‘Aliyah’ seems to be the hardest word

A subtle yet significant gradual shift in the perception and description of the Jewish Agency’s job has coincided with the evolution of the concept of “Zionism.”

Some 300 new immigrants from France arrive on a special “Aliyah Flight” organized by the Jewish Agency, at Ben-Gurion International Airport in central Israel, on July 23, 2018. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Some 300 new immigrants from France arrive on a special “Aliyah Flight” organized by the Jewish Agency, at Ben-Gurion International Airport in central Israel, on July 23, 2018. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Ruthie Blum. Photo by Ariel Jerozolomski.
Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum, former adviser at the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is an award-winning columnist and senior contributing editor at JNS, as well as co-host, with Amb. Mark Regev, of "Israel Undiplomatic" on JNS-TV. She writes and lectures on Israeli politics and culture, and on U.S.-Israel relations. Originally from New York City, she moved to Israel in 1977 and is based in Tel Aviv.

At its three-day board of governors meeting in Jerusalem this week, the Jewish Agency for Israel, which recently turned 90, revealed a new plan of action. Addressing the Jewish leaders who convened in the Israeli capital on Sunday, Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog announced that the organization, which “founded the State of Israel and brought 3 million Jews on aliyah,” is now “refining our strategic mission for the coming decade, based on the challenges Jews are facing today.”

Herzog, who kicked off the event with a ceremony to honor and mourn the victims of last year’s attack on the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 Jews dead and six others wounded—explained the mission as one aiming to “provide concrete solutions to the greatest challenges facing the Jewish people at this time: mending the rifts among our people, building a two-way bridge between Israel and world Jewry, encouraging aliyah and providing security for Jews around the world.”

The only thing really new in this mission lies in its reduced emphasis on immigration to Israel. When it was established in 1929 as the operative branch of the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency’s main raison d’être was aliyah, absorption and the building of communities in the Jewish state.

This subtle yet significant gradual shift in the perception and description of the Jewish Agency’s job has coincided with the evolution of the concept of “Zionism.” Once considered to be the ideological basis for Jews striving to live in their ancestral homeland-turned-state, it now is a general term denoting anything from a strong love or political backing for Israel to the wishy-washy, often veiled anti-Israel claim that it has a “right to exist.” As long as it behaves itself, of course.

Long gone are the days when legendary Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was able to cause Diaspora Jews ill ease—even outright guilt—for remaining in their comfort zone abroad. Passed, too, is the time when Israelis were viewed as traitors for moving to greener pastures in America and Europe, and referred to as such by the likes of late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Ironically, this move away from shaming Jews for not settling or staying in Israel to embracing and strengthening Jewish life in the Diaspora began to take place alongside the re-emergence of anti-Semitism worldwide. Yes, as radical Islamism started to spread from the Middle East to the West, the classical Jew-hatred that had crawled under a rock of taboo in Europe after the Holocaust came out of the closet.

Both such forms of anti-Semitism seemed to skip over the United States, however. Until recently, that is, when it began to emerge in previously unheard of places, among them on college campuses and even in the halls of U.S. Congress.

Strikingly, whenever a pubic Israeli figure responds to the above by urging Jews to “come home,” or even suggesting that they might, he is chastised for it.

Take Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for instance. In the wake of the 2015 attacks on the Hyper Casher market in Paris, which accompanied the slaughter of cartoonists at the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, Netanyahu was slammed for telling French Jews that those wishing to immigrate to Israel would be “welcomed with open arms.”

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin criticized Netanyahu’s perfectly appropriate statement on the grounds that aliyah should be undertaken for Zionist reasons, not out of the fear of anti-Semitism.

Really? Wasn’t the State of Israel founded to provide refuge to Jews in their historical homeland? To serve as the venue for the “ingathering of exiles”?

Apparently not, according to European Jewish Association director Rabbi Menachem Margolin. Incensed by Netanyahu’s statement, Margolin said that Israel shouldn’t call on Jews to make aliyah when they are victimized by anti-Semitism, but rather must “employ very diplomatic and informational means at its disposal to strengthen the safety of Jewish life in Europe.”

Netanyahu was bashed again for appealing to European Jews to make aliyah after the shooting to death of two people in Copenhagen, including a guard at a Jewish Community Center protecting the entrance to a bat mitzvah party.

That was four years ago. Last year, following the massacre of Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh, former Israeli Opposition leader Avi Gabbay came under similar fire for calling on American Jews to “immigrate more and more to Israel, because this is their home.”

Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States and Knesset member Michael Oren responded by tweeting that Gabbay “said things that should not be said. … Through his words, he adds insult to injury. The call to U.S. Jewry … deeply hurts their feelings and reduces their desire for aliyah. Gabbay does not understand anything about Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora.”

It is totally understandable for Jews to consider relocation to Israel a nonstarter, even those who occasionally toy with or fantasize about the prospect. Once a person has built a life somewhere, whether or not he or she was born in that place, the prospect of picking up and starting over can be daunting to the point of virtually impossible. Strikes against embarking on such a momentous move include scant career options, a lack of language fluency, adjusting children to a new education system and the difficulty of leaving parents and circles of friends behind.

Indeed, in the absence of the level of affluence that affords flights back and forth to visit loved ones, along with other financial or emotional expenses involved in uprooting one’s entire ecosystem, aliyah can be more terrifying than keeping a low profile as a Jew elsewhere. This doesn’t make it any less ridiculous and appalling for Jews to be insulted when offered a haven in the Jewish state, however.

That the Jewish Agency is altering its course somewhat may be unavoidable, particularly in a world that deems causing “offense” to someone practically worthy of the electric chair. But if Herzog imagines that the kind of Israel-Diaspora unity he has in mind will put even the slightest dent in the deep political/ideological rifts at the heart of the divide, he has another think coming.

Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”  

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