Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

Aliya anniversary: An olah takes stock

Today is the sixth anniversary, on the Jewish calendar, of my aliya. With a none too subtle sense of dates, Nefesh b’Nefesh scheduled our chartered aliya flight for Tu B’Av—the fifteenth day of the month of Av, traditionally, a day of seeking love and coupling. There are some who see the option for a chartered aliya flight—everyone on it, going on aliya—and run for the hills. I, however, wanted it all. I wanted “it” to begin from the second I boarded that plane; from before even, at check in.

Almost from the beginning of my conscious life, I wanted to live in Israel. My parents were  immigrants to the US, from Slovakia and Poland, respectively; my mother, the only survivor of her large family. Her rescue and coming to the US were a fluke; the result of the intrepid intervention of a woman who became our Aunt Ida. But the US never felt like home; it felt  like an accidental way station. Teachers in the modern Orthodox, Zionist yeshiva I attended were imbued with love of Israel and they transmitted that most effectively, through speaking only Hebrew and insisting that we do the same, and through stories, songs, and brilliant teaching of Bible—the Pentateuch and Prophets. There lived a land I sought, where I belonged. In the fourth grade, I won a Barton’s Chocolate contest with an essay about longing for Israel. “I have inherited the longing of my ancestors for our homeland,” I concluded it.

My aliya was very delayed; an academic career in the US; other reasons. My reaction whenever I came to Israel was always the same: an overwhelming sense of amazement and gratitude at first sight of a slice of coast from the plane (always, the window seat, so I could see it the first instant it was visible); and of relief, freedom, release, love, and connection. I finally acted on all this, bid farewell to a plum academic position with superb students and teaching satisfaction (and a solid salary and excellent benefits and support for my scholarly work, none of which I have in Israel), to dear friends and family, and to life as I knew it, and boarded that flight on August 11, 2014.

We landed early the next morning. The war in Gaza was still on. My son, a combat soldier, was finally out of there but still on the lines, on the Israeli side; after some doubt that it would be possible, he was able to come to the airport. After eight months and insane worry, I saw him again. I attended to the mundanities needed upon arrival; charter aliya flights give the great benefit of getting a teudat zehut, the ID card all Israelis carry, processed, right in the airport. A boxed lunch of sandwiches and fruit and we were sent on our  various ways, a chartered bus dropping me off where I would be staying, in Jerusalem. There was a mix of completely mundane things and a sense of utter unreality. Six years later, this mix persists. I still walk out in the air and light of Jerusalem and am amazed to find myself here. The babble of babies in Hebrew always sends a smile of wonder and pleasure to my face; so do the holiday-appropriate greetings on buses, things that in the US were the secret of a few initiates (the greeting and response of “mo’adim le’simha!” “haggim u’zmanim le’sasson,” on hol hamoed sukkot and Passover).

There has been much controversy lately, between Peter Beinart’s essays about how Zionists must now relinquish notions of two states for two peoples and adopt the cause of a bi-national state of Jews and Palestinians, and Seth Rogen and Marc Maron’s much publicized comments showing extreme alienation from any Zionist narrative. There has been much response to all this; learned expositions of why Beinart is out of touch with reality on the ground, in both Israel and any Palestinian street, since neither the PA nor Israel’s overwhelmingly Arab Joint List party seek a bi-national state, nor is there indication of any Israeli interest whatever in this idea, so compelling to Beinart and his supporters abroad. There have been critiques aplenty of security and political  issues that would impede a bi-national entity from functioning. I myself have likened Beinart’s proposal to something I might see in a clever undergraduate essay, a utopian exercise akin to “How to Bring World Peace;” intellectually engaging and inventive (on these grounds, it would earn an A), but of no practical import. Rogen and Maron are denounced as woefully ignorant of Jewish history and detached from the slightest grounding in sacred Jewish myth or tribal loyalty (something that cannot be said of Beinart, and which is now also being asserted for Rogen).

In the back and forth about all this, we have heard much about Jew-hatred as a motivator of aliya and compelling argument for the need of a Jewish state. What I have not heard is the argument that compelled me, from earliest childhood to the minute I boarded that plane to come on aliya: the desire to escape life as a minority and to live in a culture in sync with the Jewish calendar, spoken in a Jewish language, rife with puns and inside jokes that come from being a secure majority.

Unlike many, including Rogen, I did not experience Jew-hatred in America. The only experience I can remember that would be on that continuum was the assertion by several young Christian neighbors or summer acquaintances that, of course, I would someday convert; I was destined to convert. To me, that was literally, incomprehensible, and as ludicrous as telling me I would someday become a Martian.

What I did feel, though, was Otherness. As on Christmas Day, when I showed my bus pass and awaited the inevitable, “It’s not a school day!”, and I would respond, “Yes, it is,” and recite the name of my yeshiva. And see the driver’s reluctant or disgusted look. And then take a seat in an empty bus. There was pride, absolutely; and loneliness, and the overwhelming experience of being Other.

