A year ago, Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog tried to revamp the longstanding organization through new emphases in its 10-year work plan. The coronavirus pandemic upended everything and made aliyah—which has not been as high a priority for the agency as it was in years past—an urgent challenge.

The aliyah figures for August 2020 tell the whole story. North America saw a 238 percent year-on-year rise in the number of requests to make aliyah. Britain saw a 165 percent year-on-year rise. Applications from South Africa doubled. All in all, twice as many aliyah applications were opened in western nations than in 2019.

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” says Herzog.

“We need to add the 100,000 requests for information about aliyah received since the beginning of the year, double the number of aliyah files in English-speaking countries and over 150 percent in French-speaking countries. In other countries, Jews aren’t necessarily doing any better. People are afraid for the future in the Diaspora and interested in fulfilling the aliyah dream.

“In light of all this, we need to be especially appreciative of the fact that 9,000 new immigrants from 70 countries made aliyah during the coronavirus crisis. These are people who need to go into quarantine in a new country where they don’t know the language, sometimes with young children and everything—and all to fulfill the Zionist dream. Despite all the restrictions, 450 people made aliyah the week before Rosh Hashanah, including arrivals from countries it would be better not to mention.”

Q: You are expecting a massive wave of 250,000 new olim over the next three to five years. It sounds significant, but is it feasible? 

A: Absolutely, yes. We need to look at the rare opportunity before us in a historical context. The government must rise to the challenge and approve a national aliyah absorption plan, quickly. The bright spot of the pandemic is the inevitable wave that is headed our way, and we need to embrace it. It won’t be easy, but we must.

In the early 1990s, we took in about a million olim and they created an enormous change. Israeli society benefited as a whole from that aliyah. Of course, it requires practical cooperation between the various government ministries—particularly on issues of housing and incentives to move to the periphery, the Negev and the Galilee. I can tell you that we have mayors and local authority leaders standing in line asking that some of the new olim be directed to their towns.

All the parameters we have indicate that this aliyah wave, which is just starting, is of rare quality. Even now there is demand for twice as many ulpans [immersive Hebrew instruction classes] for young people than currently exist. We need to encourage entrepreneurship, employment and integration into the industrial sector. But for that to happen, I need the government to be a true partner. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity as part of the process of rebuilding ourselves after the fallout from the [coronavirus] pandemic.

I’m convinced that the moment the government adopts the right plan, aliyah will become one of the tools to help us out of the crisis.

Based on our experience, every wave of aliyah carries with it economic recovery and growth. This is a huge opportunity for Israel, both in terms of society and the economy. We need to put growth engines in place, just like we did for the high-tech sector in the 1990s, while also supporting everyone who needs help until they can get back on their feet and support their families. It’s also important to provide emotional support at this difficult time.

Q: And do you see real interest on the part of the government? 

A: It is necessary, the historic opportunity demands it. We are working closely with the Aliyah and Integration Ministry, and I’ve raised the subject to representatives of the Treasury. The prime minister is aware of it and mentioned it at a Cabinet meeting. Of course, right now it’s urgent to handle the epidemic, but at the same time, we need to think strategically and prepare for this dramatic aliyah. So the prime minister needs to put all his weight and a group of ministers behind agreeing on a work plan. If the government doesn’t respond to the challenge, it could be a historic miss and nothing less than a national tragedy.

Q: Some Jewish communities have suffered critical blows during the COVID crisis, and community life has collapsed. 

A: The Jewish community in Italy was the hardest hit at the start of the pandemic. I can’t get something that Ruth Dureghello, president of the Jewish community in Rome, said out of my head: “Everything is collapsing around us. We haven’t seen anything like this, other than the Holocaust, in the last 100 years.” You hear something like that here, far away in Israel, and you try to think about how to help as quickly as possible. We have an obligation not only to the Jewish communities living there now, but also to preserve the glorious legacy of the Jewish people in the Diaspora.

Q: There was a need for a fast and efficient response. In your opinion, did it happen as expected? 

