On a Friday night at the Chabad in Cuzco, Peru, two weeks ago, I found myself watching the hundreds of Israeli post-army travelers and the other Jewish people their age from around the world. They were almost entirely non-observant. Some knew the rudiments of Friday night’s customs; others did not. Some of the men wore kippot out of respect; some did not. Most spoke Hebrew, while the Americans did not.
None of those differences, though, mattered at all. We could see that they found tremendous comfort from just being together. That night, far from home, being Jewish meant belonging to something grand. They had sought out Shabbat not because anyone forced them to, but to find each other. Like summer camp, in some ways, the evening had an intensity and spiritedness that while not entirely replicable in the “real” world, was for them a taste of what they might want to recreate when they got home.
Assuming they go home, that is.
I imagine that most of them will, indeed, head home. That, after all, is where their families live. That is the place where they speak the language.
That is where they can attend university for close to free. That’s where the lion’s share of their friends are. For them, Israel is the default, so that is where most will end up.
But when they head home, will they have the sense that the country to which they are returning is worthy of their spirit, their service, their still young and unfolding lives? Will the country to which they return have earned their loyalty, their devotion? If they stopped to ask themselves those questions, how many would say they were headed home because of ideological commitment, too?
We made aliyah 20 years ago this summer. I still recall that when I informed my boss that we’d decided to move to Israel, he said, “Really? Israel’s headed into a recession.” I remember being struck by the absurdity of that response. What was the point? That life’s commitments and most important decisions should be guided by interest rates or the stock market? By how many cars we’d have in the driveway that we would or wouldn’t have?
What, though, if we’d known 20 years ago about the ugliness that would slowly take over Israeli life? What if we could have foreseen the increasingly medieval, misogynist and xenophobic rabbinate that now has Israel in its grip? What would we have said to ourselves if we’d imagined the vitriol about gays and lesbian emerging from the religious community, or the hatred of Arabs? The government’s treatment of African asylum-seekers? Netanyahu’s attack on freedom of expression and the silence of the vast majority of Israelis? Had my boss pointed to those issues, could I have shrugged off his comments as cavalier?
Probably not. Like most of our immigrant friends, we have not a shred of regret about having come. It was the best decision we made in our entire lives. For us, the first 20 years were easy. Yes, it was at first harder to earn a living. Yes, we live in many fewer square feet than we did in Los Angeles. Yes, we gave up the driveway and the more expensive cars that were parked in it. All that’s true.
What we got in return, though, was lives infused with meaning. We got the opportunity to raise our children in a culture that communicated to them that while they mattered, what mattered more than them was their belonging to something of cosmic importance, larger than themselves. We got to raise our kids in a world in which none of us had any idea what model car anyone else drove, where our most intimate social circle included people all across the economic scale, where, because most of us had moved without our families, our closest friends became, without hyperbole, as beloved as our families. In short, we got lives that were much richer than anything we would have had if we had not decamped for Israel. We were beneficiaries, not people who made some altruistic sacrifice. We took a leap and were rewarded with meaning and substance, closeness and passion, unlike anything we could otherwise have expected.
Now, though, it’s our turn to pay back. Many of us are talking about it, even if few of us are certain about what to do. But what we do know is that even as we watch, our country is becoming ugly. The discourse, though not as horrific as that in the US, is getting nastier.
The press is under attack. Xenophobes are increasingly in power. The sense of oneness with Jews from across the world that those kids instinctively felt in Cuzco is rapidly evaporating. After decades of having lived the good life, thanks to Israel, many of us sense that it’s time to roll up our sleeves and to try to start saving the country we chose to make home.
Here’s the question we olim need to start asking ourselves. As we watch in horror what is happening to the US, what are we doing to make sure that Israel does not go down the same path? Having been the recipients of such gifts from the Jewish state, how is our having lived in Israel going to make the Jewish state a place to which the Cuzco kids are likely to want to return?
I no longer recall if that predicted recession ever came. Today, though, Israel faces dangers much graver than a recession, far deadlier than our conflict with our enemies. Whether and how we respond will determine if we were worthy of the many gifts with which life in the Jewish state has blessed us.
The writer is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, received the National Jewish Book Award as the 2016 Book of the Year. He is now writing a book on the relationship between American Jews and Israel.
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