Jerusalem and Babylon / The Jewish Agency's Diminished Role

Last week, the Jewish Agency signed its own death certificate.

Last week, the Jewish Agency signed its own death certificate. The agreement with Nefesh B'Nefesh (NBN), the private organization that has been helping thousands of Jews immigrate from the United States and Canada, whereby the agency will cease its aliyah operations in North America and NBN will become the only address for those thinking of making the plunge, means that the agency is relinquishing its main historic mission in the world's largest Jewish community. It also embodies the fundamental change in the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.

In the press releases that announced the end of lengthy negotiations and a bitter rivalry of at least two years between the two organizations, the agency emphasized that it would continue being the sole authority responsible for determining the eligibility of potential immigrants for Israeli citizenship - in that way it would maintain its involvement in the aliyah process. But this is little more than a clerical function that certainly does not necessitate a large operation.

So why did the Jewish Agency give up on aliyah? Not with great joy, certainly. It took a long struggle against NBN, with mutual slurs and spanners thrown into the works, and even now, the agency is insistent that aliyah is still at the top of its agenda. But finally the venerable organization understood that it was inevitable. For the past few years, about 18,000 immigrants have been arriving annually, and even that will go down next year now that the government has decided to bring no more Falashmura from Ethiopia.

There is almost no more aliyah "in distress." A few thousand continue to emigrate each year from the former Soviet Union - almost all those who desired already came in the big aliyah waves of the 1990s. In Russia, Ukraine and the other republics, new and renewed communities are springing up with young, educated and affluent members who want some kind of Jewish life, love Israel, but are very comfortable staying where they are. Over 90 percent of the world's Jews live in the rich countries of the West, and even those who live in less salubrious surroundings don't see Israel as the ultimate refuge.

Only a handful of the 20,000 Jews of Iran have taken the opportunity to leave the land of the Ayatollahs. Tens of thousands of Jews emigrated over the last decade or so from South Africa, but the great majority just hopped over the Indian Ocean and settled down in Australia. Even in war-torn Georgia there are no signs of a stampede for the airport.

The Jewish Agency and other government departments concerned with bringing and absorbing olim have not turned a blind eye to these trends. Resources were shifted toward the largest concentration of potential immigrants in the world: North America. The term "aliyah from choice" was coined and packages of economic incentives were prepared to make Israel more attractive to the typical Jewish bourgeoisie. But the Jewish Agency and Ministry of Immigrant Absorption are not financial giants - their budgets are insufficient to transform Israel into a more profitable environment for members of the upper-middle class in the world's wealthiest countries.

For the agency, which is struggling with a $30 million deficit and conflicting demands from its big overseas donors, it proved impossible to compete with the public relations offensive of NBN, which every few weeks generates a blaze of publicity by bringing a specially-chartered Boeing on a direct flight from JFK packed with new olim. In a few short years, the new organization has set up a slick Web-based operation, providing up-to-date information to prospective immigrants, coordinating housing and employment solutions, providing guidance throughout the process before and after arriving in Israel, and, of course, a significant grant.

Despite all the hype, though, there are not any signs of a major aliyah push from America. At most an additional thousand or two each year - meaningless against the backdrop of at least 6 or 7 million Jews who still live there. It's not even clear how many of those who arrive under the auspices of NBN did so because of the organization's efforts, and how many would have emigrated anyway.

The agency didn't find it easy giving up its aliyah hegemony. Just a year ago, Chairman Zeev Bielski was still trying to oppose the government's decision to award handouts to the private aliyah organizations from its permanent budget. But most of the agency's leaders understand by now that if the organization wants to be reborn as a relevant body, it has to focus on education and use its budget, which is derived anyway from the largesse of Diaspora Jews, on fostering Jewish identity among the younger generation.

The apparatus of aliyah emissaries cannot deliver results anymore, and will have to be dismantled. The political leadership has also reached this conclusion. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's speech three months ago to the agency's board of governors showed the way when he said that Israel must stop seeing in the world's Jews merely a source of donations and manpower, and start assuming responsibility for the future of communities, even if their members aren't planning right now to emigrate.

Even Ariel Sharon's most ardent acolytes have realized that his orders to bring a million olim over the next decade were unfounded. Neither the Jewish Agency nor the private organizations will succeed in bringing even one quarter of this number; they simply don't want to come. Even those who continue to see the immigration of Jews to Israel as a supreme value are beginning to conclude that Israel must behave like other developed countries that want to attract educated and productive immigrants, and focus on attempts to improve the local economy so that Israel will become a reasonable or even preferred alternative.

Mass immigration is no longer a national mission. Though Israel is committed to maintaining its ability to absorb large numbers of Jews in a time of emergency should one occur, in the meantime, instead of continuing to pay lip service to the immigration of Jews, it must focus the majority of its efforts on building an Israeli society that benefits all of its inhabitants: veteran, new and future.