The optimistic Zionist

By David Horovitz February 20, 2005

Although the rate of immigration has fallen to its lowest point in 16 years, Jewish Agency Chairman Sallai Meridor believes that ‘aliya by choice’ from Western nations has the potential to double in the coming years

(With Hilary Leila Krieger)

In many ways, it is Sallai Meridor’s job to be an optimist. During the nearly six years of his stewardship of the Jewish Agency, Israel’s quasi-governmental structure dedicated to encouraging immigration, the number of Jews moving here has plummeted.
In 1998, the year before Meridor took over, 56,693 individuals made aliya. In 2004, the number was 22,164 –
the lowest in 16 years. The reservoir of Jews remaining in the Former Soviet Union – which drove the massive aliya of the 1990s – is slowly drying up, and those who do leave are more likely to prefer Germany’s higher standard of living and social benefits package. Argentina’s currency crisis, which fueled a short spurt in South American aliya, is over. As Meridor himself notes, even those coming to Israel for reasons of financial or political hardship (excluding Ethiopians) are choosing to move rather than being forced to do so – they are not being driven out or facing life-threatening poverty. And that choice is one few are making.

Yet Meridor, in demeanor both genial and gentle, remains upbeat. He doesn’t give the impression that he will be inspiring the yearning masses to hop on their free El Al flights due to charisma or sheer force of character. But his willing embrace of change is encouraging precisely because of his bureaucratic persona.

It seems genuine, for instance, when he speaks of the Jewish Agency’s need to welcome private enterprises – from birthright israel to Nefesh B’Nefesh – which have entered the agency’s own field of attracting North Americans to make both short-term and lifetime trips to Israel.

And he is the first to bring up the Jewish Agency’s need for a major overhaul, for a New World approach for New World olim.

Whether the agency can pack the punch it needs will only be seen over the long-term, though the first clues will be revealed at the agency’s Board of Governors’ meeting opening Sunday. The board, which has already agreed in principle to a new strategic plan, will be hammering out the details over the next three days – and most crucially, the budgets – for how to go about such a facelift.

The result, Meridor maintains, can help Israel meet Ariel Sharon’s longed-for one-million-immigrant mark during the course of the next generation. It sounds quixotic, but Meridor insists it’s merely optimistic.

Why do you think around a year and half ago Prime Minister Ariel Sharon virtually stopped talking about one million immigrants, which has a profound implication for how he’s leading this country? Why is there this shift? And did you even believe one million Western olim was likely? Do you think it’s possible now?

I don’t see a shift in Sharon’s attitude toward aliya. I speak with him quite often and it’s extremely high on his agenda… I think he still thinks there could be a million olim from the West. I think all of us agree there could be a million olim from the West. The question is over how long a period of time. This is, in my view, the question. I think that in the range of a generation, whether it’s 20 years or 30 years, we should strive to get to this number. And Ariel Sharon speaks about 15 years…

There is still a major pool for aliya from the Former Soviet Union. If the economic situation here improves and if the Germans stop offering incentives for Jews to come to Germany, especially under the refugee umbrella, I think we’ll see an increase in aliya from the Former Soviet Union. There could be 25,000 people a year who consider Israel a very real option. And now only 10,000 are making the move.

There is a much high potential for immigration, from Europe, largely from France, and from North America, too. I think we should strive over three years to double the numbers from France, from North America, and Canada. It depends on what happens in Israel, and it largely depends on a total redesign of our efforts, which have been very successful addressing an old-market situation. They should be re-engineered to fit the new market situation. I think we are in a range, looking three years ahead, of something between 15-35,000. If we are now at 22,000, falling to 15,000 is not outside the realm of possibility, and it could grow to 35,000…

We’re dealing today with people who are making aliya as a voluntary choice decision. Except for the Falash Mura, none of them is driven out… Even in countries that we would refer to as in distress, there is an element of choice.

First of all, the desire to come will be largely motivated by the value system which they believe they could adhere to better were they to move to Israel and live in Israel, which means we have to invest a lot – and there’s a partnership with the government on the Masa program [subsidizing 18- to 26-year-olds to spend semesters in Israel] – in educating people to be in a position that Jewishly they want to choose or consider seriously this option of living in Israel as the better Jewish choice for them.

Secondly, they will have to be able to cross certain barriers of fear of such a major move. I’m sure that there is a very large group of people – I would estimate 100,000 people, maybe more – who I would estimate every year are standing on the shore of the river and want to move to the other side. And they are concerned about two things: Can they cross the river… And secondly, are they going to be able to make it on the other shore? And we have to deal with these two issues. I think it’s not about convincing Jews to move to Israel. It’s about educating Jews to have values encouraging such a move, and then overcoming the fear of the move.

What are you considering doing to bring them across that river?

