Alan Hoffmann can bring olim, but can Israel?

Haviv Rettig Gur humbly concedes that the Jewish Agency is right, but argues that that’s not nearly good enough

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Jewish Agency director general Alan Hoffmann is right. The agency’s new structure and strategy focus on precisely the sort of experiential engagement with the Jews of the Diaspora that might actually increase aliya from the affluent West, something no other agency or government bureaucracy can claim.

And, as with any large, fundraising institution, Hoffmann is sensitive. He flagged my claim that the Jewish Agency had cut its spending on its aliya bureaucracy in half as “the most troubling” of the many “inaccuracies” in my article on the decline of aliya. He doesn’t mention what those other inaccuracies were, and I wish he would. Journalism is necessarily a first-draft business, and correcting journalists is as crucial to a healthy, self-critical public debate as having them around in the first place.

But it is revealing that the one inaccuracy Hoffmann does raise wasn’t an inaccuracy at all. In fact, it marks one of Hoffmann’s truly great accomplishments at the agency. It was he, as the director general who managed the dramatic restructuring of the octogenarian organization in recent years, who actually carried out the drastic cutbacks in the type of aliya activities that he knew, and every study shows, has done nothing to encourage aliya.

My article distinguished between what I call the “bureaucratic theory” of aliya and what might be termed the “experiential theory.” The first, upheld wholeheartedly by many Israeli government officials and NGOs active in the field, posits that the primary obstacles to Western aliya are the bureaucratic hurdles facing olim. If Israeli bureaucracy can be streamlined, more olim will come from places like Canada, Britain and the United States.

Every datum of evidence we can muster suggests this theory is wrong, at least when it comes to Jews living in developed democracies.

The second theory, championed by Hoffmann, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, and, more recently, a small handful of government officials in the Jerusalem and Diaspora Ministry and elsewhere, suggests that the dearth of Western aliya has roots far deeper than bureaucracy. Israel, its culture and society don’t play a large enough role in most Diaspora Jews’ normative assumptions about their lives to make such a move seem reasonable. The problem is one of culture, imagination and experience, not bureaucracy. And solving it lies in education and the unmitigated experience of Israeli society, not, as the Immigration Ministry and others have sought to do in recent years, in the construction of new bureaucracies dedicated to overcoming bureaucracy.

The Jewish Agency did indeed slice its spending on its aliya bureaucracy by more than half (at least, that was the situation by the time I left the organization two years ago). But it also trained its entire emissary system, including hundreds of young Israelis scattered throughout the Jewish communities of the world, to talk about aliya, and to encourage fellow Jews to seek out new ways of interacting with Israel that might one day lead to the decision to actually join Israel. And it reframed and retooled its immense and successful Israel experience programs to be part of a larger continuum of engagement in which aliya is a defining (though not only) aspiration. So Hoffmann is not dissembling when he claims that the agency “now spends more money on aliya, has more employees dealing with aliya, and has more programs dedicated to increasing aliya than ever before.”

A better understanding of the Diaspora has driven a clearer understanding of what an “aliya policy” looks like, and revealed that a lot of the agency’s work that was once understood narrowly as merely “Israel education” or “engagement” is an indispensable part of aliya work as well.

In the terms of reference of the bureaucratic theory of aliya, the agency’s spending on aliya has dropped precipitously, and it should be praised for it. In the terms of reference set by the experiential theory, it has gone way up, and for this it should be doubly praised.

Knowledge, it has been said, breeds humility. Perhaps it is a signal of its more nuanced and sagacious approach to aliya that the agency is trying to deflect this heartfelt praise.

One more thing — and this is the larger point of my article that can be clarified thanks to Hoffmann’s protestations.

I served for two years as the chief spokesman of the Jewish Agency, witnessing up close, and with no small measure of admiration, many of the changes initiated by Sharansky and implemented by Hoffmann. Yet the agency’s retooling on aliya did not really get its fair place in my article for a simple reason: it was an article about the State of Israel. It tried to present the mistaken assumptions about aliya that guide Israel’s public servants, alongside the mountain of evidence that they were wrong.

The Jewish Agency is an NGO, and as such its horizons are inevitably limited by its own needs and goals. It raises its money from donors and investments, like all nonprofits, and is therefore not really answerable to or in any complete sense representative of the people of Israel.

It’s all well and good — and, indeed, an important triumph — that the agency has thought more clearly and wisely about aliya in recent years. But that doesn’t compensate for the fact that the State of Israel has not. By dint of sheer scale and hardwon expertise, the agency may be the most important single factor in the success of future aliya from the West. But that doesn’t mean Israelis don’t deserve a government that is capable, through its own indigenous expertise on the Diaspora, of planning and implementing in their name its own aliya policy, one that might actually succeed in increasing aliya.

As of this writing, the citizens of Israel do not have such a government. The Jewish state employs battalions of fine scholars and clever strategists to study its enemies, and strives to base its policies toward them on this deep knowledge and understanding. Is it too much to imagine that it might someday show the same devotion, the same enthusiasm, in its relationship with the Jewish people?

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