MK Katz speaking at Aliyah Conference
MK Katz speaking at Aliyah Conference Israel news photo: Yoni Kempinski

At a conference on Aliyah in the Knesset on Monday, it was resolved to begin parliamentary work on a law institutionalizing an annual Aliyah Day.

--Part One of a Two-Part Series--

MK Yaakov Katz (Ketzaleh), head of the National Union party, hosted the conference. He spoke of the importance, in terms of both the Sages’ teachings and Israel’s everyday contemporary needs, of Aliyah (immigration) to Israel. Katz quoted the Medrashic dictum, “The day of Ingathering of the Exiles is as great as the day of Creation,” explaining that never in history had an entire nation been exiled and then returned to its ancestral homeland; the fact that this is occurring with the Jewish People is a re-creation of the way the world operates.

Proposed Law: Aliyah Day

A practical application of all the speakers’ appreciation for Aliyah was offered by Yishai Fleisher, founder of Kumah and head of Arutz-7’s Israel National Radio. Fleisher closed the session by presenting his legislative proposal for Aliyah Day – which Ketzaleh said he will sponsor in the Knesset.

In the bill’s introductory passage, Fleisher wrote, “Aliyah stands at the foundation of the State of Israel... and Israel strives to continue the process of immigration and the Ingathering of the Exiles. Public awareness is critical to this end… It is hereby proposed to establish Aliyah Day, designed to strengthen public awareness, especially among the young, as to the centrality of this value, via educational activities, public broadcasts, and public ceremonies. On this day, Aliyah will be discussed, commemorated and celebrated in schools, the Knesset and in the public arena. The State will thus commemorate the importance of past and future Aliyah, the elements that help it along, and of course the Olim themselves.”

The proposed law itself is straightforward: The Tuesday before Parshat Lekh Lekha, the Bible portion in which Patriarch Abraham receives the Divine command to set out for the Land of Israel, will be deemed Aliyah Day, an educational day teaching the importance of Aliyah and of encouraging it. Aliyah Day will be marked in the Knesset with a special session, as well as in schools, the Foreign Ministry, the Jewish Agency, and the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

Jewish Agency's Yehuda Katz

First among the conference speakers was Yehuda Katz of the Jewish Agency, who said that an important question in trying to encourage Aliyah is what exactly motivates people to move to Israel. “I have asked many people this question; some don’t know exactly what it was or how it happened, while others said they’d been preparing for Aliyah their entire lives… But if we look around, you’ll that most of you here are Torah-observant; I’m not, I’m a tinok shenishba [lit., one who was “captured” by non-Jews as a baby, who therefore knows nothing of Judaism], but I know that we have to ensure that non-religious Jews also make Aliyah.” He briefly explained the importance of the Masa (Journey) and Taglit (Birthright) programs: “They give people a taste of Israel, reducing their anxieties about Aliyah and leaving them with an emotional foundation that will help them return.”

“Our message to Jews abroad is: Give it a chance! Here in Israel we’re willing to help out, with government help and personal help. We have made a major change of late: no more separation between Aliyah (going to Israel) and absorption in Israel. All the government bodies send representatives to the new immigrants in the hotel, and instead of red tape there is just a red carpet, and within 24 hours they have an Israeli ID card and everything else.”

Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein spoke of the importance of strengthening Israel’s ties with the Diaspora. “In the early 90's when Soviet Russia opened its gates for Aliyah to Israel, there was a large debate here as to whether we should strengthen the Jewish communities there, or invest only in Aliyah. My opinion then, as now, was that if we only push everyone on to the plane, we will find that all the others ran in the other direction and are no longer potential Olim… The State of Israel has invested in the Diaspora, of course, in educational programs and the like. But we have to do more.”

Edelstein also emphasized that Israel must be more open to the Reform and Conservative communities: “They often feel that Israel doesn’t want them; this leaves them open to other influences, turning them against Israel, etc. We must be open to Jews of all stripes.”

Ketzaleh had earlier said that Hassidic Jews in New York must also be a target of Aliyah efforts.

Minister Edelstein stated that Israel must place greater emphasis on Jewish communities in Europe and not only in the United States. “And the main thing is that no matter how we try to sell and promote Israel, we must remember that the basic principle of Aliyah is the Jewish factor; Jews make Aliyah to Israel - otherwise there is nothing to start the conversation with.”

Remarks by speakers Rabbi Beryl Wein, former Jewish Agency head MK Ze'ev Bielsky, Danny Hoberman of Nefesh B'Nefesh and others will be included in Part II