As an academic, taking days off for Jewish holidays no one had ever heard of (“sh, sh’mini—what?”), after, ok, Rosh Hashana; and ok, Yom Kippur, too—and—now what, another one? Getting flack for all those days, coming right at the start of the fall semester, a terrible time to be missing scheduled classes, even when I made up each of them; when precisely, starting the semester off strong was critical to enrollment, and enrollment numbers were critical to evaluation of the Program, and of me. The stress of makeup classes in weeks, as I would say, that had no days. Doing this again when Passover came, on top of the preparations for that holiday, while the semester was in full swing. The Jewish thinker whose program was born in the USA and unabashedly American, Mordechai Kaplan, celebrated the benefits of “living in two civilizations.” About which, I will have more to say. But whose dichotomous blessings were anything but what I felt when I struggled, year after year, caught hopelessly between my passionate commitments as a professional, an academic, and a Jew.

Jew-hatred did not drive me to aliya. Otherness did. And that is what I shed, each and every time I got to Israel. That was the relief and the release and the euphoria. I remember very well, the first time I was in Israel as a young teen and Sunday came—and it was—just another day. The mail came. It did not come on Shabbat; it came on Sunday. A thrilled smile on my face.

Now that I live here, the holiday experience year round is very different. For Rosh Hashana, the culture is pervaded with talk of its meaning; with the songs, from those nursery children sing to those of the holiday liturgy. Radio and TV are filled with thinkers, secular and religious, commenting. Cooking shows feature holiday-themed food from customs as different as Ethiopia and Eastern Europe. On erev yom kippur, I watch in growing amazement and thrill as the whole country progressively just shuts down. Buses, trains; the airport, even. Hatikva by the Israel Philharmonic and the radio goes silent. The streets become one large pedestrian and biking mall. There are no red lights, just blinking yellow ones—our fate is not yet decided: it is neither red nor green (and, there are no buses, and few cars; take whichever meaning you like). Talit-and kittel- wrapped figures, women and men, myself included, scurry through the wide open streets to the sounds of the shofar and the cries of piyyutim—Yemenite; Moroccan; Hasidic. On Sukkot, the booths are everywhere, on sidewalks outside of apartments and restaurants, stuffed onto small porches, filling courtyards, planted in gardens. Markets for the “four minim,” the four species of agricultural produce blessed and used in prayer for the week, crop up everywhere. When we mourn, we mourn as a society, as a country. There is nothing like Yom Hashoah and Yom hazikaron here. It is not an exercise; it is personal mourning, very personal. We all know people in both survivor categories. The memorial sirens; the cars and buses pulling over and stopping where they are on streets and highways; people freezing. TV and radio incessantly running stories about people, with faces, names.

A bi-national state would satisfy this need for no one. Our national narrative, our longing, was for Zion, not Israstine. Such a posited entity is a hyper-rational construct that corresponds to no need or longing of Jews or Palestinians.

I cannot and won’t speak for Palestinians or for any minority in this country.  I can and will speak for myself, as a Jew. Everywhere else in the world that Jews live, they, we, are a minority. There is one place, Israel, where the society is in Jewish image. We deserve that; we lived and died for it, it is normal for other cultures and peoples, and I will not apologize for it, much less regret it. Objecting to this when it is normal for others is nothing but a form of Jew-hatred. There is no other people, country, I know of whose “right to exist” is regularly defended, because it is regularly denied. This is outrageous.

For all that I have become Israeli and cast my personal and family destiny here, of course, I am American, down to the accent in Hebrew I will have for the rest of my life but of course, also in cultural and political experiences that formed me. I also know how much creativity there is in US Judaism, precisely because there is no official, imposed version of Judaism, because people are free to engage and create new ritual, new Jewish language, art, humor; and that, too, is a precious wonder. From which we in Israel have a great deal to learn.

In fact, both sides have much to learn from one another. Which means engaging and listening, including to people with whom we don’t agree. Beinart, in particular, says what he does because he is deeply connected and caring about this enterprise, Israel; and we should honor and be grateful for that even if we don’t accept the specifics. Zionism has always meant different things to different kinds of Jews. For some, it meant coming here when that was utterly counter-intuitive: the direction for migration for betterment was to central and western Europe, the US and Canada, to Argentina, to South Africa, not here. Those who came here, davka, came from conviction, dedication, uncompromising love.

That did not mean that the Jews who went to those other places lost “Zion” in their vocabulary; they could not, if they engaged the traditional liturgy in the slightest, from daily prayer to the Grace After Meals, to the Passover seder, to the wedding ceremony. Or read the Bible, even cursorily. The Jews who stay in those and other locations should be encouraged and honored in their different ways of connecting to Israel and to us who live here. They have different needs of Israel.

