Next week's meetings of the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors and General Assembly provide an ideal opportunity to reexamine the Agency's long-standing immigration policy of bringing as many people as possible to Israel under the Law of Return.
"Turning over every stone in Vilna in search of anyone with a trace of Jewish blood" is how one critical Immigration Ministry official once described the Agency's approach. Two years ago, the Agency even appointed a non-Jewish emissary to the former Soviet Union, until widespread criticism forced withdrawal of the appointment. "Israel welcomes non-Jews" was the implicit message conveyed by the appointment.
Internal bureaucratic considerations explain much of the Jewish Agency's policy. The American government currently funds resettlement of immigrants from the former Soviet Union to the tune of $60,000,000 per year. That amounts to nearly one-fifth of the Agency's annual budget.
Because U.S. government support is closely tied to the number of immigrants, a substantial decrease in that number would cost the Jewish Agency a significant chunk of its operating budget. Pressured to produce "numbers," emissaries find it much easier to round up those with minimal or no Jewish connection than to concentrate on the smaller pool of Jews.
By now, even the most ardent supporters of large-scale aliyah have come to view the current immigration policy as a disaster. In the first half of 2000, nearly two-thirds of the new immigrants from the former Soviet Union were not Jewish according to official government statistics, which typically understate the problem. Worse, the Jewish immigrants tended to be elderly while the non-Jewish immigrants were almost all of child-bearing age or younger.
Returning from a trip to Moscow and Kiev, Minister for Diaspora Affairs Michael Melchior lamented that on visits to Israeli embassies, "we could not find Jews." Waiting to immigrate instead were "good people … with no connection to Israel or the Jewish people." Melchior described one waiting family of eight "that had a grandfather who was a quarter Jewish and who had died twenty years ago."
Until Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein's ruling this March that the Law of Return does not apply to already born children of converts, a single convert was entitled to bring in all his or her non-Jewish children and grandchildren and their non-Jewish spouses. And they did-by the dozens. According to the March 21 Ha'aretz, 75% of new immigrants last year were non-Jews made eligible by such converts.
As a consequence of the Jewish Agency's focus on numbers, Israel's churches are now filled, the sight of soldiers wearing large crucifixes no longer surprises, and over 20% of new immigrants inducted in January demanded to take their induction oath on the New Testament.
A group of former refuseniks and Prisoners of Zion opposed to these immigration policies claim that the derogatory Russian term for Jews, "Zhid", is now commonly heard on Israel's streets and anti-Semitic grafitti graces Israeli cities with large Russian-speaking populations like Ashkelon and Ashdod. A guide at the Diaspora Museum was shocked while leading a tour of Russian-speaking immigrants to hear the museum accused of not displaying matzah because "you use our Christian blood."
No one would deny that the Russian aliyah has been remarkable fulfillment of the Divine promise of the ingathering of the exiles, affording hundreds of thousands who would surely have been lost to the Jewish people in one or two generations an opportunity to reconnect to their heritage. But it has created one more demographic time bomb ticking in our midst.
Israel already has a hostile 20% (and growing) Arab minority. The political leaders of that community vie with one another in expressions of contempt for Israel and identification with her enemies, no doubt reflecting the views of their constituents.
Non-Jewish Russians, most of whom were attracted to Israel by economic opportunities unavailable in Russia and over half of whom say they would emigrate if they could, will not join our enemies in the event of full-scale war, as Israeli Arabs likely would. But the presence of hundreds of thousands of non-Jews with only the most tenuous link to Israel or the Jewish people further weakens the sense of national resolve and purpose that becomes more crucial with each passing day.
The most commonly offered solution to the problem - mass conversions - offers no hope. Such mass conversions would amount to nothing more than waving a magic wand over people and dubbing them "Jews." Even if non-Jewish immigrants were willing to submit to such nonsense, the only result would be to make a laughingstock of Judaism in their eyes and ours. Trivializing Judaism cannot be the means to strengthening Jewish identity.
Others argue that Jewish identity is irrelevant: the only relevant distinction is between Israelis (presumably meaning non-Arab) and Palestinians and all the rest is, in the words of a Yediot Aharonot editorialist, "rabbinical bull." In so doing they deny what was fundamental to Ben-Gurion and the other founders and what is becoming more obvious today: an Israeli identity divorced from Jewish identity is too shallow, of too recent vintage to justify the sacrifices required to survive here. Those who possess only an Israeli identity will ultimately choose the less demanding climate of Los Angeles.
Devaluing our Jewish identity necessarily destroys any claim of Israel for the support of the Diaspora - a particularly touchy subject of late - and Israel's ability to serve as a point of identification for Jews around the world. As Israeli Jews and American Jews come to resemble each other more and more in the slight significance they attach to their Judaism, their bonds to one another diminish accordingly.
Natan Sharansky has said that the time has come to stop seeking as many immigrants as possible, regardless of their identification, and to focus rather on creating the glue that will promote affinity "on the grounds of a shared tradition." The influx of hundreds of thousands of with no historical tie to the Jewish people can only result in "national suicide," in the words of Uri Gordon, former head of Jewish Agency's Aliya Department.
That's something for the Jewish Agency governors and delegates to think about next week.