Why I am Making Aliyah:
To Keep the Blessing
Eisen shares his reasons for making aliyah- some of which may defy conventional wisdom.
I was not raised to be a Zionist, nor, by the usual definitions, have I become one. I want to live in Israel, that is all; I find myself pulled there, by the power and challenge in its call. The project itself moves me, in a way which ideologies fashioned long ago and espoused now only far away cannot comprehend. How could they, really? A unique life-story lies behind each aliyah. People do not change the location and commitments of their lives because an idea has proven overwhelmingly persuasive. They go to Israel, rather, for reasons at once more personal and less articulable: because the landscape better suits the shape of their imaginings; because the selves which they would like to be seem more likely to thrive there. Or because, as in my case, the few in them knows that there, and only there (if there) will he ever find fulfillment.
One goes, in a way, despite the Zionists. The secularists, from Jacob Klatzkin to Hillel Halkin, would have me regard the survival of the Jewish people, the preservation of the Hebrew language and the resettlement of Eretz Yisrael as ultimate values in need of no further justification. I do not find them such; Jewish faith and Jewish history, in fact, tell me otherwise. Nor am I persuaded that the survival of the Jewish people demands our mass emigration. If the tactics of survival were my sole concern -a tricky business, requiring charts and scenarios and an instinct, honed over centuries, for the impossible which is about to happen -I would certainly not recommend exposing most or even many of the Jewish people to the enormous risks of a fragile state surrounded by enemies. Better to fight assimilation, here, where no one wants to kill us, if survival is the sole object. This is only common sense. We are prospering here. A Jewish life can be rich here. The doom-sayers could not speed me to Israel on the wings of their assimilation statistics. The projections might be right -but they also might be wrong, and I like it here.
Most religious Zionists, I am afraid, would not have me, and I cannot abide their certainties. A halakhic state? Not for me; I do not hear the voice of Sinai clearly enough. "The beginning of the flowering of our redemption?" May it only be God's will; we will certainly not make it if it isn't. But those who proclaim the messiah's imminent arrival through and for themselves quite frankly scare me to death. The politics practiced today in anticipation of the Coming lead one to dread the Main Event all the more. I do not know God's ways in history: not in the death camps, not in 1948 or 1967. His doings are not that discernible to me. Talk which threatens to make of God a "man of war" repels me. It is not that Jewish faith which urges me on to redeem history, ideally through the patient struggle to fashion a real society of Jewish persons in Eretz Yisrael more worthy of His name.
It comes down to this, really: I regard the state of Israel as a great and terrible blessing. By some incredible stroke of timing, the State was born only three years before me. We are contemporaries. Israel and I, a blessing not granted to my grandparents, and granted my parents too late to alter the pattern of their days. What does one do, as a Jew, in the face of such a blessing? At the very least, if Jewishness is at the center of one's life, one takes it with ultimate personal seriousness. One asks -more than once, at more than one stage of life -whether one should not be living there. Not out of guilt (though this guilt would not be unhealthy), nor out of obligation (though I feel a certain obligation), nor because aliyah is necessary to become a better Jew (it is not). One goes, if one so decides, because one physically cannot sit by and let other people blow it.
This attitude might be a matter of personal temperament. I do not think so, however. The arrogance in the refusal to let others ruin things, while we sit idly by, is the arrogance necessary for tikkun alam, our collective refusal as Jews to accept the world as it is. Humility in this regard could be fatal. For if they succeed in defending an Israel repugnant to all we value, we shall soon sour on its dream, and if we do, a precious part of our life's meaning will be denied. The fear of that alone, and the challenge implicit in the fear, should conquer our passivity and enliven the question of aliyah in our minds.
Once the possibility has been stirred in us, we are persuaded to act on it by the project -and the reality -of Israel. listen, on one foot, to Deuteronomy, an oration by Moses attempting to make real, through the poetry of law, the new life which will open itself to Israel on the far side of a narrow river. The words "hear," "live," and "mitzvah," sounded in the book's opening chapters, re-echo throughout.
The people are to imagine the way to a life as yet unknown in the world, they must hear Moses' words so well that the testimony of all that their eyes have seen , until then passes from memory. The way is called mitzvah. By walking in it, they can bring this life into being. To that end, the remainder of Deuteronomy lays out a blueprint of that life, in law. Not in general exhortations to love: for the life must be sufficiently specific to convince us of its reality, and guide our steps in its creation. Not in complete detail: for the life cannot be pictured precisely before it is lived. The challenge facing Moses; then, is to convince Israel through his words that human life can be different than it has ever been before. Having been addressed at Sinai, Israel is to speak its word (davar) in the conversation with God by creating a set of facts (devarim) which testify to God's presence rather than against it, enable that presence to dwell on earth -rather than exiling it. Where injustice is the rule and righteousness goes unrewarded, faith is rendered difficult. Where widow and orphan are provided for, and the daily order confirms the prophet's vision of how things are meant to be, a person can trust in the God responsible, and tell his or her child, in all sincerity, that life is meaningful and good.