I do not buy for a minute the dismissive, emotionally-bereft claim that such Jews have “no skin in the game,” so have nothing to say to which we should listen. That also does not mean that we should listen without reaction or critique, such as when comments or full-blown proposals are made that have no bearing on reality here or are offensive. Such comments have much bearing on reality there, and we should understand, care about, and learn from that.

We need more, not less, engagement, discussion, productive, and respectful argument among us. The six million Jews here are not an island, and should not become one. And the same is true for Jews there, wherever “there” is.

There are programs to bring Diaspora Jews to Israel (which, presumably, will pick up again once corona is over). Aside from rank motivation to encourage aliya by the participants, the important take away of such trips is a better understanding of Israel, an experience of Israel (yes, the narrative can be very partial, more about which, below), and there is no question that such trips are eye-opening and often transformative. But Israelis, by and large, are woefully ignorant of the Jews of the US and other communities. America looms large—or used to, at least—as a place of easy money and no army service. The rest was of no interest. Fed a dismissive narrative in Israel, varieties of US Judaism are seen as “not the real thing.” Without conscious experience of dealing with being a minority and the need, from minority status, to transmit Jewish culture and connection in compelling ways, Israelis abroad are often adrift and without means regarding transmission of Judaism, writ large, including attachment to Israel, to their children, who are just as likely to couple with non-Jews as are US-born Jews.

Several years ago, I taught a group of Israeli teachers a course on “US Jews and Judaism.” My express purpose was to go beyond stereotypes and distortions and impart appreciation of the profound political difference that underlies US Judaism developing as it has (separation of Church and State, alongside unofficial but vigorous civil religion); the challenge of radical freedom to meaningful Jewish identification; and—here is the critical part—the consequent welling up of desire to create Jewish ways that suit America, so that Jewishness would not be lost but would thrive there. Using original sources, we studied everything from radical US Reform and its gradual moderation and adoption of more traditional language and practice, to versions born moderate (Conservative Judaism), to Orthodoxy, all of them, products of modernity and of the experiment which is modern Jewish experience and its peculiarly American variant.  At the end of the course, as I always do, I asked the students what they had learned, what they would take from the course. Boiled down, what I heard was:  humility. I understand better now.

That is what we need—on both and all sides. We don’t need and will not benefit from shutting down discourse with arguments about “skin in the game.” If Jews abroad are coming up with solutions for the conflict between Jews and Palestinians, it is because they feel skin in the game. The skin and the game obviously, are different than when we have children in the army, never mind, in wars. But that is not the only kind of skin nor the only kind of game and we need to respect—and be grateful for—Jews showing up to play on our common, Jewish, field.

Regarding Beinart, and Rogen, I have some things to say.

It is remarkable to me that in all the discourse I see from left and far left positions about the moral dilemmas posed by Israeli power and policy and the onus on Israel to act morally (as Haaretz columnists, Anshel Pfeffer and Chemi Shalev, have pointed out, that is not what drives the policy of any country), we always see mention of the 750,000 (then-called) Arab refugees of the 1948 war. I never see mention of the fact that 20+% of current-day Israel’s population is Palestinian Arab, the descendants of the population in situ in 1948. The push is only about the descendants of that first group, as if the second does not exist, are not citizens. In the arguments and pressure about what Israel must do, this reality is ignored, from which the push proceeds for more, for ending Israel as a Jewish-majority state through one demographic or political means or another. Something is seriously off with this remarkable oversight.

Israel has far to go in its policy to its Muslim, including Bedouin, Christian, Circassian, and Druze populations; equality of citizenship, of rights and opportunities, is far from a realized goal. The nation-state law passed in 2019 is a disgrace, a gratuitous, nasty, piece of legislation pandering to the basest of needs, passed for cheap, political purpose by Likud and its allies on the right because social division is their demagogic calling card to staying in power. It should be repealed. Barring this, as former Foreign Minister and Minister of Justice, Tzipi Livni proposed, Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which extends categorical civil equality, regardless of race, religion, or gender, should be made a Basic (constitutional) law alongside the nation-state law.  We have far to go to address, never mind, eliminate discrimination and demeaning behavior to non-Jews in Israel; far to go to enact in our own polity what we should have learned from our own experience as a minority in Christian and Muslim realms.

That is our first responsibility, and it is solely ours.

A reasonable, tenable arrangement with the Palestinians of the west bank and Gaza, on the other hand, also depends on their respective leaderships and is far more complicated. Which is not to say that there is nothing Israel could do, could initiate; we have not seen that from this government nor will we. Which does not mean, at all, that discourse by the rest of us should not proceed, and that means “us” in Israel and “us” elsewhere.

