By Eliana Rudee/JNS.org
Ruth Stern paused for a moment, facing a group of olim at Jerusalem’s Cinematheque on Tuesday night. “Should I stop talking?” she asked the group, after telling part of her life story in great detail. A loud and unanimous “No!” boomed throughout the auditorium. Part of the Israeli Cinema Series, sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh, the event introduced Stern, an immigrant to British Palestine, to a group of Anglo immigrants. A series of short films showed stories like Ruth’s, all first hand testimonies of the men and women who helped found the state of Israel. The evening ended with Israeli wine and cheese aplenty.
Ruth was a self-described “spoiled South African girl” who made the unorthodox decision to travel to British Palestine for a year in 1946, two years before the state was declared. She planned to return to South Africa and continue her life as a South African Zionist leader, but her experiences on Kibbutz Revivim and Beit Eshel, both in the Negev, changed the course of her life as she took part in changing the course of Israel’s history. After Ruth “had the privilege” of being part of a group that settled 11 kibbutzim in 1946, going back to her “servants, white nanny, and tennis courts” of South Africa didn’t provide her life with the meaning she found in Israel, being part of something much bigger than herself. So when the Jews of Palestine sent notice by word of mouth that they needed help establishing and defending the future state, Ruth did not hesitate to join. During the War of Independence, Ruth returned to Israel and became a nurse with Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization that later turned into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). She recalls being shipped from Marseille, France to Israel on board with other immigrants who survived Nazi Germany. When the ship neared the shores of Palestine, everyone began to sing Hatikvah, a poem reflecting the Jewish hope to return to the land of Israel that later became Israel’s national anthem.
Ruth’s story of immigrating to Israel, along with the other archived stories, is intense to say the least. One story told of the journey driving from Iraq to Tel Aviv at night, illegally immigrating to Israel during a time of violence against Jews in Arab nations. Another told of reaching Israel literally “naked, barefoot, and alone,” swept to the shores by a big wave, after jumping off a ship caught by the British for illegally taking Jews to their promised land. A third told of his journey to Israel after nine months in a concentration camp and three months as a Jordanian prisoner of war during the War of Independence.
Of course, it is far less dramatic when modern day olim come to Israel. But many elements of our stories remain the same. While the circumstances of aliyah have largely changed, the motivations for aliyah have not. Many still emigrate from countries with anti-Semitic violence and threats. Our hearts still race as we fly towards Israel, chasing twilight as our plane nears the center of our world. We still gasp the minute the striking Kinneret blue emerges from under our plane’s wings. We still feel a connection to stories of Israel’s founding because we, too, immigrated. We identify with Ruth’s simple yet meaningful answer when asked by a native Israeli why she wanted to come to Israel: “I want to be part of your people because I am part of your people.”
Largely thanks to organizations like Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency, we olim began our lives in Israel with some spending money, Hebrew courses, a roof over our heads, help finding employment, and a monthly phone call checking in with us. Compared to those who came before these organizations were established, our experience is somewhat laughable. We are truly handed our aliyah experience on a silver platter compared with those who pioneered the land before us. Of course, that’s not to say that aliyah is a piece of rugelach. Many olim do come from countries less than nice to Jews. Others struggle financially or are lonely without the friends and family from their native countries. But thinking about the difference in experience sure makes me grateful for the opportunities olim have today, grateful for my life I had back in the U.S., and grateful for the many sacrifices early Israelis made to make my experience here so positive.
One could justly identify the founding of Israel as the moment when Jews became subjects of history, rather than the objects of history. Now, as immigrants to Israel, we are faced with the question of what to do now that we have a state, a national identity, self-determination, and agency. I chose to make aliyah and continue to build the state in the footsteps of heroes and heroines like Ruth and many of those featured in the short films. For others, this means advocating for immigrants seeking asylum around the world, fighting against genocide, or supporting Israel from abroad. Years after Israeli pioneers like Ruth pass away, we must always remain grateful for our state and the sacrifices that many made so we could be here today, comfortably, with our wine and cheese in hand.
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center and the author of the “Israel Girl” column for JNS.org. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied international relations and Jewish studies. Her bylines have been featured in USA Today, Forbes, and The Hill. Follow her column on JNS.org.