Israel and the Diaspora: Aliya is a four-letter word
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Author: David Breakstone

An article written by David Breakstone, (Head of the Department for Zionist Activities of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Executive of the Jewish Agency and WZO), originally published in the Jerusalem Post.

Aliya is a four-letter word in Hebrew. It isn't in English, and it shouldn't be treated that way. But it is now part of a vocabulary uttered only in undertones or with apologies, or not spoken at all in mixed company - i.e. between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.

I'm not talking of grandiose pronouncements on the need to encourage aliya, or "mom-and-apple-pie" declarations solemnly joining it to sacrosanct but non-obligatory statements on the centrality of Israel. No, I'm talking about the "pack-your-bags-and-get-on-a-plane" kind that, after more than 100 years of Zionism, is still, apparently, primarily for the oppressed and unfortunate.

When, a number of months ago, the Jewish Agency declared a campaign to bring one million new immigrants to Israel from the West over the next 10 years, I received an e-mail from a young Zionist activist in America asking how she could help us achieve that goal. The simplest and most effective answer never even occurred to her. In English, aliya still means somebody else.

Several years ago, an article appeared in The Washington Post penned by professor and rabbi, Jacob Neusner. Titled "Is America the Promised Land for the Jews?" one didn't have to read far for the answer. The piece began with the declaration that "It is time to say that America is a better place to be Jewish than Jerusalem."

It does not matter that his arguments were spurious. It matters that they touched a responsive chord in the local Jewish community, which breathed a collective sigh of relief upon discovering that their sense of being "at home", was not only justified but also legitimate.

Neusner, in one stroke, had managed to undermine more than 4000 years of tradition which began with the journey of a lonely man of faith, and continued into Exile where Jews invented numerous devices intended to ensure that they lived a life of longing, and that their greatest joy would never eclipse their yearning for Jerusalem.

To be sure, these devices did not always work. Today's Western Jewries have plenty of antecedents to model themselves on. They are not the first to proclaim "next year in Jerusalem" at the conclusion of the Pessah seder, and then, next year, proclaim it again, without ever deviating from their position of reclining as free men and women in a society they call home. In the past, of course, there was no Israel, obviating the need for our forebears to rationalize their inaction.

It used to be that we Israelis would ask Jewish visitors to our country when they were coming back here to live. While the question could be irksome, it was essentially ignored, or laughed off. Then we stopped asking it altogether, having become too cosmopolitan to ask, embarrassed by the myriad implications of what we were suggesting.

We should have had nothing to be ashamed of. The Zionist commandment of aliya is in keeping with the best of our tradition. Since Talmudic times, the mitzva of settling the Land of Israel has been considered equivalent in merit to the performance of all other commandments combined. We should have had nothing to be ashamed of, but we forgot what we were doing here in the first place. Confusing the attainment of a safe haven for Jews everywhere with the realization of the Zionism dream, Israelis no longer had any reason to ask others to move here.

The fallacy of this position is that it is based on a retroactive redefinition of Zionism, which was never a movement whose sole objective was to secure a safe refuge for persecuted Jews. While Zionist visionaries have certainly differed from one another in terms of what the Jewish state should look like, they were also bound by a passion for forging a chevra l'mofet, a society that would exemplify the very best in terms of Jewish morality and tradition that Jewish civilization has to offer.

Aliya is the highest expression of Zionist fulfillment, because it allows for the most direct involvement in shifting Jewish values from the realm of theory into the practice of statehood. We need to proclaim this unabashedly, calling upon others to join us - for positive reasons - in the incredibly exciting process of Jewish state-building.  This is not part of the consciousness of Western Jewry. If the unsatisfactorily low number of North American immigrants weren't testimony enough to this reality, the emerging patterns of Jewish migration from the so-called "Zionist" communities of South Africa and Argentina provide abundant evidence of it.

On a recent trip to Johannesburg, I met far more Jewish families with relatives in Australia, Canada, England, and the US than in Ra'anana.

Jews are staying put, or moving everywhere but Israel, because they have not become truly enamored of the Zionist idea. Bringing this about is a long and complex process, but it begins by taking issue publicly with Neusner, and declaring that it is Israel that is the better place to be Jewish than anywhere else. Here one ties one's destiny to the destiny of the Jewish people in a way that one cannot in the Diaspora, and contributes to the shaping of a Jewish society and Jewish culture that is impossible anywhere else.

To those who dismiss these phrases as mere cliche, I can only express my disappointment that they will never experience the deep satisfaction that comes with living in accordance with them. Aliyah is not only a great challenge facing the Jewish people, it is also, potentially, the greatest source of fulfillment for the individual Jew.

(The writer is the head of the Department for Zionist Activities of the World Zionist Organization, and a member of the WZO and Jewish Agency Executive. He is also chairman of the Masorti Movement in Israel.)

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