Prime Minister Netanyahu’s repeated calls for aliya from European Jewish communities have generated considerable debate. While some support his bold restatement of Zionism, others resent his comments believing that they are clumsy and ill timed. He could, they suggest, have made his point equally well with far greater subtlety.
Such tensions are not new. Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion was equally capable of impropriety. When, in 1957, Greville Janner, one of Britain’s most distinguished Jewish parliamentarians, was asked to introduce the Israeli Prime Minister at a fund raising event, he faced an awkward situation. At the appointed hour, there was no sign of the Prime Minister. Time passed, and still he did not arrive. No one knew quite what to do. Oblivious to his commitments, Ben Gurion had been happily browsing in a London bookshop. Eventually, half an hour late, he strode into the room. As Janner attempted to introduce him, Ben Gurion heckled; “You are a proud Jew. Why don’t you come and live in Israel?” Throughout Janner’s speech, the Prime Minister interrupted him demanding to know why he had not yet made his home in Israel.
Aliya need not be based on the guilt trips of Israel’s political leadership nor its doomsday predictions for the diaspora. But these are not justifications for staying put either. It behooves us to seek out the many positive reasons for making Israel our home.
Speaking at Makom, the Israel educational lab of the Jewish Agency, Israeli journalist, Gadi Taub recalled interviews with Concentration Camp survivors who described their feelings as they were liberated. One woman told a surprising story. “My most powerful moment occurred as I clambered up the gangplank of our ship to Palestine and I saw a large sign engraved with the Hebrew word for ‘entrance’,” she recalled.Explaining its significance, she said, ‘I grew up in pre-war Europe where we were very discreet about our Judaism. It was always private and understated. Hebrew only ever appeared in the small fonts of prayer books and bibles, so I had never seen Hebrew letters written so bold and so big. Now, we were on our way to the future State of Israel and I understood that our Jewish identity could be confident, proud and public’.
For Ben Gurion, such displays of our Jewish heritage were not enough; they had to be backed by moral vision. When, around 1914, his own brother began preparing for aliya with a scheme to sustain himself by launching Palestine’s first lottery, Ben Gurion responded by telling him not to bother coming. In a letter written to their father, Ben Gurion explained that with such plans, it would be better for his brother to remain in Poland. “Eretz Yisrael is not just a geographical concept. Eretz Yisrael must be a process of repairing and purifying our lives, changing our values in the loftiest sense of the term. If we merely bring the life of the ghetto into Eretz Yisrael, then what’s the difference if we live that life here or live it there?”
This idea was amplified for me by my teacher Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. He once told my class that he made aliya because of peanut butter. We were skeptical; was Israeli peanut butter so superior to diaspora brands? He explained that as a rabbi in America, religious questions centered on technical, ritual issues such as the kashrut of every make of peanut butter. These questions have a sacred place in Jewish life, but Israel offers additional possibilities for religious expression. Jewish sovereignty enables us to engage with bigger challenges such as how to build an ethical Jewish society with an effective education system, a moral army and appropriate health care for all. This is the thrill and the challenge of Zionism and life in Israel.
Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people. Living securely in our Biblical homeland, walking in the footsteps of our ancestors and praying at our holiest places are powerful experiences. It’s the simplest place in the world to uphold Jewish tradition, and it offers unique opportunities to build an entire society based on our Jewish vision of justice, compassion and spirituality.
According to the Talmud (Sotah14a) this is why Moses begged to be allowed into the Land of Israel. He was not interested in the physical benefits of the country, but rather for its spiritual possibilities.
Israel celebrates our past, but more importantly, it shapes our future. It is the largest project of the Jewish people in thousands of years and possibly the most exciting.
If Jewish destiny means anything, here is where we will fulfil it. We face major challenges and we have much work to do. But for those who are excited by their Jewish identity, willing to accept the Jewish mission of building a holy, wholly ethical society, there is nowhere better. That is why those Jews who can should come home to Israel.