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The Jewish Politics of Aliyah

Growing up in a Jewish Orthodox community in Los Angeles, Israel Independence Day was just another nondescript day of the year. There were no passionate speeches in favor or against the celebration, it was just painfully ignored with the only mention being a light hearted mockery that in some schools they would be saying Hallel that day. 

Sometime during our senior year we were told the precise position Yeshivish Orthodoxy had on the issue. Apparently the prevailing consensus was that unlike Niturei Karta, we recognize the state of Israel and after the fact of its existence we condone accepting benefits. However, we don’t celebrate Israeli national holidays because the founding fathers were extremely anti-religious and don’t even mention God in the declaration of independence, instead compromising on the term Tzur Yisrael, the rock of Israel.

There was always a clear distinction made between the land of Israel and the state of Israel. There were plenty of Mishnaic adages we learned about the land, that it’s an ארץ אוכלת יושביה, a land which consumes its inhabitants. That it’s a land which can only be acquired through hardship, ארץ ישראל נקנית בייסורים. On the flip side we also learned that אוירא דארץ ישראל מחכים, that the literal air you breathe in Eretz Yisrael will undoubtedly make you wiser, and learning Torah in the Diaspora can’t be compared to learning Torah in the Holy Land.

Learning in a seminary for a year post high school was the climax of a twelve year Jewish education for the students in my school. After graduating most girls went on to further their secular education in the U.S., predominantly in Jewish institutions of higher learning. This was the mainstream trajectory that took place, with the majority of girls getting married during this time period.

There was always a spattering of girls who would come to Israel for a year or two after marriage, but they would inevitably move back to the U.S. after a certain predesignated time. It was never a Zionistic idealism, but rather a cultural rite of passage.

This is all in contrast to the Modern Orthodox who have a blatant Zionistic ideology and fervently believe in the mitzvah of yishuv haaretz, settling the land. In the works of Rav Kook and many of his ilk, it’s one of the most important mitzvahs a Jew can fulfill. In this view, mitzvat yishuv haaretz is an abundantly clear commandment, and the settlers in Yehuda and Shomron are exceptional in their observance of this mitzvah. 

This is just one more example of the joke about how two Jews on an island need three shuls, one for each, and one that neither will enter. Judaism, even halachik Judaism, has many diverse interpretations that different sects will approach in different ways. It’s still an enigma as to why certain sects uphold certain mitzvahs and disregard others, while other sects also pick and choose what suits them best.

There is no denying that mitzvat yishuv haaretz is a cornerstone of Jewish belief and practice. But just like so many other Jewish practices it became a cultural phenomenon. The Dati Mamlachti ardently support Zionism and making aliyah while the mainstream Yeshivish mostly overlook it. At best they offer valid excuses as to why they can’t make aliyah, with reasons varying from livelihood to the challenges of having children adjust to another country. 

While it’s very apparent that not everyone can just pick up and move to Israel, it’s also patently clear that certain sects of Judaism support making aliyah a lot more than others. Living in Israel for a year or two is certainly commendable and should not be belittled. And yet the majority of people who choose to live in Israel long term are adherents to Religious Zionism. Ultimately it’s predominantly one sect of Judaism who wholeheartedly embraces aliyah with other sects merely paying lip service to a mitzvah which really should and does belong to everyone.

About the Author
Chava Berman Kaplan grew up in Los Angeles, CA in an orthodox community in the La Brea Fairfax neighborhood. She moved to Israel in her early twenties, first residing in Jerusalem, then Bet Shemesh, and now in Holon. She has two children, ages twelve and ten, who study in a mamlachti school in Holon. She works as an English teacher and has always enjoyed writing as a hobby.
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