This tangible threat of a dramatic numerical reduction in our people – by up to 50 percent – now places the Jewish people at a crossroads.
by Natan Sharansky

It seems the Israeli public is not sufficiently aware of what is happening: The Jewish people is shrinking. Assimilation is eating away at our people from the inside, and in a generation, the number of people in the Diaspora who define themselves as Jews will have fallen by tens of percent. As if that were not enough, recent surveys consistently suggest that the tie between young Jews in the Diaspora and Israel is growing ever weaker.

This process is being expedited “thanks” to the vitriolic anti-Israeli incitement our enemies are waging. If any of us still harbors the illusion that the world will like Israel if we join the club of developed nations, or if Israelis win Nobel Prizes, the Gaza flotilla episode proved the opposite. The terrible animosity toward Israel is also seeping into the Jewish world, and this is yet another reason, according to the experts, why young Jews, mainly on college and university campuses, drop all connection with Israel. Quite often I meet students abroad who say they are embarrassed to display their Jewishness publicly. Sometimes these youngsters say they would feel more comfortable if Israel didn’t exist at all.

This tangible threat of a dramatic numerical reduction in our people – by up to 50 percent – now places the Jewish people, and as a consequence, the Jewish Agency for Israel, at a crossroads. The agency could rest on its laurels. Only a few months ago, we presented the Israeli public with an exciting fact: For the first time in a decade, the number of Jews making aliyah had grown. And this was not any old growth, but a nice jump of 17 percent in 2009 over the preceding year.

There are three possible explanations for this: the global economic crisis, the strength of the Israeli economy, and the agency’s work.

Aliyah was and always will be a key goal of the Jewish Agency, a part of its genetic code. But unless the roots are strengthened, the tree’s fruit will die and the branches will become weaker. In other words, aliyah will decline, assimilation will rise, and the momentum of young people becoming alienated from Zionist values and the Jewish state will increase.

The necessary conclusion is that the agency leadership and I, as its chairman during the past year, must mobilize with speed to confront these threats. Indeed, the organization’s board of governors, in its meetings in Jerusalem this week, devoted most of its time to working out – and approving – a new strategic plan for the organization, toward “enhancing the Jewish Agency’s activity of strengthening young Jews’ ties to Israel and the Jewish people.”

To accomplish this, we will invest in a variety of resources. This will include the launching of new programs for young Jews to visit Israel, increasing the number of Israelis working as youth counselors in Jewish summer camps overseas, doubling the number of education emissaries in foreign universities and Jewish communities, organizing summer camps in Israel for youth from the former Soviet Union, and introducing more programs to improve young Diaspora Jews’ familiarity with the Jewish state.

I am convinced that these and other activities will strengthen the next generation’s feeling of connectedness with Israel, boost aliyah and reduce the threat of the Jewish people fading away. We also hope that the strategic change will have a two-way effect: Young people in the Diaspora will be exposed to Israel, and young Israelis, many of whom take no interest in their brethren abroad, will get to know them. The national roots and Jewish identity of both will be strengthened. The Jewish people as a whole will harvest the fruits.

Natan Sharansky is the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

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