The Jewish Agency Celebrates Its Irrelevance

By giving up its role in aliyah, the Jewish Agency has ceased to serve Israel or the Jewish people.

The Israeli government decided on Sunday to officially divide responsibility for Jewish immigration to Israel between itself and the Jewish Agency. The Absorption Ministry will take care of immigrants the moment they arrive in the country. The Jewish Agency will be tasked with increasing their numbers.

The decision, heralded by the agency as "historic", will go some way to helping it tackle its deficit. It will also free up resources for "projects that deal with the delegitimization of Israel, partnerships between communities around the world and communities in Israel, saving Jews in distressed countries, strengthening Jewish and Zionist identity, bringing Israel to communities around the world and bringing Jewish communities to Israel," according to a statement by the agency.

While this may seem like an impressive list, the Jewish Agency's gushing is an attempt to hide the truth: the government's decision has ensured its irrelevance in the 21st century. Having ceased to be a factor in immigration to Israel, the agency itself decided that rather than revitalizing its mission, it will simply opt for half-measures.

Meanwhile, various ministries will take over the job of convincing Jews to move to Israel. Their efforts to make Israel a better place to live and, perhaps one day, to ensure that it enjoys peace will be more persuasive to the world's Jewry than anything the agency can do.

In 2011, less than 17,000 Jews moved to Israel. On the bright side, this was two percent more than the number of immigrants who arrived in 2010, but it is still less that 0.2% of the Jews living in the Diaspora.

At the same time, around 11,000 Israelis left for foreign shores and the number of African migrant workers who entered Israel illegally was almost as high as the number of Jewish olim.

For Jews who live in predominantly wealthy western countries, Israel is at best a holiday destination, not a place to live. For over a decade, in any given year, not even two out of every 1,000 Jews living outside Israel made aliyah.

Each of the 10 million or 12 million Jews living in the Diaspora today is free to emigrate to Israel, including Jewish-Iranian citizens, who can make aliyah via a third country. There are no real obstacles preventing any Jew who wants to live in Zion from doing so. The overwhelming majority of them choose not to come out of convenience.

There is no shortage of information on Israel and the Internet has entirely replaced the traditional role of the Jewish Agency shaliah, or emissaries. There may be some small local fluctuations in aliyah, with a few dozen Jews arriving from Islamist-controlled Tunisia or a few hundred arriving from chaotic Greece. But, for instance, almost all of the thousands of Jews who left Chavista-ruled Venezuela moved to Miami. And the exodus of Jews from South Africa ended in Australia.

Ever since the last Jews left the Soviet Union in the late 1990s, Israel, despite its thriving economy, has not attracted Jews from around the world.  Only a tiny handful are willing to compromise their standards of living and leave their comfort zones. Those who do come are motivated by personal, ideological or religious convictions, not by Jewish Agency propaganda.

Last month, in an attempt to boost its credentials, the agency released an internal survey, claiming that over the last two years 70 percent of new immigrants under the age of 40 had taken part in significant education programs before moving to Israel. This, said chairman Nathan Sharansky, is proof that the agency must focus its energy and resources on programs for young Jews lasting anywhere from three months to a year.

A lot of knowledge, a dangerous thing?

The hidden message here of course is that Birthright-Taglit, with its hundreds of thousands of participants is not enough. But no one is going to say that out loud and annoy the donors.

Really, though, if the study proves anything, it is that the kind of youngster who is interested in taking part in a months-long program in Israel also tends to be a typical candidate for aliyah. This does not say much, except that not many Jews in their 20s and 30s belong to that category.

Sharansky says that the key to boosting aliyah numbers is providing more Jews with significant "Israel experiences." But does just knowing something about Israel make a difference? Hundreds of thousands of Jews have visited Israel at length and on multiple occasions, but still decide to remain abroad. Could that be precisely because they know something about Israel?

"Millions of Jews live comfortably in America, and there are hundreds of thousands in Canada, France, Britain, Russia, Argentina and Australia. Many of them are interested in their Jewish identity and none of them want to emigrate," says a veteran head of a major Jewish organization who asked not to be identified. "If the Jewish Agency is to have a role, it must be harnessing its resources to keeping these groups together as communities with a connection to Israel and helping them attract other Jews who are becoming assimilated. Talk of aliyah is not just a waste of time, it is patronizing and off-putting."

But others within the agency disagree. They feel that without aliyah their work will remain ineffective and irrelevant.

"We understand that we have to be an educational organization and focus on community-building" says another senior agency official who did not want to be identified. "But for political reasons and partly also due to pressure from the donors, we can't stop brandishing aliyah."