Friday, August 03, 2007

The Aliyah Guilt Trip

There's been quite a lot about aliyah in the news lately. All three of the major US denominations issued statements encouraging aliyah back in 2003, but some recent developments suggest this may be more than the same ol' lip service.

In July, Rabbi Avi Weiss spoke about making aliyah with his entire congregation:

Rabbi Avi Weiss, of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, says the question of his having not yet made Aliyah (immigrated to Israel) is one he asks himself every day. “I only feel very alive in the Land of Israel. I don’t feel that alive - in a Jewish and emotional sense - in the exile.”
Hang on, this is the rabbi that's been trying to create a whole new niche in American Orthodoxy, who founded a brand new yeshiva less than ten years ago in New York? For someone supposedly agonizing over how he can call himself a real Jew in the exile, Weiss hasn't exactly been a slouch.

“The only place where we can fully express the mission of the Nation of Israel is the Land of Israel. For me, Israel is not only important as the place that guarantees political refuge, not only as the place where more mitzvot can be performed, not only the place that, given the high rate of assimilation and intermarriage in the exile, can guarantee continuity – it is much deeper than that. The Land of Israel is the only place where we have the potential to carry out our responsibility as the chosen people. In the exile we are not in control of our destiny. It is only in the Jewish state that we have the potential to be a beacon of light to the larger world.

Which must explain why the Haredim in Israel have been doing so much to deal with global issues like world poverty, AIDS, and the Darfur crisis!

Amazing how us all clustering together in a place the size of Jersey somehow translates into us being a light unto the nations. I guess I get it, but I also don't get it. Is this the same principle as a laser? Someone help me out here, I flunked physics. Is the idea that the concentration of Jews in one place will have an uplifting effect, thereby improving us and supposedly making us an excellent example for everyone else? Doesn't that run counter to everything we know about Jewish dynamics? And besides, how will the outside world even know about us? If the Haredim get their way, the only form of communication will be pashkevils. We'll become a Jewish Shangri-La.

A Zionist is someone who lives in Israel,” said Rabbi Weiss. “Who is a talmid chacham? The man or woman who is versed in Torah. A benefactor of a Torah institution is very important, but is not a talmid chacham. Similarly, a Zionist is one who lives in the State of Israel, who lives in the Land of Israel. I take the position that I am not a Zionist. I am a strong supporter of Zionism - a doresh Zion – seeker of Zion.”

Well, if that's how you really feel, Rabbi, then by all means, head off.

Weiss spoke more about the subject in a drash, where he comes to the crux of his argument:

But whether or not one maintains that Rambam believes it is a mitzvah to live in Israel, doesn’t this commandment, as certainly understood by Ramban, fly in the face of our mission to be an or la’goyim? How can we be a light to the nations of the world if we don’t live amongst Gentiles and are ensconced in our own homeland?

Good question. Rav?

One could argue however, that the mandate to live in the chosen land of Israel is crucial to the chosen people idea. Being the chosen people doesn’t mean that our souls are superior. Rather it suggests that our mission to spread a system of ethical monotheism, of God ethics to the world, is of a higher purpose. And that can only be accomplished in the land of Israel.

...In exile, we can develop communities that can be a “light” to others. But the destiny of the Jewish people lies in the State of Israel. Israel is the only place where we as a nation can become an or la’goyim. In the Diaspora, we are not in control of our destiny; we cannot create the society envisioned by the Torah. Only in a Jewish state do we have the political sovereignty and judicial autonomy to potentially establish the society from which other nations can learn the basic ethical ideals of Torah.

As we near Tisha B'av... this position reminds us of our obligation to think about Israel, to visit Israel, and, most important, to constantly yearn to join the millions who have already returned home. Only there do we have the potential to be the true am ha-nivhar (chosen people).

So... the answer is to put the emphasis on Jews being as good Jews as they can possibly be vis-a-vis mitzvot, and the goyim just sort of take care of themselves or absorb our good vibes via osmosis? That's quite a plan. Now tell me, how do we deal with issues like antisemitism or anti-Jewish prejudice when, after mass aliyah, most of the rest of the world will have little to no contact with Jews? Or will we not need to care because we'll be in Israel and have the IDF to protect us? Just curious.