As one stands on the Jordan's far bank, the possibility that this vision will ever be more than that seems remote. Yet this translation of devarim (words) into devarim (facts) is, I believe, the task which defines us as Jews. The vision excites me like no other, even if the voice of God in my experience sounds but dimly and the details of mitzvah's way are not so clear. One need not accept all of Deuteronomy's presuppositions (or even mine, I think) to agree that it states, quite accurately, what we are meant as Jews to do: to build just Jewish communities with God in their midst.
.Now, it is one thing to construct such a community in the Diaspora, and quite another in ones own society. The economy, polity, and culture of any nation which we live will make their claims, and these must be met. One cannot, as a result, feel ultimately responsible for such states. In medieva l times one served the prince, thereby angering his populace, and left both to their ways. In the modern West, one perhaps presses for social justice -whether out of prophetic commitments, or attention to one's own interest -and, where possible, has a voice In the determination of national policy. But it remains one voice and we remain of necessity, a tiny percentage of the population. Others (non-Jews) will- and should, if we are democrats -prevail.
The issue, though, is not one of votes at all, but of culture. Sociologists such as Peter Berger confirm the Torah's guiding assumption that to maintain one's own beliefs and .way of life social reality must be ordered accordingly. Too much conflicting testimony will shatter the "plausibility structure" which lends credibility to our view of the world -only one view, among so many. Too much conflicting experience will preclude our commitment to that which has never been. If the life of which Moses speaks is to be lived to any significant degree, then, a space and time must be created which are ours. The project awaits us, and now, for the first time m two thousand years, we have the chance to return to work on it full-time.
Others have begun the work, and we inherit the good and bad of that beginning. I shall speak of the latter below. Here I want to mention several aspects of the reality already built up m the space provided for our upbuilding which particularly draw me to Aliyah.
First, that by grace of which we build: the land. The eretz of Israel probably speak to each of us in a different way. I, no romantic, have not felt impelled to work it; never, riding through the Emek, have I been seized by a longing to return to the soil, there by leaving behind galut civilization with all of its distancing amenities. Nevertheless: I cannot look without emotion at a land which addresses me in words put. deep inside me by tradition. In Samaria I find the olive trees still at peace upon their terraces, tending to those who tend them faithfully, and am reminded: Baal-small wonder that Elijah failed here. In Judea, by contrast, I find myself between unrelenting rock and light which pierces to the core of men and matter, and understand why so many on this terrain over the centuries could not rest content with anything less than absolutes. The very light will not permit it. One is forced into the depths of self which the light has penetrated and left exposed. In such a land one learns a lesson of existence, and cannot run, while here culture disguises so much with its mass and substance. Layers of history stand between us and the facts, concealing what the trees of Judea, growing lone on rocky hills, disclose. There is romanticism in this, I know, but I give way to it contentedly. The changing color of Jerusalem's stone is not a small part of what holds me bound.
Second, those with whom we build, Israelis. One soon discards any talk of Jewish moral genius, as one contemplates the face of "Jewish normalcy," and that is all to the good. However, one also becomes aware of the meaning of Jewish peoplehood, encountering kibbutz galuyot in the chatter of an Egged bus. There is a certain individuality to Israelis, I find, which stems perhaps from the smallness of the place, and the demands made on everyone's humanity. If character be that which is etched deep through repetition, then Israelis have acquired it in the old-fashioned way, through pain. The lack of civility wears on me, and has become, I think, a serious social problem. The aggression manifested in daily interactions threatens to drive one into stony anonymity. But, still, it is a family: hence the bickering, the assumed right of reproof. Israelis pay more dearly for the society of their fellows than any other people of our experience. They also receive more: a sense of collective purpose, the knowledge that one does not live only for oneself. This meaning, which we stalk, often futilely, in our professions, is forced upon them in the calls to yet another month in the reserves, and the unavoidability of a life in debt. One is needed there: a great blessing, from which one naturally longs to escape. One has community there, for better and for worse, to a larger degree than we will ever know it here, and to the extent that this is still a shibboleth to which I cling, I am led to pursue it where it can be found. Israeli society, or at least significant elements within it, still takes the ideal seriously, where American society does not.
