Letter to an American Jewish friend 2.0

Whenever someone asks me why I made aliyah and my siblings didn’t, I don’t really have an answer. We’re each unique, of course, but we all had the same parents and Jewish education, and had been to Israel at least a couple of times. 

When I shocked our parents with my decision to make aliyah 50 years ago, it was like reading one of the umpteen articles about the growing divide between the Jews of the Diaspora and Israel: dad wanted me to go to JTS and become a Conservative rabbi and save the Jews of America, while our Pioneer Women chairwoman, labor Zionist mom (who was yanked from her Yiddish-speaking gan when bobeh discovered it was socialist) was proud of my decision — and told me before she died that she had dreamed of making aliyah and working as a speech therapist.

Starting with us aging baby boomers, for the first time in history, those Jews who have the privilege of being born into a world where the Jewish state is a matter of fact have a moral obligation. This is to consider the choice that is their birthright: to live in the only state on Earth where Jews are the majority culture, or to live as a tiny minority in the Diaspora. Both are legitimate choices and worthy of equal respect, because they are free individual choices.

But precisely because they are such important life choices, the chances for making a good one increase with the amount of information one has. We usually expect our educational systems to provide the foundation for making good choices, and generally this is provided by the secular school systems right through high school. 

While this is good enough for most American high schools in terms of US civics lessons, for an American Jew to be able to seriously consider his or her choices regarding Israel, this is insufficient. An intelligent choice requires more Jewish education than has been provided American Jewish youth, at least since I demonstrated outside the General Assembly in Pittsburgh in the Seventies with fellow Hebrew school teachers demanding more funding for Jewish education.

The result of this egregious lack of leadership and foresight is evident everywhere on social media. Throughout the American election campaign, and especially during the recent lockdown, I had the opportunity to Zoom around the Jewish universe. After watching umpteen webinars and podcasts about the (American) Jews and the election, rising antisemitism, BDS, etc., it dawned on me that I hadn’t heard a word about Israel. Not even about the ever-trendy widening gap between Israel and the (American) Diaspora. Has Zionism in general, and aliyah specifically, become unmentionable?

Is there some kind of (gulp) conspiracy against mentioning Zionism? Don’t laugh too hard, for this is an age when a QAnon true believer has just been elected to Congress. As an American Israeli, I am fortunate to be able to make moral choices in both countries. I can vote to help elect a better president and enable his predecessor to be sent to prison, just as I am able to vote for a better prime minister and enable his predecessor, too, to be sent to prison.

More importantly, I was qualified to consider my choice 50 years ago from the perspective of a solid Jewish education, even amid the euphoria after the Six Day War, between remaining in the Diaspora of my birth or joining the amazing adventure of helping to build the Jewish state. Aliyah might be hard to imagine for someone who has never experienced being part of the Jewish majority. It is certainly not for everyone – only those with a strong Jewish identify and a healthy sense of adventure, not to mention a good appreciation of irony.

I can appreciate this from several perspectives. I made aliyah during the Vietnam War and before Watergate led to Nixon’s downfall. It was a decision based on the push to leave an America in crisis and the pull of joining the greatest Jewish adventure in 2,000 years. A no-brainer in 1972 and here we are again – but in a much better situation regarding choices.

At long last, America can look forward to what that maniacal woman said at the Republican convention: the best is indeed yet to come, for America and the entire world. So, my American Jewish friends are faced with deciding between two good choices: helping to rebuild American democracy at the age of 244 or becoming an actor in history by helping to build a Jewish democracy at the growing age of 72.

Ironically, however, in the first presidential election in the 50 years since making aliyah, I was disenfranchised as an absentee voter. Don’t know about other problems with absentee voting, but this is the first time that Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County has failed to send me my ballot. They confirmed my registration and said my ballot would be sent in early October and did not respond to queries. Back in the heyday of conspiracy theorizing (our youth), I might have suspected this was related to my being a journalist and an enemy of the people.

As the only American Israeli journalist who has both undergone a kidney transplant and published a novel (featuring aliyah!) since the plague began, I readily acknowledge that this has been a year of more plagues than one, and we still have a few more months to endure patiently till the vaccine eventually arrives. But just as our infection rate finally seems to have been brought under control, we can hope the new, more competent administration will do the same for America. It’s always the best of times and the worst of times, and ours to choose.

About the Author
Ilan Chaim is a former chief copy editor and editorial writer of The Jerusalem Post. His novel, The Flying Blue Meanies, is available on Amazon.
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