Shabbat Goy: What are you doing here anyway?

Olim don't seem to be allowed the right to dissent until they've earned their stripes. So much the more so for those of us who arrived here for "other reasons."

January 23, 2010 02:02
4 minute read.
New olim arrive in Israel

New olim arrive in Israel. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Every so often, I suffer something of a crisis of confidence about what exactly brought me to Israel. The strangest things set it off: trying to watch the political programs on television, for instance, when they start to shout at each other and it all turns to gibberish. (I am reliably informed that even if my Hebrew were perfect, it still won't make any sense. But never mind...); or fighting my way out of the labyrinthine nightmare that calls itself Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station, with escalators that bypass whole floors and staircases that seem to lead nowhere...

But sometimes, this uncertainty is triggered off by the most trivial of things. Surfing the net the other day, I came across an unsettlingly hostile critique of one of my columns. While the various imprecations thrown my way by the author didn't bother me - I get enough of that at home, thank you very much - a throwaway sentence did pull me up short.

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"He doesn't explain what his relationship to Israel or Judaism is... he never explains what he is doing here, in the first place."

Ouch. The underlying insinuation - that as a common-or-garden variety non-Jew, I had no place here - had me wringing my hands. But just for a bit, fear not.

Actually, I do think that I have something in common with other olim, the ones who can sing Hatikva and mean every word of it. Like them, love brought me to Israel: The difference lies in the object of our affection. For them, it is the ideological commitment to the existence of the State of Israel. In my case, it was a woman that brought me here...

I've always supposed that ideological conditioning must make the act of aliya less daunting. I mean, synagogue, Hebrew school, youth groups and solemn declamations of "next year in Jerusalem" must count for something, no? In this respect, I am clearly at a disadvantage. However, I do wonder at times whether this emotional attachment might pose more problems than it solves. Let's put it this way: Might it be that not being a Jew actually works to my advantage?

One thing is clear: making aliya is tough. Most new immigrants that I know talk about the immense personal and professional sacrifices necessary to fulfill the Zionist imperative. The need to learn a new language, culture, customs and traditions; the obligation to make financial sacrifices, take significant salary cuts or even to change profession altogether. And that's all before one begins to contemplate the day-to-day challenges of life in the Holy Land.

But the funny thing is that these sacrifices seem pretty much to be taken for granted, by the government and by the "native" population. It is as if these hardships ought to be considered as, at worst, a transitory inconvenience when set against the broader imperative. It is one's duty to leave the Galut and come to the Motherland, after all. The rest, as they say, is just detail.

Of course, olim do receive support - after a fashion - from the government and its agencies, as part of the efforts to convince Jews to make aliya. I didn't qualify for this when I moved here, not being - to put it delicately - part of the target group.

BUT I don't begrudge this, because it seems at times that the help offered comes with a rather expensive price tag: Not to complain, not to grumble; to support the Israeli government in all its actions and all its deeds; to accept the prevailing social and political narrative, and without demurral or question. To do otherwise, after all, will be a betrayal of the ideological certainty that the government tries to promote.

Unlike the Sabra population, olim don't seem to be allowed the right to dissent until they've earned their stripes. And who knows how long that takes? Every so often, I come across advertisements for house clearance sales on the English-language online message boards to which I subscribe. They are always eerily similar, offering a plethora of household goods and consumer electronics at bargain prices; the point is always made that they are hardly used, just a couple of years old. One can read between the lines, but occasionally the sellers are quite explicit: "We're leaving the country," "We're going back home." And whenever I see this, I can't help but feel a little sad.

I suppose the point I'm trying to make is that ideological commitment is useful, but rhetoric isn't always enough. My friend, presumably, wonders why I am here since I'm not signed up to the Zionist program. But what escapes him is the fact that oddly, now I'm here, in some ways I'm less shackled to the orthodoxy that binds so many others.

Love brought me here, my love for my wife. And through her, I have a surrogate family who keep an eye open for me and keep me out of trouble; a family who have made the process of settling in a foreign land much easier, I suspect, than if I were buoyed by ideology alone.

But, to answer my friend's question: What am I doing in Israel, anyway? I'm not sure I know, to be quite honest. I'd like to think that having an Israeli wife ought to be enough. Either way, one thing I do know: For all sorts of reasons, I probably have it a lot easier than a lot of people who come here out of a different kind of love. So, perhaps I should stop worrying and start enjoying my rather unique circumstances. Life, after all, could be a great deal worse.

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