When I hear US Jews, including Beinart discuss this, they invariably include Gaza in demographic reckonings of whatever political arrangement they see as the solution, but this inclusion is wildly out of touch with reality. Israel is deeply imbricated in the west bank; how that can sort out is enormously complicated to even envision because the populations are up against one another, with one group enjoying the protection and privilege of a state and the other, certainly, the Palestinians of area C, stateless and bereft of representation or protection (how the PA administers its control in areas A and B is another story).

But Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. There is no one who considers what was done and how to have been well conceived, and its outcome has been disastrous. But that is a done deal and there will be no going back—not to 1947 (there or anywhere), and not to 2004. There is no scenario in which Gaza and its two million residents will be included in the population of a state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, which advocates of two states for two peoples along the 1967 armistice lines conjure in arguing for Israel’s need to “separate from the Palestinians,” lest one state, including Gaza, ensue, ending Israel as Jewish and democratic. Gaza is in no such equation in the real world. Arguments for two states must be based on something other than this demographic scare.

As I see it, there are three entities to this discussion: Israel, with 20+% of its population that is already Palestinian; the west bank; and Gaza.

Gaza cannot be economically viable or politically moderate without vigorous trade agreements— with Egypt, with which it shares a border (and a current border crossing), as much as it does with Israel, and which should also allow Gazans to establish settlements, tourism, and ports along the north Sinai coast (that is, to expand geographically); and with Israel. Gazan trade and business expertise, Gaza’s many well educated people who currently, have nothing to do with their degrees and expertise, have much to offer the contiguous coast of Egyptian northern Sinai. Gazans could have work permits there, and citizenship in a Palestinian state and, in a stable situation, travel in both directions—to Egypt, and to the west bank and Jordan and beyond—and to Israel, as was the case before the second intifada, same as anyone travels between cities and states of one or different countries. Why need this be any different than what happens in stable, peaceful situations within or between countries at peace?

The situation on the west bank is more complicated. I think the most effective argument, one that Israelis are most likely to hear, is the argument from self-interest which, to quote her once more, Tzipi Livni made passionately: that it is not in our interest to govern another people; that was never part of any Zionist idea. It should and must end, because of its manifold costs, which the current government hides and which its predecessors, too, hid from Israelis. How we do that, especially with the current Palestinian political constellation—the PA, with Hamas at its heels—I don’t know. On this, I would be inclined to listen to the army and security and intelligence establishment and proceed very pragmatically, knowing that all we can do is what we can do; we hold half, not all the cards. But I believe that a change in Jerusalem on this matter could yield change.  We have a better hand than the other side/s. We should play it.

Now, about Rogen.

In defense of himself, and others in defense of him, we have heard much about how his parents met on a kibbutz and how he attended a Jewish day school until the eighth grade and went to Jewish summer camps. The import of the first datum escapes me; but the second two matter, as all sociological studies of what “works” to transmit Jewish identity to the next generation show.

On the other hand, let us not exaggerate. As I say to parents who argue for sending their children to public school and to Jewish afternoon schools that offer a few hours a week of instruction over 9 months of the year, until bat or bar mitzvah:  if you gave your children that level of general education, they would be illiterate. And the importance, or lack thereof, of serious education would be very apparent to them. As for stopping Jewish day school before middle or high school, similarly. If you ended your general education at that point, how well educated would you think yourself to be? You would be left with a child’s understanding and a child’s level of skills. Same here.

So, a young child’s education and summer camp are what they are but not more than that, and if Rogen wants to have informed input about the current state of US Jewish life or connection to Israel, it behooves him to ramp up his education and credentials seriously and stop trading on—how his parents met or his socialist Jewish forebears. As for the idea of a Jewish state being the result of an “antiquated thought process,” when he says the same about—France, or Pakistan, India, or Jordan (check out the citizenship and naturalization requirements of the latter three), or—Palestine—let me know. If the one group whose national self-determination on its ancestral land is “antiquated” and in need of retirement, are the Jews, I suggest he do some further thinking.

As for “being lied to his whole life” about Palestinians, this of course, is a serious and widespread accusation made by Jews of Rogen’s age and it needs to be addressed seriously. Increasingly, it is. A relevant question about this, of course, is, at what age does nuanced, complicated presentation of this nationality conflict begin. Not likely to be appropriate or doable—in the sixth grade. The place for this discussion to begin is at high school age. And for that to happen, the child needs to be in serious Jewish settings. There are plenty of ways that Rogen and others who want now to pursue this issue seriously can do so. Ongoing rage into middle age at one’s literal and metaphorical parents for their failings, however cleverly or artistically expressed, is a childish cop out.

Israel is in terrible crisis, economic, health, political. As an historian, I see developments and trends here that worry me greatly.

I engage all that, as I am able.

But on this day, my aliya anniversary, I say, she’hechiyanu.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus is a professor of Jewish history, author of four books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, and the Jerusalem Post.
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