Aliyah has never appealed to me. I am an avowed Zionist, but when it comes to weighing up South Africa versus Israel, Israel features as just another country.
It is ultimately a matter of perspective: practicality versus ideology. Would I move to Israel because it offers me the best life or because it is my homeland to which I should contribute? Yet this dichotomy is extreme and I sit on the middle ground (or the fence, if you will). I aim to choose the place that will enable me to contribute not only to Israel, but to greater society. Certainly, Israel offers me a home but so too does South Africa, the US, the UK and everywhere else. Each is resplendent with its own issues and we would do well to avoid painting a rosy picture of Israel.
However, Israel has a unique characteristic for it addresses our national curse: anti-Semitism. Persecution, crusades, violence, and massacres have created a genetic fear that prevents a wholly peaceful life. When will our neighbours turn against us? When will there be another gas chamber joke? Is it safe to reveal my Jewish identity? Our history has demonstrated time and time again that it is impossible to integrate no matter how assimilated we may be, and it is impossible to live in peace.
Israel is unlikely, I daresay, to be void of terrorism and the target of hatred and accusations – the new guise of anti-Semitism. Will life in Israel ever be peaceful? Probably not. In fact, Maimonides characterises the Messianic Age as no more than a normal existence without persecution and hatred. However, there is a key difference that must be acknowledged: Israel gives us a safety that we have not known for millennia. Only in Israel can a Jew feel that she or he is protected. Only in Israel will anti-Semitic attacks be truly confronted. Only in Israel will a Jew be truly defended.
That seems motivation enough and it is certainly weighty. But… is it? I am not speaking of socio-economic factors here, although those play a part as I mentioned above, but of communities, history and integration. My maternal great-grandmother was born in South Africa in 1904, and so began my roots here. I have a connection to South Africa that I do not have to Israel. I have a love for the country, a local knowledge, I know the backroads, I know which areas to avoid, and I have a concrete awareness of our bountiful cultures and national issues. While many of my compatriots unfortunately disagree, South Africa is a beautiful place.
Israel too has the same for its natives; but not for me. I barely know Israel and my comprehensible but shaky Hebrew is better than I know its geography (I confess to discovering that Hebron is north of Jerusalem only several weeks ago. I always thought it was south. Yep, true story). And so, to sum it up: South Africa is currently my home.
I know the community and our unique Lithuanian heritage. South African Jewry is arguably the most unified community in the Diaspora. We have one national hechsher, one Beth Din, and a unified leadership. Israel is unfortunately the complete opposite. There is an irresistibly comforting appeal to remain ensconced in South Africa.
Other countries can also be our homes. Are they our “true” home? No, of course not; but that does not mean we need to leave. In a book from the ‘40s (which I unfortunately do not have on me in order to source), the American author writes along the following lines: Jews are a unique culture and subsect of society that plays an invaluable part in the country. Jews are in fact representative of the very ideal of democracy: we do belong and we can be different.
I am not “anti-aliyah” in any way. If Israel is where one wants to be, then please follow that dream. However, my point is that not everyone feels that way. To “pick up one’s bags and leave” is not straightforward and it does not need to be an expectation of every Jew. For just as there may be reason to leave, there are many reasons to stay.