There are three groups that are interconnected, and it would be wrong to look at them separately, but I will just for the sake of discussion. There are those between the ages of 15 and 25. They usually don’t have to take care of a family… For them it’s about building quality educational opportunities when they move to Israel. The second is people with families. For them it’s largely about employment opportunities in Israel. Here we need to be at the point where many of them either already have an option before they make the move, or we can build systems where you can create a very high percentage of success for people to have a better assessment of the risk they are taking and then minimize that risk… And then, to take away barriers. For example, in the matter of licensing of professions in Israel, from doctors to others.

So what have you been able to do so far to cut through the bureaucracy?

What we’ve accomplished so far is easing [up] in terms of tests, so people can take the tests in different languages and, if we can establish a group of doctors, dentists, professionals, in the [home] country before they come, they can take the tests in the country rather than take the risk of coming to Israel, where who knows if they would pass the test or not. And this is a step forward.

But this is only a step forward. We need to work on changing the relationships which are – even if it’s not the intention – too protective of local interests and which I don’t think suit the nature of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and the very key principle of the existence of Israel, that every Jew wherever he was born has equal rights in Israel if he were to choose to become a citizen of Israel.

And what more will you do in the future?

The third group of potential olim is [made up of] people who have already earned assets outside of Israel, [mostly people] over 55. Here the question of taxes is coming into play in a very important way. We’re going to establish a committee of tax experts, in Israel and internationally, that will work with us on the issue. We hear many things from people in the Diaspora, that taxes in Israel are making it nearly impossible for them to move to Israel. And people who planned to move to Israel when they retire now face a situation where what they’re going to be left with is significantly less than what they were banking on and they cannot fulfill what they wanted to achieve… At the end of the day, if these people aren’t coming to Israel, Israel is losing multiple times.

It sounds as if what you’re saying is that between bureaucracy and tax regulations we’re needlessly deterring thousand of immigrants.

It may be a true assessment. I haven’t counted them one by one, but there’s a significant chance that, were we to remove the barriers – bureaucratic and other – that we would enable thousands more who would have come, to actually come.

Did the past four years make a big difference in terms of the numbers of Jews even at the river bank contemplating moving here?

I don’t think so. Our focus is the younger generation of Jews… In 2004 we had a record number of people coming on Israel educational experiences, including birthright and the Israel Experience… We had 35,000 youngsters, which is more than ever, ever before. If you think about the future, of building a group of people whose set of values either drives them to be committed Jews connected to Israel living in the Diaspora or making aliya, many of them are graduates of these different Israel programs.

With the government, we now have this strategic initiative of Masa, of reaching 20,000 a year coming for a year program in Israel… If one of every four or five of all Jews in the [relevant] age cohort coming back to Israel for a year or two, we will have saved the Jewish world for the future and we will have created the reservoir for aliya-of-choice for a generation or two. And I think that it’s in our hands…

First of all we need to build again a five-year projection and a commitment to birthright [which brings 18- to 26-year-olds on free 10-day trips], because I think we need to increase birthright from 19,000 to 25,000 to 30,000 over the next five years, to be part of the same picture that I was trying to create before. Birthright unfortunately is going down from 19,500 this year to 15,500 next year for lack of funding. We, as partners in birthright, insist that we have at least 20,000 participants.

Yet there’s been criticism that the Jewish Agency has the money and could contribute it to birthright, which has already proved itself to be successful, and is instead started the new Masa program. So why not invest it in birthright instead?

The Jewish Agency proudly increased by 100 percent its share in birthright. Formerly, we proudly increased it by 200 percent, moving from 2004 to 2005. Our formal commitment for the past five years was $1.6 million a year. Because we were genuinely excited about the program, we actually moved to pay $2.5 million a year over the past five years, even though we were not committed to do that. And we voluntarily moved the numbers up for the coming five years to $5 million a year. We made a five-year commitment when no other partner made such a commitment… I think that birthright is a critical piece, but only a piece of the strategy.
And I believe our shared vision should be, in order to, if you will, save the children and ensure the future, is really to build these two layers [of short and long-term programs].

In terms of bringing more immigrants from the West, Nefesh B’Nefesh, a private organization, has been instrumental in terms of increasing the numbers from North America. Now a similar program is being launched in France. If these programs are succeeding where the Jewish Agency hasn’t, what does that say about the Jewish Agency and the need for it?

