Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman surprised his audience of American Jewish leaders on Tuesday when he announced an ambition “to bring an additional 3.5 million Jews from the Diaspora in the next 10 years.”

Many of his listeners, leaders of American Jewish organizations in Israel on a visit of the Conference of Presidents, said they were taken aback by the suggestion, which amounts to a 18-fold increase in the current rate of aliyah. (According to Absorption Ministry figures, some 19,500 olim came to Israel in 2013.)

“I know this might sound unrealistic to some, and others will say that it is merely a slogan,” Liberman acknowledged in the speech. “However, I say: ‘If you will it, it is no dream.’ This has been the rallying call for the attainment of so-called unrealistic goals for over a hundred years and we have consistently managed to achieve the impossible, especially when our future depended on it.”

That future, Liberman insisted, was in grave doubt. “The Jews of America are facing nothing less than a demographic catastrophe,” he said.

Liberman prefaced the announcement of his ambitious new goal with a commitment to contribute $365 million annually – “$1 million for every day in a calendar year” – from Israeli government coffers to a new Jewish education system in the Diaspora.

The speech was greeted with eager politeness, and even applause. But quizzed after the fact, several Jewish leaders said they were confused by Liberman’s proposals.

“We thought he was talking about the Prime Minister’s Initiative,” said one American Jewish official, referring to a plan being developed jointly by the Jerusalem and Diaspora Ministry and the Jewish Agency to increase Israel’s funding of Israel-Diaspora programming, especially programs that bring young Diaspora Jews on visits to Israel.

“But then we realized this was something completely new, and that they hadn’t talked to anybody about it or coordinated it with anybody,” the official lamented.

Liberman aide: ‘There isn’t any plan. It’s a vision. Just like Zionism started with a vision’

A few calls to relevant institutions – the Jewish Agency, the Diaspora Ministry and others – clarified that no Israeli public institution dealing with the Diaspora had heard anything about the new proposal prior to Liberman’s speech.

Asked if the specificity of the figures – 3.5 million immigrants, $365 million – suggested there was a plan or a budget behind the announcement, Liberman’s longtime spokesman Tzachi Moshe told The Times of Israel, “there isn’t any plan. It’s a vision. Just like Zionism started with a vision.”

Publicly, the Jewish leaders offered hesitant but hopeful praise for any willingness among Israeli leaders to send funds to Diaspora schools.

Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, at the 2012 General Assembly in Baltimore, Md. (photo credit: JFNA/JTA)

Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, at the 2012 General Assembly in Baltimore, Md. (photo credit: JFNA/JTA)

“The grand task of maintaining a vibrant Jewish people around the world must be jointly shouldered by both the Israeli government and global Jewish communities,” Jewish Federations of North America President and CEO Jerry Silverman said in a statement. “Jewish Federations have already committed ourselves to participating in the Government of Israel’s World Jewry Initiative, and Jewish Federations look forward to explore, with the Foreign Minister, further ideas to enhance Diaspora Jewish education in partnership with the State of Israel.”

But privately, the organizations in attendance were far less positive, and felt the astronomic aliyah figures envisaged by Liberman reflected an “unseriousness,” in the words of one official, that called into question the foreign minister’s commitment to the more practical education funding proposal.

Speaking of the aliyah figures, one representative of a major American Jewish organization told The Times of Israel, “If this is a serious plan, then great. But I would question whether any meaningful research went into coming up with this suggestion.” He added: “I’m being diplomatic.”

Prof. Sergio DellaPergola, a preeminent expert on Jewish demographics and migration, was less diplomatic.

“I’ve studied migration and aliya for many years,” he said. “There is a close connection between the levels of development [in the departure and arrival countries], including in terms of political freedom, and the willingness to migrate.”

This correlation between developmental inequality and Jewish migration has meant that “over the past hundred years, the geographic [distribution] of the Jews has changed radically. The huge majority of Jews outside Israel now live in countries more developed than Israel.”

