Should I stay or should I go? The ‘Old Man’ and his aliyah to Israel

Even founding father David Ben-Gurion, who championed the ingathering of Jews to Israel, waffled on the matter of timing
A postcard David Gruen, 19, (later to become David Ben-Gurion) sent from Jaffa to his father celebrating his arrival to the Land of Israel in September 1906 (Visitors' Center of the Ben-Gurion Heritage Archives)
A postcard David Gruen, 19, (later to become David Ben-Gurion) sent from Jaffa to his father celebrating his arrival to the Land of Israel in September 1906 (Visitors' Center of the Ben-Gurion Heritage Archives)

In today’s Zionist world this dilemma is familiar to many: To make aliyah when young or to study and build up a profession and then come to Israel. In our family and friends’ circles, we recognize those who firmly declare their desire to make aliyah in the future, once having completed studies, apprenticeship, professional training and/or raising a family.

This is not a new phenomenon and has been a deliberation since the beginning of Zionism at the end of the 19th century. Then the quest derived from the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe. America “The Goldene Medina” was a greater attraction than the barren Land of Israel and the majority of Eastern European Jewry migrated to the former. The few pioneers who did decide to make aliyah in the early 20th century also had their qualms.

Even the young 19-year-old David Gruen, later known as David Ben-Gurion, debated the issue of the timing of his aliyah to the Land of Israel and we have the evidence! In the new Visitors’ Center of the Ben-Gurion Heritage Archives, situated in Midreshet Ben-Gurion, the earliest document on display written by the founder of Israel in 1905.

Writing from Warsaw to his childhood friend Shmuel Fuchs (calling him “Achi” or “my bro”) who had emigrated to the US, he deliberates between staying to study engineering or technology at the Warsaw Technion or to make aliyah immediately. He mentions other friends who had left Eastern Europe for the US.

“I haven’t decided anything yet” he says in the letter. This is a universal refrain of many young people today as well (even when they are older than 19).

The decision was actually taken out of his hands when he was refused entry to the Warsaw higher education institute because of “numerus clausus” – limiting the number of Jewish students.

A year later, he was no longer indecisive and made aliyah in September 1906. On display in the Visitors’ Center is the postcard sent from Jaffa to his father celebrating the moment.

It is a familiar story: to make aliyah as a young person and develop in Israel or to receive an education and experience abroad and then arrive with skills and knowledge. We all know people on both sides.

Similar deliberations faced Zionists from the beginning of the 20th century and have persisted until the present day.

And the icing on the cake is the date given on the letter: 1st Adar Alef, 8 years since the Congress. The 19-year-old David Gruen, not yet Ben-Gurion, had devised a new calendar of his own: counting from the First Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897. This was a revolutionary idea. He adds ” I wasn’t ill even once” (on the journey) and “I am healthy, brave and full of faith” at the sides of the postcard.

He signs the letter with the familiar term “With Zionist greetings…”.  A year later he will sign the postcard to his father from Jaffa with a slight but significant difference: “With greetings from Zion.”

The founder of the State of Israel believed wholeheartedly in personal aliyah. His gravestone at Midreshet Ben-Gurion is engraved with three dates: his biological birth, his aliyah “rebirth,” and his death.  This is the only information on the grave.  His belief that one had to “take fate into one’s hands” distinguished those who made Aliya and those who stayed in the Diaspora. The question was and is…timing.  After all, timing is everything.

Then and today, in times of war and crisis, olim continue to come and make Israel their home and the place for future generations.

About the Author
Born in London, made aliya on my own at the age of 18 in 1986. Moved to Dimona in 1990 and becamde the UJIA representative there. Later worked for the Jewish Agency Partnership 2000 as representative of Dimona, Yerucham, Mitzpe Ramon. Married to Avi and mother of 5 children, 20 year old triplets, Asher, David and Yaara, Talia a 15 year old and Ariel 9. Currently working at Sde Boker.
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