Where Is Stanley Fischer’s Successor? Home in the U.S.

Netanyahu likely wanted another Jewish American superstar economist to take his place, but the pool of potential immigrants is fast drying up

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The prime minister is getting a lot of stick in the last few days over his double fiasco in choosing two governors for the Bank of Israel only to discover that neither had been properly vetted in advance, and both withered away under public scrutiny. Naturally, Benjamin Netanyahu is getting most of the blame for this; after all, say his critics, it was his chronic procrastination that allowed five months to elapse since Stanley Fischer announced his resignation, time enough to have found and researched the background of half a dozen suitable candidates, as well as his Paleolithic capitalism, which kept socially-minded economists out of the running, and then of course it was his sexism, which prevented him from selecting the acting governor (who has already been fully vetted and come up smelling of roses) Karnit Flug, just because she's a woman. But all these flaws being ascribed to Netanyahu overlook one important factor: He never wanted the ill-fated Yaakov Frenkel and Leo Leiderman to begin with; he was searching all those months for a second American governor, hoping to recreate his previous success with Fischer.

For over eight years Israelis became used to Fischer’s confident and quiet presence at the helm of the economy, but in early 2005, when then-Finance Minister Netanyahu announced that he had convinced the banking superstar to make aliyah at the age of 61 and take upon himself one of the most stressful jobs in the country, even the most diehard cynics couldn't help feeling like supporters of a low-ranking football club that finally succeeded in signing on a top-scoring striker who might just push the team up the league. The photographs of Fischer posing with his new blue identity card could have epitomized 21st century Zionism, no longer an ideology of agriculture and asphalt but of economic stability and world competitiveness. It wasn't just about what Fischer could do for the Israeli economy, it was about his willingness to become one of us, Our Stan, not just as a guest worker, but the way he worked to improve his Hebrew and immersed himself in local life.

It's hard to blame Netanyahu for trying it again, looking for another senior Jewish banker or economist on Wall Street or in the Ivy League. The question is, why did he fail? There is no shortage, obviously, of impressive Jewish-American super-bankers; why did none of them take Bibi's offer?

Without knowing exactly who was approached and their personal circumstances, it is impossible of course to postulate a reason, but looking at it from a wider perspective, why should central bankers be any different from the other professions? We are hardly being swamped right now with Jewish immigrants of any stripe moving from the United States.

After spending the last few weeks writing about what appears to be the last days of large-scale immigration to Israel from Ethiopia, I had a fresh look at aliyah in general, trying to put the numbers in perspective. Here a few conclusions.

1. Despite all the talk of an increased emphasis on encouraging aliyah from North America and the efforts of Nefesh B'Nefesh, the private (yet largely government-funded) organization that has claimed to have "streamlined" immigration for those arriving from North America, the number of olim from the U.S. has been in steady decline since 2010, and if the figures of the first six months of 2013 are anything to go by, this year will see the lowest number in five years.

2. Even in "strong" years, such as 2009, when, according to the Absorption Ministry, 3,415 U.S. citizens became Israeli, the number represents roughly 0.07 percent of the U.S. Jewish community - or in other words, at its peak aliyah was the chosen path of about one in every 1,500 American Jews.

3. Not only is a tiny proportion of American Jews arriving here, but they are also much less inclined to make aliyah than Jews in other parts of the world. American Jews make up around 60 percent of the Diaspora's population, but only around one-sixth of the number of immigrants arriving over the past five years.

4. Compared with the figures of any of the other large or medium-sized communities, it's clear that U.S. Jews are the least likely to make aliyah, but that doesn't mean there is a stampede to Zion from other parts of the Diaspora. For the last decade, ever since the large immigration from the former Soviet Union petered out, the level of aliyah has been stable at around 18,000 a year. This isn't the lowest rate ever; there were a couple of periods during the early 1960s and 1980s when a smaller number of Jews arrived each year in Israel, but during those decades Israel's population was also much smaller. The proportion of new immigrants today in Israeli society is 2.1 for every thousand, the lowest in the country’s history. If you look at a medical chart of the proportion of olim in the population, the inescapable conclusion is that aliyah is flat-lining.

The other conclusion is that any dreams of large-scale emigration from North America are just dreams; even with Israel's economy at its strongest, the level of terror attacks at their lowest and a multimillion-dollar campaign focused on them, fewer of them seem inclined to move than ever. It doesn't say anything about the level of their attachment to Israel, only that most of them are comfortable where they are and there is no reason whatsoever to imagine it will ever change. Their numbers will never exceed a steady trickle at most, and since there is no major exodus from other corners of the world (the much-talked about fleeing of French Jews has failed to materialize), and because from September there will be no more emigration of Falashmura from Ethiopia, the number of immigrants will almost certainly slip even further in 2014, perhaps to the lowest number in 66 years of independence.

And while 3.2 million olim who have made their homes in Israel since 1948 have made Israeli society what it is, it is no longer predominantly a society of immigrants. Effectively, we are at the end of the age of aliyah; we have been for a few years. The implications of this will be much more far-reaching than just having to rely on the local pool of talent for a new central banker.

Acting Bank of Israel Governor Karnit Flug with the bank's former chief, Stanley Fischer.Credit: Michal Fattal

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