Analysis from Israel

In many ways, the year that just ended was a difficult one for Israel–a war in Gaza, terror in Jerusalem, escalating international opprobrium, a slowing economy. Perhaps that explains why so little attention has been paid to the fact that last year also marked the achievement, for the first time in Israel’s history, of one of Zionism’s longtime goals: In a year where immigration to Israel hit a 10-year high, a majority of the immigrants, for the first time ever, came from the West. In other words, for the first time ever, most immigrants came to Israel not because they had no other options, but because they wanted to come.

Granted, rising anti-Semitism in Europe contributed to the immigration surge; Jews from France, where anti-Semitism has increasingly turned violent, constituted more than a quarter of the 26,500 immigrants. But there’s another factor as well, epitomized by the identical and completely unsolicited comments I independently received from citizens of two different European countries at last week’s Limmud UK conference: Europe, they said, feels dead. Israel feels alive.

And it’s worth noting that neither of the speakers came from one of the continent’s economic basket cases. They came from Britain and the Netherlands, two of Europe’s stronger economies.

Indeed, as Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky pointed out, until not long ago, even French Jews who wanted to leave Europe preferred to go to Montreal. Today, as many as 70 percent choose Israel–and the number is likely to keep growing. A year ago, the Jewish Agency ran one immigration information seminar a month in France, Sharansky said. Now, it runs two a day.

I don’t know whether Tel Aviv’s building boom really outpaces construction in European cities, or whether Israelis really smile more than Europeans–both factors my Limmud interlocutors cited as contributing to their impression of Israel’s vibrancy. But one thing they said is certainly correct: You see more children in Israel than you do in Europe. In fact, Israel is the only country in the Western world with a birthrate above replacement rate.

And in that sense, their assessment is literal truth: Europe’s aging, shrinking population condemns it to slow oblivion, whereas Israel’s relatively high birthrate (3.05 children per women) means it is constantly rejuvenating itself. The very fact that Israelis, unlike Europeans, are still bringing children into the world is a sign that they still believe Israel has a future.

And clearly, many Diaspora Jews do as well–because nobody, no matter how badly he wanted to leave Europe, would opt for Israel rather than another Western country if he didn’t consider Israel an attractive country with a bright future.

“Here you have for the first time, a clear thing,” Sharansky said. “There is a massive exodus from a community in the free world, which has all the doors open to them, and they are choosing Israel.”

It’s a Zionist dream come true. And a wonderful beginning to 2015.

Originally published in Commentary 

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The U.S. Must Show Iranians That They Can’t Have It All

The fact that Iran’s anti-regime protests appear to have died down is not a reason to relax the pressure on Tehran. On the contrary, it’s a reason to increase it through serious sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program as well as its support for terror and regional aggression. The protests will only become a truly mass movement if enough Iranians come to realize what the protesters already have: Contrary to the promise held out by the nuclear deal, Iran can’t have it all. Terror and military aggression are incompatible with a thriving economy.

To understand why more pressure is needed, it’s worth revisiting a New York Times article from November that has been widely but somewhat unfairly derided. In it, reporter Thomas Erdbrink wrote that “The two most popular stars in Iran today—a country with thriving film, theater, and music industries—are not actors or singers but two establishment figures: Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s regional military effort, which is widely seen as a smashing success; and the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the symbol of a reasonable and measured Iran.”

The derision stems from the fact that the protesters assailed both Suleimani’s military adventurism and the government of which Zarif is a pillar, proving that neither is quite as popular as Erdbrink thought. Like many Westerners reporting from abroad, he committed the cardinal error of thinking that the fairly narrow circles he frequents represent the country as a whole. Yet within those circles, his analysis of the status of these two men appears to be accurate. That was made clear by the fact that Tehran’s educated middle classes, who formed the core of Iran’s 2009 protests, largely sat this round out.

And in truth, Suleimani and Zarif deserved star status. Together, they seemed to have severed the inverse relationship between military adventurism and economic wellbeing. Thanks to the nuclear deal Barack Obama signed with Iran in 2015, it seemed as if Iran really could have it all. It could maintain an active nuclear program (enriching uranium, conducting research and development, and replacing old, slow centrifuges with new ones that will make the enrichment process 20 times faster); expand its ballistic missile program; become a regional superpower with control, or at least major influence, over four nearby countries (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen); and still receive sanctions relief worth billions of dollars and have European companies lining up to do business with it, resulting in booming 12 percent growth and plummeting inflation.

That’s precisely why this status was accorded equally to both the “moderate” Zarif and the “hardline” Suleimani, defying the “moderates versus hardliners” prism through which many Westerners misread Iran. Iranians understand quite well that “moderates” and “hardliners” are both part of the ayatollahs’ regime and, in this case, they worked together seamlessly to produce the best of all possible worlds.

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