I have a few issues with Rabbi Weiss' argument. First, the suggestion that the dividing line between authentic and inauthentic Zionists is voting with your feet seems to be a major shot across the American Jewish community's bow. I consider myself a Zionist though I've never even been to Israel and have no intention of making aliyah, at least no time soon. I suspect, though, that my Zionism and the Zionism Rabbi Weiss is speaking about are of two different types. I am a Zionist because I support Israel and care about what happens to it and its people. Even more than that, I identify with it. Out of all the countries in the world, what happens in Israel matters to me. But that's not the same thing as longing for Zion. My "longing" amounts to little more than the fact that I'd like to go sometime and visit my cousins. Oh, and that people would stop dying there.

So on a personal level, the not-so-subtle accusation that anyone in Exile is not a real Zionist isn't that big of a deal. But I think that on a national level, it's a pretty big shakeup in terms of Jewish consciousness. Zionism has long been a central prism through which the majority of American Jews, or at least Jewish movements, have conceived of their Jewish identity. To pull that out from under them is a big shock, to say the least.

This kind of rhetoric, while sensationalist, isn't too surprising from Modern Orthodox circles. Modern Orthodoxy has long been one of the most involved groups in sending kids to Israel and making aliyah themselves. There is no question that Israel is a priority for them. AFAIK, most of the few hundred North American immigrants that go every year are MO. What's really interesting is the new push from the other movements, particularly Reform, which has traditionally not put a very big focus on aliyah.

Currently, less than 5% of North American immigrants to Israel, or olim, identify as Reform Jews, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel, but the movement hopes to grow that number. In recent months, Reform organizations have launched several initiatives aimed at increasing the movement’s grass-roots presence in Israel, including a concentrated recruitment drive, conducted this week, aimed at bringing 10 Reform families to the booming Israeli city of Modi’in.

The efforts are intended, in part, to increase the power and influence of Israel’s fledgling Reform movement, which in recent years has fought in the Israeli courts to win the official recognition and funding traditionally reserved for Israel’s Orthodox institutions. At the same time, the new attention to aliyah reflects the increasing traditionalism of the American Reform movement, the country’s largest Jewish denomination.

Even secular Jews are trying to make aliyah attractive:

today, for the most part, the Jew living in America or Europe is under no physical threat. Yarmulke-wearing Jews can live comfortably throughout the Western world while enjoying the perks of a first-world lifestyle.

Today, it is the secular Jew living in America who is in cultural peril. And assimilation is the imminent threat to his or her Judaic existence.

In Israel, if a youth rebels against his or her traditional upbringing, wanting to pursue a more secular life-style, he or she can escape to Tel Aviv. There they might not keep Shabbat or kosher anymore. But they'll be present when the siren goes off on Holocaust Remembrance Day. They will speak Hebrew. They will still take off work for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur - even if it's to take a three-day cruise to Turkey.

And chances are they'll marry another Jew.

In Israel, being Jewish is organic; in America it is not.

In America, a cosmopolitan Jew who is completely secular and not culturally connected to a Jewish community has no connection to our people. So in New York City, Los Angeles or London, such a Jew would have little reason to have a Shabbat dinner or take off work for Rosh Hashana.

Falling in in love with a non-Jew is a very real possibility. And, over the generations, those Jews' lineage would likely come to an end. Thus, the secular Jew, no longer attached by faith, also risks detachment from tradition and peoplehood by living in America.

BEING JEWISH in America requires a special effort. Although most of the Jews making aliya from America today are affiliated with some branch of Judaism, it is secular Jews who need Israel the most. Only Israel can save them from long-term cultural decline. Only in Israel can they redefine what it means to be a Jew.

