If she hasn’t already been adopted by Israel’s Ministry of Absorption then, believe me, it is just a matter of time before the late American country star Billie Jo Spears becomes the new icon for telling those considering making aliyah and emigrating to join us here in the Holy Land, just how it really is to make a new life in this corner of the Middle East.
As someone who generally finds the drawling whine of American country music about as appealing as root canal treatment, I wouldn’t normally call upon such as the recently departed Ms Spears to help illustrate a point about Jewish emigration to Israel, but after accompanying a friend on a recent visit to the Ministry of Absorption as he began the process of being registered as a new Israeli citizen, I was stunned to find that at last they’re beginning to tell the truth about aliyah, and have ditched the sugar-coated image that such as I received 15 years ago when I took my first naive steps on the way to becoming an Israeli.
Back in Manchester in the mid-1990’s I had been invited along to an aliyah discussion where I joined a group of 20-somethings who were fed an image that made the Stalinist agricultural propaganda films of the 1930’s seem positively downbeat. Images of people cheering as you stepped from the plane, being hugged by smiling strangers in the street, kibbutzniks dancing the hora under moonlit skies, and lots of juicy fruit (!), were spoon-fed to our assembled crowd, many of whom bought the dream. I was rather more cynical, but still felt encouraged enough by the post-movie talk from the aliyah department spokesman, and after considering all the options decided to go for it and ‘join the club’.
Arriving at Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem on a freezing cold January night to begin five months at the ‘legendary’ absorption centre in Talpiyot, I received no cheering crowds, no hugs or kisses, and the night watchman was distinctly miffed to have me disturb his televised basketball game. I was shown to a room with two single beds, no bedding, no furniture, (except a single wardrobe), and, as it turned out, no heating. As the result of an electrical fault the hot showers were decidedly cold, and after a chilly and uncomfortable first night I was already having first thoughts of returning home.
The next morning though the winter sun came out, the place looked more pleasant, I got to know a few guys in my building and headed off to open a bank account, a first and sadly much repeated experience of Israeli bureaucracy and incompetence. I remember coming out of the bank in shock, and then queuing for ages at an ATM to get some money, but after trying to figure out the instructions was getting nowhere. A kindly lady took pity on the poor bewildered wretch she saw in front of her and managed to explain to me that this machine only gave bank statements and the cash machine was inside. She took me into the bank and patiently helped me through the process of extracting money for the first time; a kindly face that reassured me there are friendly, caring people, in amongst the pushy, noisy and sometimes aggressive masses, and I promise you I treasure the amazing friendships I have developed here over the years with native Israelis that have helped me through both good times and bad.
I shalln’t bore you with the rollercoaster emotional tales of my initial aliyah experience as they will have been oft repeated by nearly everyone who has been through the same process, but on one thing I suspect we might all, (for once) agree, and that is that this is, as PM Netanyahu has repeatedly stated, “a tough neighbourhood”, and the rules of the game are completely different from western Europe, North America, and beyond.
The sad fact is that many of my contemporaries at Ulpan Etzion, talented young people from all corners of the globe, had been sold the same image as me, and some of them obviously utterly bought into the sales pitch that had been presented them. Having not been properly prepared for the significant mental challenges that face a new immigrant to this amazing, but very difficult to grasp country, they soon became disillusioned and sadly the overwhelming majority had given up within two years and returned from whence they came. The Absorption Ministry’s spiel had led them astray, and as Billie Jo Spear’s stated in her well observed signature song, “I Beg Your Pardon, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden”, reality sadly turned out for so many to be a bitter pill to swallow.
So whilst sitting alongside my friend at the Absorption Ministry office last week looking for the images of the hora dancing kibbutzniks, juicy Jaffa oranges, and the airport embrace, how shocked was I to see the new poster coming something closer to reality; a sandy background strewn with dried out thistles and thorns below the heading ‘We Don’t Promise You a Rose Garden’. Reality bites at last!
If you haven’t concentrated on this article you might have gained the opinion that I am ‘anti-aliyah’, but nothing could be further from the truth. Good, bad, or indifferent, Israel, with all its frictions, frustrations and foibles, is the only true home the Jewish people have in this world, and the more that come here and make a life for themselves and genuinely contribute to Israeli society, the better for all.
I want people to be better prepared to survive the rigours of Israeli existence when making the life-changing decision to up sticks and leave behind everybody and everything they have come to know and understand. They will surely stand a better chance of lasting the course if presented honestly with the bare facts of the matter, and not, (as still appears to be the case with a significant majority), find the half-truths for so long sold as ‘emmett’ by those encouraging Jewish immigration to Israel, that guide them up the path which so often leads to a mirage of that aforementioned, much sought, rose garden.