A key mandate of Zionism is to do whatever possible to help Jews around the world settle in Israel. But is the Jewish community, here and in Israel, doing all it should to promote and support aliyah at a time when Jewish numbers in Israel are as much a security issue as an ideological one?
I fear not, and offer two current examples - one dealing with emigration from North America, the other from Ethiopia - as cases in point.
At best, aliyah has always been a sore point among American Jews. Indeed, so few emigrate to Israel - an average of 1,300 people a year out of about 6 million - that for many of us, it is not a point at all - an issue neither discussed, contemplated or encouraged in a serious way.
So it's not surprising that when some 330 North American Jews arrived in Israel on a charter flight a few weeks ago, in a kind of aliyah en masse, the media was filled with praise for the sponsoring organization, Nefesh B'Nefesh (Jewish Soul United), which was formed in 2001 to promote North American aliyah by providing subsidies to new immigrants, help in securing jobs and efforts to cut some of the red tape of absorption.
The group is to be commended for identifying and addressing a vital need, but ironically, its primary funding until now has come not from the Jewish community here or in Israel but from Evangelical Christians in the U.S.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who heads the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews, says that Benjamin Netanyahu, now Israel's finance minister, approached him last year to help pay for Nefesh B'Nefesh's initial charter of 519 American Jews making aliyah in July 2002. Rabbi Eckstein proposed that his organization pay for half of the $2 million in grants to the newcomers to ease their transition into Israel, and that the American Jewish community pay the other half. Netanyahu agreed. But shortly before the flight, Netanyahu came back to Rabbi Eckstein, saying no additional funds had been raised. So the Fellowship agreed to pay the additional million dollars required.
Earlier this month, soon after the first of two major Nefesh B'Nefesh charter flights to Israel this summer arrived in Israel, Rabbi Eckstein says that Netanyahu called him again for funding. But the rabbi, feeling his organization received little credit for its efforts last time around, turned him down.
George Birnbaum, a spokesman for Nefesh B'Nefesh, says the group was able to pay the grants - averaging about $3,500 a person - in advance of this summer's flights, but added that if more funds were available, as many as 4,000 North American Jews could have made aliyah this year. (About 2,000 Jews from the U.S. and Canada made aliyah last year.)
So far, he said, the Jewish federation system provides funds for rescue aliyah, not voluntary aliyah. That issue is currently up for discussion within the United Jewish Communities, but if the overall goal is to strengthen Israel, shouldn't all forms of aliyah be supported, if not in equal amounts?
A study sponsored by Nefesh B'Nefesh found that potential olim who dropped out did so not because "of waning ideology" but financial problems, according to Rabbi Joshua Fass, founding executive director. Federations should not only recognize aliyah as a mitzvah in the Torah and value to Jewish peoplehood, but provide funding--either on their own or through Nefesh B'Nefesh--to ease the new immigrants' transition. Some do, but not nearly enough, and mostly on a very modest level.
It's embarrassing that Christians seem more willing than Jews to promote aliyah at a time when Israel is waging a demographic battle for the soul, and population, of its state.
Is lack of funding what is keeping thousands of Falash Mura from settling in Israel? Officials in Jerusalem say so, but the tragic story of some 20,000 Ethiopians, whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity, is a complex one. Because of their controversial status, the Falash Mura were left behind during the massive Israeli rescue efforts in Ethiopian in 1984 and 1991. Now, though, Israel's chief rabbis have declared them Jewish, and the Falash Mura are longing to make aliyah. As they languish in poverty and illness - dozens have died recently, according to news reports--the bureaucracy in Israel is moving at an unacceptably slow pace, bringing 200 Falash Mura to Israel a month despite a government promise to accelerate the process. Interior Minister Avraham Poraz has done little to advance the cause, insisting that budgetary problems are the culprit. We should be raising a ruckus.
It is true that Israel is going through terrible economic times, that the government is slashing budgets, and that the absorption of Ethiopian Jews is particularly costly (about $100,000 a person over the years). But if Zionism is more than rhetoric, and if American Jews are truly committed to ensuring the survival of the Jewish state, then support for Jews willing to live in Israel must be made a real priority. We, not our Christian brethren, should be making the primary financial commitment, whether it is for our neighbors down the block seeking a more fulfilling Jewish life or Falash Mura half a world away who are literally dying to live in Israel.
You can't have a Jewish state without Jews, and if we're not willing to move there ourselves, the least we can do is help those who are prepared to make that leap of faith.