Now, I understand, and actually support, the idea that more non-Orthodox Jews making aliyah is a good thing. I would love to see Israeli Judaism be a more open system, and to end the Orthodox monopoly on state funding and services. And I also acknowledge that the only way this can happen is by getting more feet on the ground (same principle as settling the land, really). I get all of that. I also get the fact that, no matter how Israelis feel about Reform Judaism, more Jews means a larger population buffer against the Arabs, Israeli and otherwise. But for some reason, maybe because this sounds so much like a sales pitch ("we need you, we love you, it's yours, come home"), it doesn't quite sit well with me. (Damn my distrust of marketing!)

On the other side of the coin, as much as I'm wary of the all-smiles, "Israel loves you and wants you here" of the Reform article, the secular aliyah op-ed from the Jerusalem Post makes me downright recoil. In some ways, it's even more grating than the religious language of Avi Weiss. Saying that any Jew who isn't in Israel is somehow deficient rubs me the wrong way. So does suggesting that aliyah is the only way to safeguard one's Jewish identity, of course, with the obligatory specter of intermarriage and "what about grandchildren" handwringing. One is a guilt trip, the other a scare tactic. None are good enough arguments to encourage me to go to Israel.

I like America, I'm comfortable in America, and, sorry to say it, but America seems a lot saner than Israel, in a whole bunch of ways. As a pseudo-secular Jew, I can be content to appreciate Zion from afar. As someone with a strong Jewish identity who's also in a relationship with a non-Jew, the threat of intermarriage, and assimilation, both seem laughable. I've seen the enemy and it's me, and it's not going to change if I jet-set over to Tel Aviv.

The real irritation I feel with the aliyah push, though, is the inferiority complex it assigns to American Jews and Judaism. It resurrects the question of what the center of Jewish attention, thought, etc, should be: Israel, Diaspora, America, etc? I have no ill will towards Israel, but it's not the center of my universe, Jewish or otherwise, and I resent the implication that it should be. Israel is a real country with real people and real problems. My moving there is not going to cause a mystical transformation that redeems the world and magically replaces two Mosques with a giant Temple. I appreciate the dream, but I have a real problem with undermining and downplaying the accomplishments and struggles of the reality of millions of Diaspora Jews, past, present and future. Furthermore, there seems to be a real undercurrent of abandoning Diaspora life as being "too hard," which is particularly ironic given that a longstanding element of Israeli culture has seemed to be a smug satisfaction at how much more authentic and yes, challenging, life they were leading in Israel compared to the "comfortable" Americans in exile.

But as the guy writing the secular aliyah piece pointed out, being a Jew in Israel isn't hard. It's natural. If anything, Israel is conceived as an all-purpose safety net. "Maybe he won't be religious, but he'll speak Hebrew. Maybe he won't give a fig about the holidays, but he'll have to take Rosh Hashanah off." Why is speaking Hebrew some great accomplishment? Why is Israeli culture and identity, no matter how watered down, somehow seen as the equal of, or superior, to being a committed Diaspora Jew?

If some people want to make aliyah, go for it. I wish them the best and hope they lead wonderful and fulfilling Jewish lives, and that they make Israel the better for their being there. But Israel is not the be-all and end-all of Jewishness, and those of us who choose to stay put should not be chided for that decision. There are all sorts of legitimate reasons to choose to go or stay, and it'd be nice not to be pitied or written off as soon-to-be-extinct branches of the Jew tree (which, incidentally, seems to be how a lot of people see the intermarried these days). Like it or not, most of the accomplishments of the Jews in the past couple thousand years have been in the Diaspora. Most of the rabbis we study today were Diaspora Jews. Are Maimonides' or the Baal Shem Tov's accomplishments any less because they never made it to Jerusalem?

Diaspora Jews, and specifically American Jews, have a lot to be proud of. While Israel is important, we shouldn't elevate it at the expense of our own achievements, and we should challenge those who do.

We are not inferior. We are not defective. We are Jews too, regardless of where we choose to plant our feet. Long for Zion all you want, but don't forget about (or ignore) the people right in front of you.


Antigonos said...

Unfortunately, to answer this post as fully as it deserves would take an article longer than the one you wrote. There's a lot wrong with the attitudes of Weiss, others quoted, any even with your assumptions. Visit Israel, come see me, and we'll talk!

