Born in Israel, I was raised to believe in the absolute primacy of Jewish life in Israel and in aliyah as the only legitimate choice for Jews living a life of exile outside it. It is only as a teenager that I encountered a somewhat different view of aliyah.
Having been sent to the United States by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on a program of “young ambassadors,” I had an opportunity to give a talk about life in Israel to a Jewish audience. At the end of the talk I was asked by a well-meaning young man, “What is the best thing we could do for Israel?”
Being an ardent young Zionist, I answered firmly: “Make aliyah.” A stunned silence ensued. After a few seconds, the young man chose to rephrase the question: “And what is the second best thing?”
Twenty years later, I no longer believe that for all Jews to live their whole lives in Israel is the best thing for Israel or for the Jewish people — and that includes those who already do live in Israel.
In a world where people are living better for longer and are blessed with instant and mobile communication, low-cost flights, and innovation- and information-driven jobs — a world to which the vast majority of Jews belong — it makes little sense to give ideological primacy to the idea that a person can only contribute to a community or a country by permanent and continuous residence throughout a lifetime in a single physical location.
Aliyah and its negatively judged counterpart, yeridah, assume a world of one-shot irrevocable decisions. This is not our world. Throughout a lifetime, more and more people change careers, jobs, interests, homes, locations and family configurations. There is no reason why any Jew in the world today, whether living in Israel or outside it, should be expected to make a final decision as to whether he or she wishes to live in Israel once and for all.
The idea governing the relations between Israel and the Jewish people should not be that every Jew should live in Israel, but rather that Israel should live in every Jew.
Israel should become the first or second home of every Jew. Home does not mean real estate; rather it means that one has a life-long meaningful relationship with the real Israel as it exists today. Israel should expand itself through time rather than space, acquiring real estate in the minds, souls and time of Jews worldwide.
What would this idea mean in practice? It would mean opening up and developing opportunities for Jews to come to Israel in their capacity as professionals, rather than as distant cousins amusing in their bar-mitzvah Hebrew.
It means that the emphasis shifts from asking Jews to contribute their funds to asking them to engage their talents. Israel and the Jewish people would benefit more by encouraging doctors, teachers, lawyers and artists to affiliate themselves with hospitals, schools, law firms and creative institutions in Israel.
Israeli schools could create programs designed to enable teachers wishing to come and teach to do so in their own language. Universities could offer more flexible programs and targeted modules that allow professors from abroad to make teaching and researching in Israel a part of their life.
The public service in Israel would benefit by adopting a proper internship program that would allow it to tap into the talents of college and university students from around the world. Promoting a host of technical measures — such as opening up the skies to low-cost flights, creating a flexible tax environment and offering a range of military-service programs — would also be in order. Perhaps a special immigration category along the lines of “Israel-affiliated Jews” could be created for those who want to work and live for long periods of time in Israel without registering as an immigrant.
The centralized and mostly wasteful aliyah efforts should be replaced by a voucher-based system of competitive provision of services. Jews who are still interested in making aliyah in its traditional form should receive a voucher that they could use to pay any one of the approved providers of “aliyah services.”
The aliyah service provider would be responsible for giving assistance in making the move, offering help in finding housing and employment and providing advice on how to navigate Israeli bureaucracy. Such a system would enable providers to specialize by country of origin, language, destination cities in Israel, age group, professions and even ideology.
The total budget currently dedicated to aliyah efforts by the Jewish Agency, the Government of Israel and other entities is estimated to be at least $200 million. That money yields approximately 20,000 immigrants, or about $10,000 per oleh.
So, each immigrant could receive slightly less — say, $7,500 — in the form of a voucher. That would still leave fiscal room for initiatives to increase the number of olim, or for funding programs that allow Jews to engage with Israel directly.
The call for a change in mindset is not a ploy to bring in aliyah through the back door. It is not about the next-best option, or about asking people for less — it’s because we can’t get more.
It is about a different evaluation of what would benefit Israel and the Jewish people as a whole. An end should be put to the idea of Shelilat Hagalut, the negation of Exile, as the idea inherent in the ideological primacy of aliyah.
A.B. Yehoshua has argued that to fully experience Jewish life, one must live in Israel. I agree that a full Jewish life is impossible without a meaningful relationship with Israel, but it is equally impossible to fully experience Jewish life only in Israel.
Jews who develop a meaningful relationship with Israel would benefit not only from an expansion of their world, but from an opportunity to engage with what is still the greatest Jewish undertaking of the past century. Israelis, too, would benefit immensely from greater exposure to Jewish life outside of Israel.
It is probably a good thing that half of the world’s Jewish people live in Israel at any given time — but it needn’t be the same half all the time.
Einat Wilf, a former foreign policy adviser to Shimon Peres, is the author of “My Israel, Our Generation” (BookSurge).