A: The Jewish communities abroad center around community life and all of a sudden everything came to a halt—synagogues, schools, retirement homes, cemeteries, the community institutions and, of course, help for the needy. At that moment, the Jewish Agency went into emergency mode: we set up a situation room to provide instant aid to prevent them from collapsing. With the Keren Hayesod and the Jewish Federations of North America we set up a foundation to save Jewish communities all over the world, which provided immediate loans to those hurt by the pandemic, without interest and on special terms. Our envoys turned into social workers.

Q: There is inherent tension between Israel’s obligation to take care of its own needs versus its obligation to the Jewish world. Where do you fall on that spectrum? 

A: First of all, it’s important to me to note that during this crisis, we have helped enlist the Jewish people take part in missions in Israeli society, such as helping the elderly and Holocaust survivors. … But part of our role is to convince Israeli society and the government that we also have a responsibility for everything that happens in the Jewish world—whether it’s in educating toward unity, the fight against anti-Semitism, or the very connection between Jews and Israel.

It’s important to note that a dramatic shift has taken place in [Israel-Diaspora] relations, nothing less than a paradigm shift. If in the past Jewish communities were the ones who helped Israel at times of crisis and war, now Israel is the one that needs to help them and thereby strengthen ties. This is a long-term process.

Q: The world has been living with the virus for more than six months. Are you satisfied with what has been done for Jewish communities? 

A: On the whole, yes, even though that’s a complicated question. One step worthy of note is what Aliyah and Integration Minister [Pnina Tamano-Shata] did to ensure the future of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, by having a plan approved in the Cabinet. That is an important statement and a signal to the Jewish world that Israel is aware of its responsibility.

Q: Has the COVID crisis suppressed the tensions between Israel and U.S. Jewry? 

A: The human mosaic is very complex, so it’s hard to answer. For example, you can’t ignore the impressive growth in the Haredi population that is taking its place … as well as the challenge that keeps popping up with the young generation, the ones defined as progressive, who are asking complicated questions about Jewish identity and no less important, how they can bridge that gap. There is an immense love for Israel abroad, which I’ve been exposed to throughout the pandemic, and I see proof of that especially during this crisis, which real concern for Israel expressed in thousands of messages.

Q: How difficult is it for you, as both a citizen and a representative of the Jewish state in the Diaspora, to see how the government is behaving during the crisis? 

A: We are seeing dozens of deaths a day from COVID, and it’s horrifying. If, heaven forbid, they had died in terrorist attacks, Israeli society would be on its feet and demanding results. We should understand that we are at war, and we need to act accordingly while preserving the basic rules of a democratic, functioning society. I look at what is happening among the people, and I’m very worried. The leadership of every camp has a responsibility to keep things from getting worse. We don’t have the privilege of being torn apart from within and wrecking the Zionist enterprise. The public’s faith in elected officials, in functionaries, in decisions, in the rules of the democratic game is being trampled. Without it, we cannot form a functioning state or a healthy society.

Q: What can be done about that in the short term? 

A: You need to talk with the public, not to them. Enlist them so we can all get through the COVID crisis together. Make the severity of the situation clear and be consistent in making decisions.

Q: There is one bright spot these days: the peace agreements with the United Arab Emirates and the start of normalization. 

A: That’s an amazing historic development. … We are already working with the major Jewish communities in the UAE, most of whom are not from there originally. They’re Jews who went there to work.

Q: Does the “outing” of the relations between Israel and the UAE close a circle for you? 

A: At the end of 2015 and the middle of 2016, as opposition leader, I was talking to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the matter. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair laid the idea of a regional coalition out for me. He proposed moving ahead with the initiative with me serving as foreign minister. … It was clear that the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran shocked them deeply. In the end, the move failed for reasons of internal Israeli politics, and Blair told me, “Don’t be sorry. The train has left the station.” Time showed that he was right. To my regret, I couldn’t reveal it at the time, and now, the relations are out in the open. I couldn’t be at the [signing] ceremony for personal reasons, and I watched it at home. I was excited, like all the Israeli people.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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