The problem with a lot of the aliyah shtick is that one forgets the difference between the "heavenly" and the "earthly Jerusalem". A lot of olim find the reality of Israel rather shocking. It's not utopia. It's not really very holy (even back in the days when one could go onto the Temple Mount without being lynched, one was virtually attacked by hordes of tourist guides [licensed and just out to make a buck] looking for suckers, er, tourists to impress.) The idea that being in Israel one lives a more authentic Jewish life is laughable. And, with the influx of the Russians, it's become very easy to find a non-Jew to marry (although you can't marry your shiksa or shegetz in Israel as things stand today.) A person wanting to go to a kosher restaurant, even in Jerusalem, has to check the hechsher before entering--there are plenty of non-kosher restaurants around even in the Holy City.

Then why DO US Jews have such a weird relationship with Israel? Why DO US Jews "need" to identify with Israel (mostly with an Israel that never existed, btw, where everyone lives on a kibbutz and after working in the fields all day, dance around campfires all night and have names like Ari ben Canaan). Why is it so difficult to accept that American Jewish culture is as distinct as Sephardi culture is from Ashkenazi, and as valid? (And that Israel is well on its way to having its own distinctive nusach and culture?) Israel is a state of finite size that can support a finite number of people. The country is noticeably more crowded than when I made aliyah in 1976 (4 1/2 million and slightly over 7 million now), with less green space and more pollution; my son lives in NYC because the business he started simply has no market in Israel, not because he prefers the "fleshpots" of the US (what's wrong with fleshpots anyway? Try visiting an Israeli shopping mall and see mini-America. We're not living austerely here). Hi-tech, a symbol of Israeli success, only works in connection with markets overseas; the Israeli-American/European situation is a two way street now.

I DO think there are major problems with American Jewry. While I think intermarriage IS a problem, I think the way most American Jews live their lives AS JEWS in the US is problematic, and I'd rather see US rabbis attempt to improve the quality of US Jewish life rather than think that aliyah solves everything (it actually solves nothing).

R. Weiss should talk to Rav Shlomo Riskin, formerly of the West Side Synagogue and now the rabbi of Efrat. He too was going to bring his entire congregation; then 100 families. In the event, most stayed in the US.

I've been here 30 years; married and had my kids here; have seen really major changes in the life here--a great many that I don't particularly like--and frankly, I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. But I don't think aliyah is for everyone--although perhaps a visit is.

el_sheik! said...

I loved the post, and agree 100%. As an Argentinean Zionist, I'm not planning alia and don't see myself living in Israel in the future. Two suggestions:

* Read Ahad Ha'am. He was of the First Zionists, and he thought like us... somehow, Herzl got more popular

* GO TO ISRAEL!! VISIT IT, for a week, a month, a year... fall in love with it... and then go back to your country and live happily as a Jew..

Chasida said...

This was a very interesting and thought provoking post. Thank you for sharing it. I am on relocation to California for 2-3 years due to my husband's job after spending the last 18 years in Israel. Being away from Israel is only making me appreciate it more. It is where I feel at home. It is a wonderful feeling knowing we are all sharing the same holidays, however we choose to celebrate them, having Chanukah (spelled only one way - חנוכה) being our winter holiday, having a bus driver or supermarket cashier (irregardless of whether they are religious, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, etc)wish us Shabbat Shalom Friday afternoon. It is far from a Utopia and we are frustrated daily if not hourly by the corrupt politicians, preventable road accidents, and insurmountable bureacracy. Yet still, it is home, and I can't wait to return.

Oyster said...

Read my comment on

Arthur said...

This is a very interesting post, and by the way I am Chasida's husband.

I think that you are confusing the issue however. I do not feel that, Jews who do not live or want to live in Israel, are inferior, they are misguided. If you yourself feel inferior then please deal with that.

I feel, am sure really, that those who choose to not live in Israel are misguided.

Real Zionists live in Israel! Can you be Jewish outside of Israel? Certainly! but having done both, why would one want to be Jewish outside of Israel?