US Jews Should Change Israel Through Aliyah
No, my title isn’t meant to be sarcastic or judgmental. I truly mean it! If American Jews are truly concerned about the future of the State of Israel, then they should move there!
Like thousands of American Jews, I made the plunge (in the summer of 2019 through the Garin Tzabar program). I moved to Kibbutz Erez, where I lived for a year and a half. While doing so, I understood what it means to live on a kibbutz and to face rocket fire from Gaza. I learned Hebrew, traveled throughout the country, and served in the IDF as a lone soldier for two years–during the COVID-19 pandemic, no less. And now, I still live in the periphery–only now in Givat Olga, the Gateway to the North, instead of the Gaza Envelope, the Gateway to the South. However, my story isn’t the focus of this piece.
The protests currently engulfing Tel Aviv–and to a lesser degree, other cities–are a natural reaction to the very concerning new government. The corruption of several members of Netanyahu’s coalition is bad enough, but the very homophobic and bigoted remarks of other members of the new government are perhaps more troublesome. Furthermore, the outright arrogant refusal of the gatekeepers in the ultra-Orthodox community to contribute in any meaningful way to Israeli society has been bolstered and legitimized. Yet lectures from foreign liberals–including American Jews–have never brought about any meaningful change in Israel policy, least of all the peace process with the Palestinians. On the contrary, it often drives Israelis further to the political right. So what is a concerned American Jew to do? Well, hopefully make Aliyah!
To be sure, not everyone can or should live in Israel. It’s an expensive, traffic-laden place with bureaucracy that will induce a panic attack in even the most zen yoga teacher. However, American Jews immigrating to Israel would do as much of a favor to them as they would to Israel. Firstly, American Jews are mostly well-off economically and well-educated. They are largely supportive of Israel and are among some of its strongest advocates internationally. An influx of American Jews to Israel would help the country prosper, not so differently from the influx of Soviet Jews in the late 1980s-1990s. Secondly, the sheer number of American Jews, who are mostly left-wing politically, could revive the Jewish state’s beleaguered liberal parties. I am not a left-winger personally, but even I acknowledge that a healthy democracy needs a healthy opposition. Strong political parties or factions make each side have to work hard to improve the country and better make their case to the people. A stronger Israeli Left would also help Israel strengthen its ties with its Western allies. Finally, American Jews entering Israel’s government and business sector would likely heal many of the bureaucratic hurdles that often make the Start-Up Nation feel more like a Second-World Country than a truly developed one. And it goes without saying that more young American Jews immigrating to Israel means a larger and stronger military.
But American Jews moving to Israel would also benefit immensely, including for those who would ultimately return to the United States. They would be able to master the Hebrew language (well, mostly, anyways) and learn more about their Jewish heritage and faith. At a time when American Jewry is beginning to assimilate out of existence or bow its head in shame, this is more important than ever. Israelis are an incredibly resilient people–as are the new olim who have made Israel our home (you kind of have to be, given the nightmare that is the bank). This resilience would revive and build-upon the now-fraying Jewish pride and power of mainstream Jewish organizations. It would give vital and new tools to Zionist activists in the war against antisemitism, principally in academia. It would allow for a broader exchange of ideas about Israeli culture, history, and nationhood that is often overlooked–particularly amongst different Jewish communities that are seen as “exotic”in America and often overlooked.
Perhaps most of all, American olim would learn from their Israeli sabra counterparts why they think–and vote–the way they do. They would personally interact with and understand those who share a deep distrust for “naive leftists,” Western intellectuals and peaceniks, and the Arab/Muslim World (including the Palestinians). Even if they still disagree, a personal and deeper understanding of such views is more likely to promote transatlantic healing, understanding, and dialogue for the Jewish World. It could build bridges–ones where Israeli Jews begin to understand why American Jews feel unaccepted by the chief rabbinate, the antisemitism they deal with at universities, or the simple divergence of cultural mores. It could build ones where American Jews see why Israeli Jews hate being lectured to about peace when they have lost friends and family to terrorism, when they have lived and suffered under the Islamic Boot and no longer wish to, and the frustration they feel at their own history (particularly for Mizrahi/Sephardic and Ethiopian Jews) being ignored as an “inconvenience” by large sectors of American Jewry. Indeed, perhaps some American Jews will begin to adopt such “Israeli mindsets” on the conflict or politics at large. Perhaps the opposite will also occur in tandem.
In short, Birthright and other Israel trips for American Jews are a good starting point for reconnecting with our roots, but too often that’s seen as the endpoint (except for lone soldiers or others who make aliyah). Lectures and threats aren’t going to change the problematic parts of Israeli society and politics. Israelis brushing aside the very real concerns of American Jews are not going to change minds in the diaspora, either. There needs to be a deeper desire for cultural and ideological exchange and reconnection. Even if American Jews don’t want to live full-time in Israel, is there really any harm in becoming a citizen and voting in the country? Is there really any harm in learning another language–particularly the one we use to pray in synagogues, and that our ancestors spoke? Is there harm in learning a bit more Torah and Talmud, or traveling to our holy sites even if they’re in “controversial locations?” I think the bigger harm is shutting each other out and canceling each other. American Jews need to re-examine the ways in which they speak to their Israeli counterparts. Just as importantly, they need to re-examine the ways in which they allegedly understand Israel. I would challenge more American Jews to make aliyah and change Israel from within. I would invite them not just to see Tel Aviv and the Western Wall, but also to visit the Ethiopian Jews in Hadera, the Soviet Jews in Be’ersheva, the Yemenite Jews in Ashkelon, and listen to their stories of hardship, immigration, and achievement.
Israel has a lot to learn from American Jews–mainly, how to drive and how to form a line while waiting for something. But American Jews also have a lot to learn from Israel. They can learn Hebrew, of course. But they can also learn about the reasons Israelis act and vote the way they do. They can learn about parts of Jewish history and culture they didn’t know existed. They can learn that the Jewish state is more than just the Tel Aviv boardwalk, Shalvata, and the Western Wall. And they can learn resilience, pride, and how to fall in love with the land we belong to. So if you’re an American Jew concerned about Israel’s future, then do as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel–an American Jewish hero–did: use your feet. Make Aliyah, vote in our elections, learn our language. Help our country. And we will help you in return–except, hopefully, when it comes to driving.