In a recent Times of Israel op-ed, Keith Brooks describes making Aliyah with a wonderfully accurate metaphor, “For those of us that do make Aliyah, it is like being in a cult.” Brooks continues saying that though outsiders may, “think we are crazy” the innate pull to live in Israel can transcend all reason. In this regard, the “cult” of Aliyah can give people strength and inspiration to persevere through the most difficult situations.
But cults also have dark sides, particularly when someone dares question its Orthodoxy, or even worse, contemplates leaving the group. At best their concerns are dismissed and at worst, they are treated like any other apostate or heretic, insulted or shunned by the community of faithful followers.
As an example, I’m just going to focus on the more “polite” of these responses which I’ve seen time and again on Facebook and have personally experienced when someone perceived I was being even slightly critical of life in Israel. Just this past week a friend of mine who has been struggling in Israel for some time now expressed his frustration on Facebook. The first response was to suggest that the same problems he has now he’d have elsewhere and that he should continue experimenting until he finds what works. Essentially this person added insult to the injuries currently being endured.
The sentiment behind this and similar statements is that the problems someone experiences in Israel should not be construed as being unique to life in Israel. Or perhaps there may similar “yeah, but” deflections meant to show how life in Israel is still better than alternatives (e.g. yeshiva tuition). Then there is the shift from the heftza of Israeli society to the gavra of the individual; if you’re struggling in Israel, then basically you’re doing it wrong.
Consider for a moment if this would be an appropriate response to hearing a friend expressing any other type of personal struggle, or how we would react if the roles were reversed. To give an example of how absurd these sorts of reactions are, when I made Aliyah in part because I could no longer afford to stay where I was, no one thought to suggest that I was failing as a Rabbi, or worse, failing as a New Yorker.
Of course for many Jews choosing Aliyah is not just a matter of finding a place to live, but fulfilling the aspirational goals of a greater national destiny. We also cannot discount religious factors. The sin of the 10 spies was the result of criticising the land of Israel, the consequence of which was losing a generation to the desert. Furthermore, the Torah contrasts Israel with Egypt; whereas the latter was sustained by the Nile, Israel depends on the grace of God. In this context, criticizing life in Israel may even be construed as a lack of faith in God. They have effectively gone off the Zionist derech, which as we see in the religious world, constitutes failure and betrayal. Even more than natural-born Israelis who move away, struggling Olim or Yordim threaten the very ethos of cult of Aliyah.
As with all variables in life, Aliyah is going to be easier for some and harder for others and the experiences of one do not delegitimize the experiences of someone else. If anything, doing so might provide a temporary salve to a bruised ego but will more likely alienate and further distress someone who is currently struggling. Dismissing another’s experiences because they happen to differ with one’s own isn’t just an empathy deficiency, it’s narcissism.
For those who consider themselves among the Aliyah cultists, defensiveness will not ease anyone’s pain or improve their situation. If anything, adding insult to injury will only breed more resentment and push people away. Offering unsolicited advice can be more intrusive than helpful, especially when the details are not known (and a person is unwilling to share).
As an alternative, I suggest listening and supporting people as best as one can, and where possible, work on improving Israeli society. Then perhaps over time, Israel can truly merit the idealistic reputation of its evangelists.