Do We Need Aliyah Day?

Each May on Mother’s Day and a month later on Father’s Day, Americans get all misty-eyed as they express undying love and gratitude toward their parents. Are these holidays a much-needed pause for reflection, a special time for families to come together? Are they a marketing scheme to benefit greeting card companies, a facile way for children to assuage their guilt about how they treat their parents the rest of the year? Maybe all of the above.

Those lovely yet contrived shows of appreciation are what came to mind when the Knesset passed a law last year creating Aliyah Day. This shiny new holiday honors the contributions of olim to the Jewish state, and is supposed to send a message to Diaspora Jews that Israel leaves the light on for them. It will be marked again today with celebrations in the Knesset, the President’s house, schools, and other official venues.

But most Israelis—including, I would venture to say, many olim—will, if they acknowledge the holiday at all, do so with a smirk or a shrug.

Once upon a time we were all natives. Thousands of years of exile drove us all over the map, and we’ve returned in trickles and waves over the last century or so. In this still young country, even 70 years in, the majority of citizens have immigrants in their blood. Are we celebrating everybody today? First-generation olim? Those who came as youngsters and have lived here for decades?

I salute all my fellow olim for choosing Israel. The move takes courage, faith, and a fair amount of stamina. But let’s be real: The olim of today are not the true pioneers. We arrive in a thriving, fully-suited country, hoping to be pardoned our Hebrew malapropisms and able to handle with equanimity the day-to-day challenges of “the system”—which pale in comparison to what awaited Jews who returned to Zion as recently as two or three generations ago. Moreover, there’s no need to shuck off our cultural mores and mannerisms; we can maintain a hyphenated identity and still contribute to the nation—even just by being here to be counted.

When people immigrate to any other country, they are adopting that place as their new home. When Jews make aliyah, it is a return journey, a homecoming—no matter whether they’ve ever stepped foot in Israel before. You’re a newcomer, yet a part of you has been rooted here forever. You belong from the moment you get off the plane. Of course, there is no shortage of things to get used to and fish-out-of-water experiences, but I for one would rather not be imprinted as an outsider the rest of my life here.

Observing Independence Day, Jerusalem Day, and Memorial Day as real Israelis was among the high points of my family’s first year here, and continues to be so. Those are our days now, too. In that light, frankly, Aliyah Day seems superfluous.

More than staging ceremonies, the government should continue to direct attention and resources toward shaping policies that smooth the integration of olim—easing the transfer of foreign professional credentials, building affordable housing, making the banking system more user-friendly and less punitive, promoting a customer-friendly civil service culture, and so on—moves which will benefit all Israelis. Now those are initiatives worth celebrating.

About the Author
Ziona Greenwald feels grateful to be living with her husband and children in Jerusalem, where she is a freelance writer and editor. She holds a J.D. from Fordham Law School, and worked both in publishing and in the court system back in New York, when Aliyah was still a dream to be realized.
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