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.