Middle Israel: Time to shed the complex of ‘yeridah’

Expat Amir Yaron’s nomination as Bank of Israel governor has irked some with good reason, but the reasons for welcoming him are better.

THE FLIGHT of the Prisoners, c. 1896-1902 – exile, concluded AB Yehoshua, is ‘in the molecules and atoms’ that form Jewish identity.  (photo credit: JEWISH MUSEUM NEW YORK/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
THE FLIGHT of the Prisoners, c. 1896-1902 – exile, concluded AB Yehoshua, is ‘in the molecules and atoms’ that form Jewish identity.
Watching fellow pioneers head back to Europe exhausted by Ottoman Palestine’s hardships, poet Noah Shapira lamented the beginnings of what we call “yeridah.”
“It is no time today for me to cheer,” he wrote in 1902, “only to wail and bitterly bemoan / the fate of my brethren who came all the way here / only to leave dear Mother Zion alone.”
All immigration countries saw thousands head back, overcome by economic failure, romantic disappointment, or emotional collapse.
In its circumstances, then, the emigration from Zion was no different. What was different was the mixture of blame, paranoia, self-flagellation, and mystification in which Zionists responded to their emigrants’ departures, attitudes which now – as Israel installs one as governor of the Bank of Israel – beg to be shed.
THE TERM “yeridah” – literally “going down” – was born with Abram’s flight from famine, of which Genesis says that he “went down to Egypt.” This technical reference to the elevation differences between that journey’s opposite ends was later used to deride a Jew’s departure from the Promised Land.
The Israeli blaming of emigrants was most memorably voiced by Yitzhak Rabin, who said of them in 1976 that they are “fallout of losers.”
Though harking back centuries, to Talmudic bravados like “anyone who resides outside the Land of Israel is considered as one who does not have a God” (Ketubot 110b) – the Zionist revulsion with emigration was not about theology but about an ethos of tribal commitment and self-sacrifice.
Quips like Rabin’s insinuated that living in Israel was a demanding endeavor for which the weak were unfit, and that anyone leaving the tribal encampment should be seen as having left the tribe itself.
Psychologically, it was a defensive posture, reflecting fears that smart Israelis would be lured by foreign lands’ better careers, cheaper cost of living and peaceful borders, and that Israel would this way be left to face its enemies with fewer troops and weaker brains.
Ideologically, every departure was seen as a vote of no confidence in Zionism’s delivery, a merciless statement that Israel failed to offer the good life its citizens’ cousins enjoyed abroad.
Beyond such utilitarianism, moralizing, and abandonment anxiety loomed a search for a deeper meaning of what Zionists mistook as a unique Israeli urge to emigrate, a search that inspired a distinctly Israeli theory of Jewish rootlessness.
In his essay “Exile as a Neurotic Solution,” novelist A.B. Yehoshua argued that the Jews’ troubled relationship with their country reflected an oppressive relationship between their parents, the masculine “El” (God) and the feminine “eretz” (land), also known as “adama” (soil) and “moledet” (motherland).
The natural balance between father and mother was disrupted repeatedly according to Yehoshua – first, by Israel receiving its land as a divine gift from daddy; then by Him striking a covenant with His children in a desert away from mom; and finally, by His sanctification of the mother, thus making her a frightening parent with whom unsupervised contact might constitute the supreme crime of incest.
Exile, concluded Yehoshua, is “in the molecules and atoms” that form Jewish identity. Seen this way, those who make yeridah were not only weak, opportunistic, and disloyal, but also carriers of the exilic bug of which Zionism strove to disinfect the Jews.
This, then, is the background against which the nomination of governor-designate Amir Yaron – who spent the past 20 years in the US – was attacked by former treasurers Dan Meridor and Yair Lapid, who preferred a nominee who had paid Israeli taxes and did reserve duty while Yaron was abroad.
Both Meridor and Lapid are good people, but on this one they are wrong.
FIRSTLY, YARON is not the first expat to land at the central bank’s helm.
In 1991, ultra-nationalist prime-minister Yitzhak Shamir appointed Jacob Frenkel, who had spent the previous two decades mostly in the University of Chicago and the International Monetary Fund.
No, this was not as heartening as the recruitment in 2005 of Stanley Fischer, who was the antithesis of someone who made yeridah, having been born in the Diaspora and become an Israeli by choice. Still, Frenkel’s delivery was priceless, having pushed double-digit inflation to the near-zero levels where it remains to this day.
Moreover, from the viewpoint of yeridah, Frenkel’s move was actually a form of patriotism, having accepted the Israeli job offer despite better-paying alternatives abroad.
The same goes for Yaron, who was a lieutenant in the IDF’s Budget Department before studying economics at Tel Aviv University and earning a PhD at the University of Chicago.
We have come of age.
With Israel about to become home to most of the world’s Jews, as demographer Sergio Dellapergola told the Jerusalem Report (“The reinvention of Jewish space,” 24 July 2017); and with Israeli per-capita GDP already higher than the European Union’s and set to surpass Britain, France, and Japan within the next decade – we no longer have reason to fear any emigrant’s vote of no confidence. We are confident.
We also no longer feel more unsafe than others. Terrorism now targets Paris, London, and Berlin no less than it targets us, while our neighbors’ conventional armies are either bruised, disbanded, or at peace with us.
In today’s setting, emigrants like Yaron should not be besmirched, mystified, or bewailed the way Rabin, Yehoshua, or the poet with whom we opened would have them. They’re not weaklings, they carry no bug, and we can afford their departures – and, in fact, can also benefit from them.
In our globalized age it is unfair to emotionally blackmail an academic genius joining the world’s best universities. Rather than decry their attractiveness, we should compete with them.
In preferring the Bank of Israel over Wharton the way Yaron is, Israeli excellence gets a resounding vote of confidence, one that only a returnee can give, saying with his feet that even while on the rivers of Babylon, he never left Mother Zion alone.