My wife and I have been on sabbatical in New York City from Israel since August, and are returning home in February. As one of the few true Zionists left (some of my pieces on the subject can be found in the pages of the Times of Israel), I hit the ground landing with my usual chant that Aliya (immigration of Jews to Israel) of half a million North American Jews is the necessary and sufficient condition for survival of Israel and the Jewish people. The core of the argument is that after absorbing refugee Jews from three corners of the earth (Europe post Holocaust, Jewish refugees from Arab countries, Jews from the former Soviet Union), the missing link was that fourth corner: aliya by choice from Western democracies. The demographic, economic, cultural and geopolitical positive effects of such an aliya could push Israel over the top of its struggle for physical and spiritual survival. It would also be a boon for the assimilating Diaspora, because all Jews would have close relatives and friends living in Israel, strengthening Jewish involvement in every way.
But as August gave way to Autumn, a certain queasiness began to rise from the bottom of our guts to relocate squarely in our throats. The rise of Donald Trump, already during the primaries recalling the imaginary flash back novel by Philip Roth, The Plot Against America, in which a Nazi sympathizing regime led by Charles LIndburgh takes over the US, was beginning to feel like an irreversible ride downriver to a large waterfall. The message of aliya by choice was transforming into a plea to “run for your lives.” Jews don’t do well when chaos reigns and societies seem to be coming apart. It would be too bad for the Jewish people that, if US Jews produced yet another wave of refugees to Israel, would lose the morale boosting impact of real self determination. But forget that perfectionist version of aliya, Israel and its Law of Return (scantily used by American Jews) were at the ready to welcome any Jew feeling the earth beneath their feet giving way. Watching the election returns with a group of Upper West Side Jews of various degrees of ethnic identification, I unabashedly told them to move to Israel to save their skins. Hysterical perhaps, but the reaction was much less push back than given to the now displaced plea to make aliya by choice. People nodded and asked if we had an extra room in Jerusalem.
Prophecy is given to idiots, and not only am I willing to plead guilty as charged, I also have to admit that the amazing coming together of masses of Jews on the Upper West Side to participate in the Women’s Marches to protest Trump put a dent in my paradigm. Sitting with 1200 singing Jewish protesters at BJ Congregation, and listening to the soaring Jewish rhetoric offered by a line-up of impressive Rabbis of different religious orientations and genders, I felt both swept into a community and alone. Everything these people stood for and were doing felt right to me (I’m a graduate of Akiba Hebrew Academy and Camp Ramah, need I say more…). But the fact that Israel wasn’t even mentioned made me feel apart. Not that the agenda of the day really involved Israel. It was all about Jewish citizens of my home country, the greatest nation on earth, standing up to save it, and doing it in a manner even more impressive than the prophets. The latter were usually voices in the wind; here the whole room was filled with prophets. Here there was not begging for the Messiah to come; it was a large multitude of messiahs, which is really what Judaism calls for.
So where does that leave me and my tilting at the aliya windmill? Not only doesn’t it weaken my argument, it strengthens it immeasurably. Israel needs every one of the people in that sanctuary, or at least ten of their closest friends. They are needed to not limit themselves to looking awry at Israel from their pedestal of social justice, accountability, rationality, spirituality and Jewish scholarship (J Street et al you know who you are), but to move that pedestal, with them on it, physically to Israel. They are the missing ingredient for the redemption of the Jewish people in their land, which is the only way the Jewish people can be redeemed.
My vision (and I think that of many, if not most Israelis): the tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Jews that demonstrated in New York on behalf of the Jewish values they believe in are marching in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They are taking over the Western Wall with numbers, not with sensationalist protests. They are pushing Israel away from extremism to a modern, pragmatic, text based position that will preserve Israel as both Jewish and democratic. They are correcting the failure, which turned into a pathology spanning generations, of the majority of the Jews of Babylon to respond to Cyrus’ offer to create their own sovereign Jewish state. They are saving Israel and the Jewish people from a third, and likely final, destruction.
David Chinitz moved to Israel from the US in 1981 and is Professor in the Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health in Jerusalem.