NEW YORK - Immigrating to Israel ("aliyah" in Hebrew ) was never a top priority for the Jews of the United States. But as Israel prepares this week to mark the 64th Independence Day, the subject has disappeared completely from the community's agenda. It has lost even its old standing as a palliative to the conscience of the Diaspora Jew, who is well-fed and contented. The subject has evaporated as a vision, an objective worthy of consideration, and even an abstract idea for educational purposes.
Aliyah is not mentioned at all in the list of subjects for discussion at Jewish conferences; its place will not be found at gatherings of organizations and institutions that pride themselves on being Zionists and ask for community support to build close ties to Israel.
Israeli cabinet ministers and senior officials who appear at Jewish functions have for some time stopped talking about the necessity for aliyah and are cautious about even paying lip service to the notion. The Jewish Agency, whose mission used to be promoting aliyah and helping immigrants to Israel, has officially, declaratively removed the word "aliyah" from its list of priorities.
By decision of Chairman Natan Sharansky, the agency now deals solely with bringing Diaspora Jews closer to Israel and infusing "Zionist values" into their communities. Nefesh B'Nefesh, an organization that tries to fill the void the agency left, operates privately and in limited fashion in the United States, as if ashamed to be seen doing something so unacceptable and unfashionable in the community's eyes.
Nefesh B'Nefesh brings some some 2,000 new immigrants from North America to Israel every year. That they are mainly religious does not mean they decided to make aliyah because of the preaching of rabbis or religious figures. If a small minority on the fringes of the Orthodox community immigrates to Israel, it is despite the total silence on the subject of American Jewish religious leaders.
The previous generation of American rabbis still spoke of settling the land, preaching that it was a "mitzva" to do so. Today Orthodox rabbis and other influential figures have dropped the issue entirely from their sermons and speeches.
It seems the disappearance from the agenda of returning to Zion is not seen in the United States as a crisis or even a problem, just as a natural phenomenon one must get used to and not waste time trying to change. The venerable B'nai B'rith just published an article showing a terminally bleak picture of aliyah as a practical goal for American Jewry.
Recent surveys of American Jews do not include even one question about their attitude toward aliyah or about Israel as a place to live. "It is better not to ask," says a veteran Jewish activist. "The disgrace to the community and to Israel would be great if they were to reveal the depth of alienation among American Jews from the idea of making aliyah."
What's more, Israeli representatives who have appeared recently before Jewish audiences in New York were amazed by the reactions and questions. It appears the Iranian threat and fears of the Obama White House toughening its stance on Israel after the November elections are not among the community's chief concerns. In a recent survey of U.S. Jewish public opinion, only four percent said Israel was as an important issue in deciding how to vote. American Jewish and Israeli activists who speak in synagogues and communal centers report that what bothers their listeners is Israel's widespread image as an occupying power. They very much dislike what seems to them to be the ability of most Israelis to adjust to the absence of a peace process with the Palestinians and feel no regret over missed chances for a peace settlement.
An Israeli who gave a long lecture to an American Jewish audience on the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel was surprised by the flood of questions about what was described as "the anti-democratic legislation that is being enacted in the Knesset of the Jewish state." One listener quoted the leader of a major Jewish organization who said of the summer social protests: "There is poverty everywhere, but when democratic values are undermined and harmed, one must not keep quiet."