I recently left Israel for a month-long trip to the US.
Being there, I was confronted by the question, “Why live in Israel? Why not live here, in America?”
Which is an excellent question.
The US is the “Goldene Medina”. It’s pretty close to the ideal type of place that Jews have been learning about, and dreaming about, for millennia.
Here, people are free. Opportunity abounds.
Jewish life is thriving, like never before.
The political system, while currently polarized, is recognized by most as being fair and equitable.
In general it is safe, fun, comfortable (have you seen the size of those Costco carts!?), and the house with the picket fence and 2 Mercedes parked outside (ok, maybe one is a Tesla) is achievable after some smart thinking and hard work. It’s the American Dream!
Even when driving through some of the less affluent areas, one gets a sense of the level of basic material comfort. I was shocked, when travelling through Ferguson, Missouri, at how well people lived compared to those in the lower socioeconomic brackets in my native South Africa, or even Israel.
I have the most tremendous amount of respect for the United States as a country. It is an incredible place.
Yet, I feel deep down that Israel is the place I must be.
How does one reconcile this?
After much thought, I can identify a number of answers to the question: “Why Israel?” – 2 of which I’ll share here.
One: Creating Something Special
Around 500 years ago, brave explorers set out from mainland Europe into the unknown.
They were searching for adventure, opportunity, discovery…and discover they did. It’s no coincidence that what they found was called “The New World”.
When news of their discovery spread, they were soon joined by other people; families, women and children, all inspired by this sense of a new dawn.
What they were leaving was comfort. The known. Europe, and Asia and North Africa to a lesser extent, was “the world” for these people, there was nothing else.
What they were going to was unknown, yet it held such great promise. A New World.
This promise was indeed fulfilled, by the founding fathers of the United States of America. Where “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
Where “Each man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, with no one to frighten him”, as George Washington actually wrote to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island (quoted from Micah 4:4).
Where no king dictated how people should live. Freedom was each man’s king.
I see parallels to the young State of Israel today.
It’s new. How its future will look is still unknown. It’s not as comfortable, and perceived as “not as safe” as many of the more established communities worldwide.
But it holds a promise.
It’s the promise to be a part of the most romantic story ever written, a story that stretches across the pages of history and touches every corner of the globe.
In this story, a nation was born, and almost immediately extinguished. Yet, it managed to hold on stubbornly, and though “in every generation they rise up to destroy us”, somehow, this nation’s stubbornness and refusal to give up helped it overcome the overwhelming odds.
Through destruction and rebuilding, forced dispersal and endless wandering.
That wandering led this nation from the land of Israel, to Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman exiles, and through every empire and world power since then. The majority of this nation eventually “settled” (they were never settled) in and around Europe.
Finally – just like those European explorers hundreds of years before – this nation too left mainland Europe, though this time after centuries of persecution, and not for something as innocuous as a search for adventure.
Exiled from European capitals. Isolated, blamed, ghettoed, rounded up, gassed, and burned in ovens.
Somehow, from this ash, the literal ash of its people, this nation rose up again.
They came back to where it all began, to their Land of Israel. They founded a country based on the principles they had held dear for thousands of years. Where citizens are equal, where values like freedom of speech reign supreme.
This story has heroes and villains, tragic chapters and close escapes.
It really is the greatest story ever written, stretching from ancient history and continuing today, nothing can compare. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this?
Two: There’s No Hiding From The Truth
All this is beautiful. But why do I choose to live in Israel – and not the US, which also has an incredible history, and is built on values I identify with?
Certainly, the romanticism and adventure are part of it. But there’s something a lot bigger.
I, like many people reading this, read the Bible on a somewhat regular basis.
Whether relating to it as a believer or not, there is no escaping the following facts. That according to the Bible:
- God is in charge
- God promised the Land of Israel to the Israelites
- The entire, macro story of the Bible is about getting the Israelites to the promised land
- Because this is where God wants them to be
It’s hard to dispute any of these points. It’s not about whether one believes them to be true or not.
I’m just saying, this is the way it’s put in the Good Book.
If I do not believe in any of this, it still makes for one hell of a story. If I do believe in some, or all of this, I cannot rationalize being part of that Israelite people, and not living in the land God so clearly wants me – and my people – to be living in.
There are variations of a joke where a guy is driving around Tel Aviv trying to find a parking before a meeting. Desperate, he cries out to God, “Please God, if you just grant me a parking spot, I will keep all your commandments!”
As he finishes the sentence, a car pulls out of a perfect spot right in front of him. “God!” the man proclaims, “forget about it, I found one!”
Besides for the Biblical reasons to be in Israel – or perhaps in addition to them – are the prayers that are constantly recited by communities all over the world. Almost every single one, from the daily prayers to the Blessing after Meals to Yom Kippur and weddings, references a return to Zion.
One cannot escape the fact that if I believe, there is only one place I could possibly live – that is, without experiencing a disconnect, a form of cognitive dissonance. Without saying to God, “I know I asked, but it’s ok, forget about it, I’m fine now”.
This is the reason I – and many like me, especially young Americans – enlisted in the IDF, for example. Like Jonah, they felt they might be able to hide from this calling, this Truth, temporarily, but at some point they had to face up to it, and be True to themselves, despite the inevitable hardships, and facing the ultimate sacrifice.
Call it conscience over comfort, perhaps.
These people think to themselves, “I want to be part of the People, I believe it’s our Land, I believe it’s what God wants. Why should others have to fight for it while I live in comfort?”
This is also the reason, extending this train of thought, why I have to live in Israel. This is the Truth. (What to do if one believes all this to be true, but is not living there? Maybe that’s a topic for another post. It must also be said that wherever anyone chooses to live, regardless of religion, they should be treated as full and equal citizens without questions of dual loyalty or accusations of not putting their country first.)
I’m not one to judge anyone, and each person is different with their own unique circumstances which others cannot possibly fully understand. I can only speak for myself, perform this analysis for myself, ask myself these tough questions (“An unexamined life is not worth living”?). And even saying that, who knows where life or circumstances will take me in future. Abraham left the Land (albeit temporarily) when he could not physically sustain himself and his family, for example.
If I am honest with myself, and follow the facts to their logical conclusion, there is only one place I can call home.
Of course, it also helps being part of the most romantic, epic story ever told – one that continues to be written.