Is­rael hav­ing trou­ble at­tract­ing Jewish im­mi­grants

The Washington Times Daily - - World - BY BEN BIRN­BAUM

Is­rael once at­tracted droves of Jews from trou­bled parts of the world but now faces the chal­lenge of lur­ing im­mi­grants at a time when the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Jews live in free coun­tries, for­mer Soviet “re­fusenik” Natan Sha­ran­sky said in an in­ter­view.

Mil­lions of Jews fled Europe and the Arab world af­ter the found­ing of Is­rael in 1948. Nearly a mil­lion Jews im­mi­grated to Is­rael dur­ing the 1990s at the height of the Jewish ex­o­dus from the for­mer Soviet Union.

That num­ber fell by 70 per­cent the fol­low­ing decade, as the num­ber of Jews liv­ing in threat­ened com­mu­ni­ties dwin­dled. Last year, only 17,500 im­mi­grated to Is­rael, one of the low­est to­tals in the state’s his­tory.

“I be­lieve we can in­crease these fig­ures, but aliyah [Jewish im­mi­gra­tion to Is­rael] from the free world can grow only if the num­ber of Jews who have a strong Jewish iden­tity grows too,” said Mr. Sha­ran­sky, who heads the Jewish Agency for Is­rael.

The 83-year-old or­ga­ni­za­tion pro­motes im­mi­gra­tion to Is­rael and mon­i­tors the wel­fare of about 14 mil­lion Jews world­wide. Is­rael’s Law of Re­turn en­ti­tles any­body with at least one Jewish grand­par­ent to cit­i­zen­ship upon mov­ing to Is­rael.

About roughly 60,000 Jews live in com­mu­ni­ties re­quir­ing “spe­cial at­ten­tion,” Mr. Sha­ran­sky said, adding that he is par­tic­u­larly con­cerned about Jewish com­mu­ni­ties in Venezuela, Iran, Turkey and Arab coun­tries.

Mr. Sha­ran­sky, through 13 years in a Siberian la­bor camp, be­came an in­ter­na­tional sym­bol of the Jewish strug­gle to leave the Soviet Union. He was one of the most fa­mous “re­fuseniks,” mostly Soviet Jews de­nied per­mis­sion to leave the coun­try.

Af­ter he was re­leased in 1986, Mr. Sha­ran­sky moved to Is­rael and be­came ac­tive in pol­i­tics. He held four dif­fer­ent min­is­te­rial posts and served as deputy prime min­is­ter be­fore Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu tapped him to head the Jewish Agency in 2009.

Un­like most Is­raeli of­fi­cials, who have taken a dim view of the Arab Spring, Mr. Sha­ran­sky said he is op­ti­mistic about its long-term prospects.

“Who­ever comes to power will be much more de­pen­dent on the well­be­ing of their peo­ple than the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ments,” he said. “Be­cause of this de­pen­dence, they will also be in­ter­ested in co­op­er­a­tion with the free world.”

Mr. Sha­ran­sky said, though, that his fel­low Is­raelis had good rea­son to be con­cerned about the up­heaval in the Arab world.

“Is­rael has all the rea­sons not to think about 20 or 30 years from now, but the next three years — whether the new regimes will strengthen groups like Hezbol­lah and Ha­mas, whether they will join forces with Iran or not,” he said.

He also said he be­lieved that the re­cent wave of Rus­sian anti-gov­ern­ment protests her­alds a new era in his na­tive coun­try.

“One thing is clear. The lead­ers in the Krem­lin can­not rely on un­con­di­tional sup­port of the peo­ple,” he said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Natan Sha­ran­sky, head of the Jewish Agency for Is­rael, says a strong Jewish iden­tity will mo­ti­vate free peo­ple to im­mi­grate to Is­rael.

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