If we want Jews to make aliyah, make Israel a better place to live

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and I are the same age and fought in the same wars. We are both lifelong Zionists.

He, of course, has served as prime minister of Israel during the past three years; I dispense unsolicited advice on how to run our country.

With all due humility, I often think, to my regret, that I’m better at my job of etzes gebber — advice giver — than he is at running the country. But since he has shown himself, at his grand old age, capable of a major change in thinking about the extent of settlements in the post-Six Day War territories, I would suggest he also take time to rethink the implications of an age-old Zionist mantra: the obsessive call for the aliyah of all diaspora Jews to Israel.

I am referring to Sharon’s July 18 call for French Jewry to immigrate to Israel — en masse and immediately — in view of the worrisome growth in anti-Semitism in that country.

Sharon declared: “If I have to advocate anything to our brothers in France, I would tell them one thing: Move to Israel, as early as possible.” Enough has been said and written since about the diplomatic consternation Sharon’s words set off among the French president, government and media. The issue I would like to raise, however, is: Do we really want, and should we really want, all diaspora Jews to move to Israel?

Until two or three decades ago my Zionist answer would have been the same as Sharon’s

(and David Ben-Gurion’s): Certainly. Mass aliyah was always one of the cardinal principles of Zionism,

very much akin to the Orthodox Jewish desire for the rebuilding of the Temple, which would re-institute bloody sacrifices in Jerusalem.

But let’s stop for a moment and try to imagine the implications of squeezing an additional 7 million to 8 million cantankerous, contentious Jews into this tiny country.

Life in the buzzing beehive of Israel would be hell. And if I may be forgiven a tinge of prejudice, my experience is that a significant proportion of Jews are indeed cantankerous and contentious — alongside many admirable traits — by nature.

And we certainly don’t know how to live like regimented bees — or even like Dutchmen or Singaporeans — in our tiny, overcrowded sliver of a country.

One of Zionism’s greatest achievements over the past 120 years has been attracting and retaining close to half the Jews in the world who survived the Holocaust. Our Jewish population grew from a few score thousand in the 1880s to 650,000 on the eve of independence in 1948, to 5½ million today.

It is one of the most momentous developments of the past century. But not everything that was essential for our existence in the past is necessarily what we should want for the future.

Now that we have reached our present size we should consider changing course. We should begin concentrating, rather than on increasing our numbers alone, more on dealing with our myriad unsolved internal problems and on making Israel a better place to live — and a more inspiring national center for worldwide diaspora Jewry. Every one of our immigration waves made fantastic contributions to the Israel we know today. But the failure to fully integrate every aliyah has also left a residue of profound societal problems. The latest massive wave from the former Soviet Union is a good case in point.

I am not proposing — like the post-Zionists among us — that we rescind the Law of Return. There is still a real need for Israel to provide a safe haven for Jews and Jewish communities under threat. But there is a great difference between continuing to provide a safe haven and moving heaven and earth to pressure unenthusiastic Jews, half-Jews and not-really-Jews to move here.

Also, in a hostile world, politically, economically and culturally strong diaspora communities — such as in North America — are essential for strengthening Israel’s diplomatic and economic position.

Israel is part of a cosmopolitan world Jewry. In an era of globalization, Jewish creativity is distributed throughout the world. In this, we are similar to other “diaspora” peoples like the Greeks, Armenians and Scots, in their relations between their far-flung diasporas and home countries. The last thing in the world we should want is to concentrate all Jews into tiny Israel, cramming everything into one basket and undermining entire viable diaspora communities.

We should very much want to pick the cream of the world’s Jewish crop for ourselves.

But I would hazard a guess that we would be much more successful in attracting many more of those international Jewish elites if we made life in Israel more attractive and adopted a much more selective stance on immigration rather than shouting from the rooftops, and begging Jews throughout the world to join us.

Yosef Goell is a retired lecturer in political science and a veteran journalist. This column previously appeared in The Jerusalem Post.