed by Weinroth are: "Serving in the Civil Guard for 24 days a year. That means the soldier does a shift that can last from 6 P.M. to midnight and this way he can still study in a kollel during the day. He can also serve the same amount of time in civilian service. And if he wants to, he can also join an IDF program that includes longer training and will prepare him to serve on the home front, because the next war will be a war waged at the home front. Paramedics and people to treat those suffering from shock will be needed, as will people to remove debris. The benefit of such a program is that it does not burden the IDF. The element of equality is also maintained here, because the person will be discharged at age 50. This is a program, which if supported by a member of the senior political leadership, could have attracted huge numbers. It's something I ran by Stern and which was acceptable to Halutz. He told Stern to go ahead with it. In the meantime, he [Halutz] resigned."
The IDF Spokesman said in response, "The IDF sees great importance in drafting members of the ultra-Orthodox sector into the army and is reviewing many possibilities for doing so, including attorney Weinroth's proposal."
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