The uphill battle

Throughout Israel’s history, the decision to move here has often been more about needing to leave there, wherever “there” was.

July 19, 2011 23:08
An NBN flight brings new olim to Israel, Tues.

NBN aliya flight_311. (photo credit: Sasson Tiram)


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When I was returning from a recent trip to Europe, the young woman at customs flipped through my American passport and commented: “You’ve been in Israel a lot this year.”

“Yes,” I replied. “I’m considering making aliya.”

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While that recently became a true statement, I’ve found it to be effective for expediting the interrogation process.

“Well, that’s a big decision,” she said, much to my surprise. “It comes with a lot of responsibility.”

She was the first Israeli I’d spoken to who had brought up the idea of responsibility when I mentioned becoming a citizen. All the others with whom I broached the topic generally responded in one of two ways: “Congratulations” (as if I had finally seen the light) or “...Why?” (as if I were crazy).

The concept of aliya means different things to different people, much like Zionism itself. Before the state existed, waves of immigrants “ascended” to Eretz Yisrael out of a complicated mixture of necessity and idealism.

Throughout Israel’s history, the decision to move here has often been more about needing to leave there, wherever “there” was. There have also been many who, for reasons of faith, duty, political ideology or history, have come to help rebuild this homeland. As with these ideological pioneers, for an American with nothing to run away from, the decision to make aliya becomes deeply personal.

When making aliya is not an imperative, it can be a rather overwhelming process of intimate, internal debate, with the weighing of practical pros and cons. You start playing games with yourself, and every little incident becomes a factor. Line too long at Bank Leumi and the teller unnecessarily rude? No aliya. See a beautiful sunset over the Mediterranean and have a successful conversation in Hebrew? Definitely aliya.

The same is true with current events. I’ll watch the recent coverage of an impending Palestinian state and think: “Do I really want to tie my future to this place at this time?” Yet conversely, I’ll read about a Knesset bill I disagree with and think, “I have to be part of this country; I need my voice to count in the place where the identity of worldwide Jewry is being shaped.”

It is precisely this desire to be invested in our people’s future that, barring safety and necessity, should guide one’s decision to become a citizen. I have met people who had never set foot in this country before hopping on a one-way flight to Ben-Gurion Airport, chasing some dream developed in their childhood homes, or perhaps even genetically encoded. I envy their uncomplicated certainty while I fear their blind faith.

WHETHER WE like it or not, Israel represents Jews everywhere. As a result, I believe it is my responsibility to be an active, informed, critical stakeholder in this country’s future and to work toward a vision of Israel which I can be proud of. For me, that has more to do with participating in a vibrant, pluralistic Jewish society and less to do with foreign policy, borders or neighbors. I believe I can do this to some degree without becoming a citizen, but as long as I am merely a member of the Diaspora, I will always be an outsider here.

Of course, I had to discuss this with my parents. Though they raised me and my brothers to love and support Israel, the prospect of my becoming a citizen was something else entirely. I realized that despite all the talk of fluid citizenship, despite our sense that we are truly global citizens , for my parents, the idea of aliya still meant they were losing me forever.

“We’ll pay for half of your degree,” they offered when I stated my intention to pursue a master’s here. Not because they wanted to buy my loyalty to the United States or keep me close to home, but because they were trying to call my bluff. Was I making this life-changing decision only for the short-term financial benefits, a few hundred shekels off rent, and free Hebrew-language classes?

In responding to them, I realized that while the time limitations on some of those benefits are perhaps speeding up my decision-making, they are not in fact what inspire me to become an Israeli. Rather it is the opportunity to contribute to this country’s future. I have much to learn from this place, and much to offer. I will be a stronger person for living here, and Israel, in turn, will be stronger because of me.

THAT SAID, what I have come to understand is that making aliya does not necessarily mean I am committed to living here for the rest of my life – something in which my parents can take comfort. But this raises a larger, ethical question: Can I make aliya in good faith if I still imagine raising my children near their grandparents in Southern California?

Most Israelis have told me, without hesitation, that yes, I can. They said they would rather have me join the team and see if it works out than decide it’s not for me without even trying. I am repeatedly told: “You can’t fail at aliya.”

Even if, after six months, I decide to return to the familiarity of the US, English and Starbucks, they point out that I will maintain a far stronger connection to Israel than I had before, and this will encourage me to visit more often, support more Israeli organizations, and engage in advocacy abroad in a way that I simply couldn’t do as a non-citizen. And whatever I accomplish in my life, I will do so both as an American and as an Israeli.

So in that sense, aliya today is not like planting irreversible geographic roots, but more like getting an identity tattoo.

I have filled out most of my online application with Nefesh b’Nefesh, the organization that helps North American and UK Jews navigate the aliya process. I have a date with the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles in two weeks for an interview. When I return to Tel Aviv in August to start my degree, I might very well be flashing a new Israeli passport. And I will be thinking about the woman at customs who reminded me: It comes with a lot of responsibility.

The writer is originally from Los Angeles, California, and is now based in Tel Aviv, where he recently completed the Dorot Fellowship 2010-2011. He writes about dance in Israel at .

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