December 29, 2006
Nefesh B'Nefesh is celebrating the 10,000th immigrant that it, in partnership with the Jewish Agency, has helped to make the move from the US, Canada, and Britain. This is an exciting milestone, and quite an accomplishment, given that the organization was founded only in 2002, at the height of the wave of terrorist attacks against us.
This private initiative by Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart demonstrates how much of a difference can be made by a few determined and creative people.
The Jewish Agency reports that over 3,000 people made aliya from North America in 2006 - the highest number since 1983 - and that 3,000 people attended an all-day Israel festival it sponsored recently in New York City. Nefesh B'Nefesh also reports an increase in downloaded applications from its Web site, and that 12,000 people attended its informational events in 2005.
These figures indicate that the combination of increased official and private efforts - including the fact that birthright israel has brought some 100,000 young Jews to Israel - are having an impact. It would be a stretch, however, to claim that these figures show that aliya is becoming mainstream.
For now, Nefesh B'Nefesh is mainly tapping a limited pool - young, modern Orthodox American Jews. This is understandable because this community starts out with strong Jewish identification, and because Israel holds many financial and communal advantages for raising families according to a more observant lifestyle.
Jewish education in America, for example, is prohibitively expensive, while in Israel it is considerably cheaper. Schools and workplaces that follow the Jewish calendar, and a society attuned to Jewish holidays, are major assets.
Still, even if Nefesh B'Nefesh attains its aim of bringing 5,000 immigrants a year on its flights, this will leave us far short of the goal of a million olim in a decade proclaimed by Ariel Sharon and other prime ministers.
To reach such numbers, it is necessary to address the main obstacle to "aliya by choice": the perception, and often reality, that moving to Israel entails economic sacrifice. Again, this gap is mitigated for those contemplating the cost of Jewish education outside of Israel, but even such advantages matter little to potential olim who are concerned that there is simply not as much economic opportunity here as there is in the US.
Israel, of course, will never be able to completely remedy the opportunity gap that can stem from moving from a very large country to a very small one. But in today's global economy, that gap is narrowing quickly, as the increasing numbers of "telecommuters" here will testify. In some ways, the Israeli economy is already more globalized than the American one, since the reality of our small population has long ago forced our companies to be export-oriented.
Yet despite this, and despite our current rates of growth and foreign investment, Israel has not nearly tapped its economic potential. Moreover, the growth we are experiencing is not being felt sufficiently in the large part of our population that is on the periphery, either economically, geographically or both.
Almost all agree that the brightness of our economic picture - despite the years of terrorism and the Lebanon war - is the product of an interrelated combination of dropping interest rates and economic reforms led by the unlikely partnership of Binyamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon.
The removal of both these leaders from influence seems to have led to the stalling of the reform process. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has tried to have it all ways: basking in the positive results of reform, while criticizing "excesses" and doing almost nothing to build his own economic legacy.
Whether for ourselves or to attract newcomers, we must do more to expand the realm of economic opportunity by increasing competition, deregulation, privatization, and by reform and reduction of the tax burden. Far from conflicting with the goal of social equity, reforms are necessary to increase opportunities for those who - unlike the biggest companies and richest families that already dominate our economy - cannot escape confiscatory taxation and suffocating bureaucracies.
Critics of reform are right that growth is not always equitable. They should recognize, however, that the reform agenda can be the key to the simultaneous pursuit of growth and greater equity.