(June 29, 2016 / JNS) By Eliana Rudee/JNS.org
As if upcoming Fourth of July parties in Israel weren’t reason enough to celebrate an immigrant’s American background and new home in Israel, this happened: Yom HaAliyah.
Yom HaAliyah, or Aliyah Day, has officially become a national holiday in Israel, celebrating immigration as a fundamental core value of Israel and acknowledging the contributions made by immigrants that benefit Israel. The day will fall every year on the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, following the biblical date on which Joshua led the Jewish people across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. Since that time, which is known as the first aliyah to Israel, immigrants like myself have been celebrating our nationhood by snacking on Bamba, pretending we like Arak, and writing Facebook statuses in the limited Hebrew we learned in ulpan. And now we have a national holiday celebrating…us!
According to the Yom HaAliyah Facebook page—because every legit holiday needs a Facebook page—“Since the founding of the modern State of Israel, our country has relied on aliyah and the contributions that olim (immigrants) make to our society. We celebrate the oleh (immigrant), and the value of aliyah on this date, reaffirming its importance for the present of our nation & future of our people.”
The idea for Yom HaAliyah stemmed from a grassroots community movement, TLV Internationals, an organization of American activist-immigrants to Israel. Member of Knesset Miki Zohar (Likud), who initiated the bill to recognize Aliyah Day in the Israeli legislature, echoed, “Aliyah to Israel is the basis of our existence here. There is no other country in the world whose residents returned to it after 2,000 years of exile and proved to the world that a people cannot be an occupier in their own land.”
Indeed, almost half of all Israelis are immigrants who fled or were kicked out of their homes in North Africa, Europe, Ethiopia, and Arab countries. Most modern-day new immigrants did not need to flee from our respective countries. We are here by choice because we saw and valued a different type of opportunity in Israel.
This different opportunity, which makes itself evident in a gut feeling that many people who have experienced Israel understand, is acutely perceptible, yet difficult to describe. It’s a combination of feeling part of something bigger than ourselves, feeling we can truly make a difference, and of course, being part of a community that cares deeply for each other and for the common peoplehood.
Feeling a part of something bigger than yourself relates to the ideals of Zionism—that Israel is the Jewish past, present, and future homeland; that we may have been dispersed as a people and gone into exile, but we yearn for a return to our homeland. Although this feeling is partially rooted in religion, it is extremely strong among secular Jews, including the original Zionists like Theodor Herzl and later, David Ben-Gurion.
Immigrants to Israel believe we can make a difference here because we have clear role models who have proven that in Israel, every individual is a big fish in a small pond. We are told that with enough perseverance, everyone can find his or her place here, whether in medicine, film, high tech, community activism, arts and culture, business, journalism, or even politics.
Lastly, the feeling of community in Israel is especially compelling for immigrants. I hate to say it, but I believe that in many other places, especially in the U.S. and among millennials, community is become less and less viable. Communities are broken apart by politics, and culture is trending toward individualism gone awry, where each individual feels entitled to certain things simply for being. My mom calls this the “everybody gets a trophy generation.” People care more about “me” than “us.” But in Israel, there is a sense of belonging to the greater community. A small country cannot afford to be so “me-centric” because if we don’t stand together as a people, the entire nation is at risk. While immigrants to Israel are empowered by this feeling of community, we in turn reinforce it when we come to take part.
It is my theory and hope that our new holiday, Yom HaAliyah, will even further reinforce the sense of home and community immigrants feel in Israel.
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center and the author of the “Aliyah Annotated” 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.