Or, in short, he indicated, Jews migrate – including to Israel – out of necessity, fleeing poverty, political turmoil, violence, prejudice and genocide. Jews have never come to Israel in significant numbers from free, developed countries – where the vast majority of non-Israeli Jews now live.

“To assume dramatic migrations [from the Diaspora to Israel], we have to assume that Israel will have transformed into the most developed country in the world, or that something will happen to the [Jews’ current] countries [of residence], a total disruption of the sort we saw when the Soviet Union fell,” DellaPergola added.

And this would have to happen in the countries where most Jews live, primarily the English-speaking world, he noted. Liberman’s proposal thus flies in the face “of the logic of the whole system as it has developed over the past five decades,” said DellaPergola.

One longtime Jewish official was even less circumspect.

The simple fact that Liberman could use such numbers “illustrates a deep knowledge deficit about Diaspora Jewry,” this official said. “Liberman’s ideas are not all bad, but it is absolutely the worst way to go about presenting them. It’s hard to see how Israel can further Diaspora Jewish identity if it doesn’t even understand Diaspora Jewry.”

“I’m not sure everything the foreign minister said is connected to the reality of world Jewry,” agreed Shmuel Rosner, a researcher at the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) and a longtime journalist covering, among other things, Israel-Diaspora relations at the Jewish Journal of California.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, November 6, 2013 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, November 6, 2013 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Liberman’s speech “may reflect an internal political game,” he told The Times of Israel on Thursday. “The foreign minister sees new initiatives, a partnership between the Diaspora minister [Naftali Bennett] and the Jewish Agency, and is probably thinking that he doesn’t want his ministry left out.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, Rosner added. “It’s nice to see that there is competition within the Israeli government over who communicates better and invests more [in Diaspora Jewry],” he said.

Rosner spoke to The Times while visiting Cleveland, Ohio, as part of a JPPI research project. Liberman’s speech was a topic of discussion in the Midwestern town, he said.

“It’s good that the Foreign Minister, Avigdor Liberman, has decided to concern himself with the fate of American Jewry,” Rosner wrote on his Jewish Journal blog on Thursday. “I wonder, though, about both the language and the seriousness of Liberman’s remarks to the Conference of Presidents the other day.

“’The Jews of America are facing nothing less than a demographic catastrophe,’ the Minister said, and one wonders why. Does he think such strong words will make him more likely to sway American Jews and let him handle their affairs? Does he think there’s a truth to be told that only he can see and they can’t, and that by using strong words he can make them see it? Does he believe that no discussion of Jewish affairs should be held without words like ‘catastrophe’ thrown into the air?”

Rosner mentioned the speech to Jewish leaders in Cleveland, including “the fact that he used the ‘six million’ phrase to drive his point home (‘If this situation persists, we will lose another six million Jews in a generation or two’). The response was not one of approval. ‘This is really cheap,’ one of them remarked. I had to agree.”

One of the most positive voices to comment on the speech – and one of the few of those in the room willing to speak on record – was the Conference of Presidents’ own executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein.

“[Liberman] was saying, Look, we’ve got to put Jewish education on the map and the government of Israel has a responsibility as well, because this affects the future of the Jewish people and their connection to Israel,” said Hoenlein. “I don’t think that’s outrageous. What he said on aliyah was surprising, but I thought he was just saying this was an aspirational goal to get people to focus on Jews choosing to come home.”

For DellaPergola and other experts, Liberman’s speech signaled a deeper problem than one poorly-conceived political lecture: a government-wide lack of knowledge, research capabilities and seriousness when it comes to dealing with the Diaspora.

“There simply isn’t any Diaspora policy taking place in the state of Israel,” lamented DellaPergola. “If this issue was dealt with in a serious way, the Diaspora minister would be a full-time position, and a member of the cabinet, and not the third portfolio given to a senior minister.”

Economy Minister Bennett holds the Diaspora portfolio in the current government, alongside the powerful Economy Ministry, the religious services portfolio and Jerusalem affairs.

“For someone like me who believes in the importance of peoplehood and of the connection between Israel and world Jewry,” DellaPergola said, “this is a serious failure.”