Finally, there are the various meanings that Jewishness has already come to acquire. One simply cannot know what Jewish forms will result from this experiment. One can only live there, and, watching one's own relation to the people and its tradition unfolding, imagine the process repeated thousand-fold over generations. The availability of public Jewish space is itself decisive. I remember my wonderment at rust seeing Purim in the streets. On Yom Kippur Jerusalem lay absolutely still under a sheet of briI1iant white and white-gold; all movement was within, as the day demanded. On Shavuot I walked with tens of thousands to the Temple, the convergence witnessing to a common center. For the rust time I testified as a pilgrim does, with my feet. The calendar is ours, for once, for once we can structure our days, and have their rhythm invite us in. Whether it is Tishre or September is at last a fact of our construction, exactly like the Succot which we built for ourselves in all our dispersions and then sat in, as we would in a world. I rejoice in this, find it liberating. A student of Judaism's confrontation with modernity, I am especially drawn to the site where we may just do more than hold our own.
But there are problems. Arabs with conflicting claims, and much justice in those claims, refuse to disappear, while other Arabs for other reasons join in threatening the State with destruction. Should the danger ever pass and peace be achieved, the moral questions inherent in a Jewish state with a significant non-Jewish minority will persist, Within Israel, the social dislocations of the modern world take their toll. Our welfare state founders, turning us from the stirring vocabulary of Deuteronomy's vision to the dulling lexicon of inflation, unemployment and discrimination. Jews are at each others' throats, for reasons sunk deep in the essence of what we are about, and these divisions are more likely to become more bitter than to disappear. The litany is long, and well-known. The upshot is that reality does not seem inclined to acquiesce in our attempt so radically to transform it.
But this is always the case: as adults, and not children, we have learned that. The question is what our response shall be to the stub born intransigence of the facts. Several reactions, often heard among us, seem to me entirely without justification.
One is to rule out aliyah, on the grounds that the state is not worthy of us, too corrupt. Please: the state will be imperfect and worse than imperfect at least until the Messiah comes. On that day we (and the Jewish Agency) will not be needed; aliyah will be arranged "from some other place." I am not minimizing the current injustice. One sickens, occasionally, and despairs, seeing or reading of what goes on. It is as if that which so directs our lives seems itself to be hopelessly drifting away. All the more reason to be there, where our dissatisfactions can at least lead to constructive protest. Easy to say, harder to do: precisely. Here we can never know if our self-righteousness is not fueled in part by guilt, serving our rationalization. There we have the discomfort of finding that those with whom we disagree most profoundly are good neighbors, intelligent and committed. This too has shaken me, during my years in Israel for study. The good fight is to be fought there with and against Israelis -not here.
Equally unconvincing is the argument that if everyone went to Israel, Jewish survival here and there would be endangered, and besides, that Israel can't cope with the immigrants it already has. This too will not do. We will be permitted to worry about the depletion of Diaspora resources when that becomes a serious possibility. At the moment, when almost no Americans are going to Israel, its need for our skills and its truly frightening demographic picture present by far the greater danger. A variant response, voiced by some active in the Jewish community, asks who will run things and sustain Jewish culture here, if those who are most dedicated go on aliyah. Again, such concerns are not yet legitimate. American Jewry has the talent and resources to take care of itself in the foreseeable future. Israel has neither. As for Israel's capacity to absorb our aliyah: let the possibility be a real one, and it will be forced to find a solution, although not necessarily one which accommodates either our standard of living or our ambitions. This must be recognized.
I am not, it should be emphasized, indulging in classical Zionist fantasies, mouthed today only by the most facile ideologists, of a non-Israeli world which is Judenrein, a Diaspora which "negates itself' into oblivion. That is not the issue, and, in terms of our aliyah, the question of which pole in the Jewish world's "ellipse" has priority, Israel or Diaspora, is merely academic. Nor am I urging, it should be repeated, that we go to Israel simply out of obligation or guilt. I am only arguing that if we take seriously our responsibility to ask the question of aliyah, and if our excitement at the project and reality of Israel leads us to answer that question in the affirmative, we cannot let ourselves be dissuaded either by dissatisfaction with Israeli society or by our personal indispensability to American Jewish life. There are excellent personal reasons for not making aliyah, but these two are not among them. Good faith demands that we ask and answer the question with more integrity.
We are a privileged generation, witness to a moment which will not soon come again, and called to work which we alone can perform. The very least we can do is honestly face the question which the facts so urgently pose for us.