Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Israel has a general immigration problem; it also has an aliyah problem, to use the tradition-honored term for the specifically Jewish act of "going up" to the Land. The two problems are not the same, though in many ways, as a conference this week underlined, they're related.  High-level economic opportunity of the kind that might attract large numbers of Western Jews doesn't exactly beckon. Meanwhile, the country's freedoms and porous borders make it an unregulated haven for hundreds of thousands of foreign non-Jewish laborers, legal and illegal, and declared asylum seekers from the world's trouble spots. 

For early Zionist thinkers like A.D. Gordon, national and cultural rebirth in a Jewish land was unthinkable without Jewish labor. Things are not quite working out as planned. And yet it is helpful to remember that even during the halcyon days of the early-20th-century immigration that brought Gordon, David Ben-Gurion, and other celebrated state-builders to Zion, most Jews streaming out of the Russian Pale of Settlement chose the U.S. over Palestine, and many olim left when they could not earn a living.

Today, the challenges derive from technology and globalization, the twin forces effacing boundaries and sending people, products, and ideas on the move as never before. So what is to be done? The Prime Minister has called for a fence along the country's southern borders. Questions of image and ethics aside, this is sensible enough; but a fence is not a comprehensive policy, and Israel has none. A recent analysis wisely suggests that the country should be tough in screening non-Jewish would-be immigrants, but generous in every pertinent respect to those it does allow in.

Tackling the aliyah problem will be trickier. Classical Zionist thinking has fallen on hard times, and so, for that matter, has the mystique if not the march of globalization. Both globalists and Zionists have work to do if, materially, morally, and spiritually, Israel is to remain the place on earth to which one ascends.

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