Fundamentally Freund: How to double the aliyah rate to Israel

At first glance, the statistics published last week by the Jewish Agency regarding the number of people who immigrated to Israel in 2018 would appear to be quite encouraging, ostensibly providing some welcome good news.

According to the data, immigration rose by 5% over the previous year, from 28,220 arrivals in 2017 to 29,600 last year. In addition, the number of newcomers from Russia soared by 45%, while the tally of those making the journey from Argentina increased by a healthy 17%. It is, of course, tempting to sit back, look at these figures and relish the idea that Israel continues to serve as a magnet for Jews worldwide.

But facts are stubborn things, as John Adams noted in 1770, “and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

In this instance, when one takes a closer look at aliyah figures, “the state of facts and evidence” is actually quite disturbing.

To begin with, more than half of all immigrants to Israel last year came from just two countries, Russia and Ukraine, which together accounted for 17,000 people, or over 57% of the total.

That means that fewer than 13,000 people immigrated to Israel in 2018 from the rest of the entire world, which is a paltry showing indeed.

Worse yet, despite rising antisemitism and economic uncertainty, the number of immigrants from various countries actually declined.
Take, for example, France, where many Jews are afraid to wear a yarmulke in public out of fear for their personal safety.

Nonetheless, whereas in 2015 a whopping 7,900 French Jews made aliyah, just 2,600 made the move in 2018. That is the lowest figure in more than five years.

British aliyah also saw a drop of 4%, with just 500 Jews moving to Israel from the UK last year amid fears that Labour Party chairman Jeremy Corbyn is antisemitic, as are many of his followers.

This trend is particularly worrisome given the mounting hostility to Jews across Europe, which one would have thought would have prompted an accelerating exodus.

Just last month, the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) conducted a large survey of 16,395 Jews in 12 EU member states that found that more than a third of European Jews have considered emigrating over the past five years because they do not feel safe. Some 90% said that European antisemitism has gotten worse in recent years, and 71% said they had gone so far as hiding items that might identify them as Jews in public in order to protect themselves.

Michael O’Flaherty, head of the FRA, said, “The findings make for a sobering read. They underscore that antisemitism remains pervasive across the EU and has, in many ways, become disturbingly normalized.”

Clearly, Israel needs to do more to attract aliyah, especially when so many potential immigrants are increasingly considering the possibility of emigrating from the lands of their birth.

Aliyah has always been the lifeblood of the nation, building the country and infusing the Jewish state with new energy and dynamism. That is why it is essential that steps be taken to significantly boost the annual rate of immigration, as this will ensure that the country continues to grow and prosper.

With a little creativity and a lot more foresight, Israel can easily double or triple the number of people who make aliyah each year.
On the one hand, world Jewry is clearly not rushing to move to the Jewish state. On the other hand, there are plenty of people around the globe who are sincere in their desire to join the Jewish people and make aliyah, and who could provide Israel with a significant spiritual and demographic boost.

While some may no doubt be motivated by economic reasons, that does not mean we can or should write off all those who seek to join us. It is incumbent upon Israel to explore the possibilities that such populations present.

FOR MORE than 15 years, Shavei Israel, the organization I chair, has been doing just that, working with a variety of communities around the world that are either descendants of Jews or have embraced Judaism as a way of life. And while not all of them seek to make aliyah, many do, and it behooves us to open the door and welcome them into our midst.

In northeastern India, for example, is the Bnei Menashe community, which is descended from a lost tribe of Israel exiled more than 2,700 years ago. Thus far, Shavei Israel has brought 4,000 members of this community on aliyah, with the permission of the Israeli government. But there are still another 6,500 in India who are waiting to come.

Bnei Menashe immigrants all undergo formal conversion by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. They serve in the army, lead religious Jewish lives and work as productive members of society. So why not bring the remainder of the community here?

In recent years, untold numbers of Bnei Anusim, descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were forcibly converted in the 14th and 15th centuries, and whom historians refer to by the derogatory term “Marranos,” have begun returning to Judaism throughout Central and South America and the United States.

Receiving little in the way of encouragement or support from the organized Jewish community, many of these people are heroically trying to rejoin the Jewish people, and more needs to be done to help them. In Colombia alone, for example, more than a dozen Bnei Anusim communities have arisen throughout the country, numbering several thousand people who are living and practicing Orthodox Judaism. Many dream of making aliyah, but the bureaucratic obstacles that stand in their way are difficult to overcome. Tens of thousands of Bnei Anusim, and possibly more, are clamoring to return. Don’t we owe it to them and to ourselves to assist them?

And then there are other communities, such as the Subbotnik Jews of the former Soviet Union, who number between 15,000 to 20,000 people, many of whom wish to make aliyah but are prevented from doing by Israeli bureaucracy.

Rather than neglecting these people, it is time for Israel to reach out to them and help them. For a country struggling to find potential new sources of immigration, groups such as the Bnei Menashe, the Bnei Anusim and others like them might very well provide the answer.

The writer is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to Israel and the Jewish people.

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