The work of those two groups – and they’re not the only groups – have from the very outset, from the very, very beginning been [coordinated] together with the Jewish Agency. And we are investing our money in Nefesh B’Nefesh. The partnership with Nefesh B’Nefesh is financial, and we are investing $1,000 in each immigrant, which is about 33 percent of the total investment. We are sending all the immigrants to Nefesh B’Nefesh. Many of the immigrants coming to Nefesh B’Nefesh are referred by the Jewish Agency. We are developing initiatives together. I see it as a full partnership.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at new initiatives as competition. To me, the more initiatives like Nefesh B’Nefesh there are, the better it is for aliya for the Jewish Agency. At bottom, we are not about strategy that is best for the Jewish Agency. We are about impact. We are not about process. Our bottom line is how many immigrants come to Israel. We try to achieve that in every way that is reasonable and decent with every group we work with…

How has Israel done in welcoming non-Orthodox Jews?

In terms of aliya from the West, and not only in terms of aliya from the West, but in terms of Israel’s role as the core component of the Jewish people, Israel needs to be relevant to the Jewish people, and the more Jewish and democratic, and the more all-inclusive Jewishly, the more pluralistic Israel can be, it will be more relevant – yes, as a magnet for aliya, but also as a source of pride for Jews living in the Diaspora. And I don’t see Israel only as a place for drawing immigrants from the Diaspora and, if you want, drying up the Diaspora. I see it as Israel’s responsibility to be the core element for Jewish being wherever Jews choose to live.

Do you think the Orthodox monopoly is deterring immigrants just as bureaucracy and tax regulations are?

I’m not anti-Orthodox… I’m very much against stigmas. I’m against labelling. I know many Orthodox people who are open-hearted and open-minded and make a great contribution to the well-being and future of our people in the area of Jewish continuity and aliya.

You may have on the far-right of Orthodoxy people who want to make Israel less democratic, and maybe much less pluralistic. You may also have on the very left side people who would like to make the state less Jewish. I think if these two extremes, which don’t encompass most of Israel, move each one in his own direction, then Israel becomes less relevant to the Jewish people.

How do you assess Israel’s integration of the non-Jewish Russian immigrants?

We’re making a major effort.. We’re trying to convince both the army rabbinate and the general rabbinate that conversions will become much more open, friendly, humane, and will take into consideration the human aspects of the individual and the national aspects of why it’s critical for the Jewish people.

We are not there yet, but we are far, far, far further than we were five years ago… We have more than 3,000 soldiers in courses, of whom maybe 2,500 are not Jews. There are close to 2,000 in the civil courses. We want to double the number of people being converted, both in the army and civilian efforts… from close to 2,000 to 4,000, if you don’t include the Ethiopians.

There has been discussion of the Jewish Agency helping to resettle people evacuated from the Gaza Strip under the disengagement plan, given its expertise in settling refugees. What are your thoughts on that?

We have great experience in settling Israelis… We are making this experience available to the Government of Israel for new places in the Negev and I think this will help people, if ever disengagement takes place, not feel like refugees, and give them the opportunity to take a leading part in the building of Israel, though painfully in a different part of Israel…

We are involved today in developing opportunities for settlement in the Western Negev [including establishing two settlements, building greenhouses, etc]. Should disengagement not take place, this will be available for people from Tel Aviv. If it does take place, it will be available for whoever wants it.

What are your thoughts on Diaspora Jews giving to social causes in Israel?

Jews in the Diaspora have the right, and I hope many of them feel they have the duty, to participate in the building and shaping of the only Jewish state and in joining with their Israeli brethren in ensuring the Jewish future. Thus I think their partnership and involvement, including in [giving] funding, should be directed towards helping strengthen the Jewish people and Israel, acting strategically to assure our shared future, and including giving help to the ones who have not been privileged to make it by themselves.

But I do not think it’s healthy for the very relationship of Israel and the Diaspora, to ask the Jewish people, on the part of Israel, to provide food or basic living assistance to ordinary Israelis. I think in basic Jewish values and traditions, each community that is solid should be able to take care of itself in supplying the very basic needs of its population. This is the norm and I think that Israel should understand that.

To the best of my knowledge, Chicago doesn’t usually support the poor of New York, nor does the North American Jewish community support the poor Jews of England, or visa-versa. The Jewish people gets its acts together to support communities which have collapsed, or are on the verge of collapse. This is why, rightly, Jews formed a social safety net for the Jews of the Former Soviet Union and Argentina.

In the context of a state not providing social services – Israel is not that. Israel is an economy of more than $100 billion GNP. Israel is a very solid state. Israel can and should take care of the very basic needs of its own poor.

Even when it comes to providing basic needs to terror victims?

I do see the value in world Jewry joining with Israel at a time of war, in the closest way possible with what we in Israel are going through, [so] support for victims of terror falls within the category of very legitimate…
We’re living in a world where there is no clear boundary between Israel and the Diaspora. Israel is attacked for being Jewish. We’re the Jewish state of the Jewish people and Jews in the Diaspora are attacked for what happens here. And a shared destiny and a desire for a shared future should drive us.

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