The horrific fate of Steven Sotloff, a journalist who studied in and took citizenship from Israel, and who was beheaded by Islamic extremists in Syria, has made an impression on the world. Steven has become a symbol that perhaps makes it impossible for the civilized world to ignore the darkness it confronts. If his gruesome death motivates the enlightened nations of the world to spring into action against barbarism, then not only will he not have died in vain, but he will have ended his life in pursuit of values and dreams that he apparently harbored.
Steven’s devotion to journalism, and his willingness to put himself in danger to report on conflicts, is awe inspiring. His end is a brutal wake up call. But what about his being an American who moved to Israel? Listening to the Israeli media, what bubbles to the surface after the tragedy is the fact that Steven held two passports, so he could gain access to war zones and countries that non-immigrant Israeli journalists cannot. This seems to miss the point of the larger story. If Steven gave his life for values we all believe in, what is our best response to his sacrifice?
Steven was one of thousands of non-Israeli students at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya. Many of these students end up moving to Israel — “making aliya.” Just as Steven’s reporting and death will likely prove damaging, if not fatal, to the forces of evil afoot in the Middle East, so the foreign students in Israel, and especially those who make aliya, represent a counter attack against the forces of darkness. One can question the Israeli government’s decision to appropriate land on the West Bank as a “punishment” aimed at Hamas terrorism, but no one can doubt that the aliya of a thousand Jews to Israel would be the best answer to ISIS’ beheading of Steven.
Unfortunately, aliya as a policy, as a strategy, and as a response to evil, gets lost and muddled in today’s Jewish world. Currently, many Israeli journalists, especially in pages of Haaretz, lament that not only has Israel not made the world a safer place for Jews, it has placed the latter in more danger than ever. Rather than realize Herzl’s vision of normalcy for the Jewish people, cry these pundits, we are more abnormal than ever. After all, Israel is under existential threat, both militarily and demographically, and Jews world over are suffering a renewed wave of anti-Semitism because of Israel’s actions. The internal contradiction here, failing to note that Jews anywhere in the world have a place of refuge from anti-Semitism, and that Israel’s isolation is due its military strength and social solidarity in times of crisis, is lost on those who have never gotten what Israel is all about.
Steven understood that Israel is a place to study and to live. He understood the opportunity provided by the IDC to study in Israel in English (an opportunity that other Israeli universities have been slow to provide, at least in terms of pursuit of a full degree and not just a one year program), and of life in Israel as a springboard for his professional aspirations. He understood that if Israel is the Jewish state, Jews ought to live in it. His family understood that while their physical distance from Steven increased, so did their tie to Judaism, the Jewish community, and Israel by dint of their having a loved one make aliya. They understood that assimilation is made much less likely when a family has a member living in Israel.
Today, there is much talk of a potential significant aliya from Europe due to anti Semitism. And, of course, there is nothing wrong with aliya as refuge. The one million Russian olim who came in the 1990s revolutionized the country, sparked (as has every wave of immigration) the economy, and shifted the demographic and geopolitical of Israel’s situation in its favor. But how much more potent would be an aliya by choice, such as that practiced by Steven?
In 1989 I wrote the following in a piece entitled “The End of History and the Jewish Question” that Commentary and Moment didn’t publish, perhaps, as will be seen from the text, for obvious reasons:
“As an American Jew living in Israel, I observe the trickle-into-a-flood of Soviet immigrants with mixed feelings. On the one hand, there’s no doubt that Israel should welcome them and that the process of their absorption will involve the first real flexing of Israeli policy muscles in several decades. The effect can only be salutary, even if the process is sometimes unpleasant. Hebrew University Professor Yehezkiel Dror has said that the challenge of bringing and absorbing one million Jews is what Israel needs in order to get back on “the upward part of the curve.” I couldn’t agree more.
“It’s just that I wish twenty or thirty per cent of these immigrants would be from the West. I’ve nothing against Soviet Jews; on the contrary, I admire them regardless of whether they are prisoners of conscience; materialists who would rather go to America; refugees from the newly awakened nationalist anti-Semitism which has taken the place of State policy anti-Semitism (the end of history, or its repeat?); or simply Jews for whom the pull to wander and perhaps to come home is in the genes. They are the ones who, for whatever reason, are going to determine the next phase of Israeli history.
“But admiration is not the same as feeling in common. The dye has now been cast for the tiny minority of American Jews living in Israel by Gorbachev. Whereas before we could at least harbor the illusion that, by exerting influence beyond our numbers, we could make Israel attractive to our reluctant (more likely oblivious regarding Aliya) American Jewish friends, we now can anticipate being forever relegated to the margins of the evolution of Israel. The country will be molded in the coming years by Jews from Russia. The Jews of the West, especially North America, have probably lost forever the chance to leave a serious imprint on Israel. Whether this is worth regretting is perhaps debatable. But regarding American Jewry, Zionist history has ended for them, if it ever actually began.”
Since the writing of that piece, Jewish and Israeli leaders have fulfilled its grim prophecy. The Jewish Agency, after finding substantial potential for aliya in a survey conducted in the early 2000s, shelved the survey and didn’t act on it. Birthright, instead of focusing on aliya (though, despite its best intentions, some of its participants have made aliya), focused on “strengthening Jewish identity in the Diaspora.” Israelis continued to define “Zionism” as anything but aliya. And, the likes of Haaretz’ new recruit Peter Beinart and J Street show their disloyalty by threatening to distance from Israel, instead of moving here to reshape the country as they would like it to be. But, rather than gloat that my prediction was borne out, I prefer to wonder whether we are not at a tipping point.
Given the current state of the world, perhaps my earlier assessment regarding the end of history for American Jews, left un-contradicted by subsequent patterns of aliya, is now slightly open to question. Can American Jews begin to understand that the best answer to assimilation is to have a sizeable fraction of their children make aliya? Can Israeli and US Jewish national and communal institutions, instead of suppressing aliya with vague notions of “birthright”, “Jewish identity” and “Zionism”, put it squarely on the agenda of the Jewish people? Will we, the Jewish people, respond to the martyrdom of Steven Sotloff with the best answer possible, populating Israel with Jews who come here by choice? If so, his death will not have been in vain.