Why I have (not) made Aliyah

Life in Israel is not easy, but that is exactly what makes it exciting and worthwhile.

Galilee 521 (photo credit: Roi Katlan)
Galilee 521
(photo credit: Roi Katlan)
I generally have an easier time explaining to those curious the reasons for which I have not made Aliyah than I do answering in the affirmative. I can reply fairly straightforward: I have not moved here because I think all Jews should live in the land of Israel or to further the fulfillment of messianic prophecies. It’s not to follow family members or to be around my most dear friends—they’ve overcome Hurricane Sandy and are doing just fine back in New York. It’s certainly not to trade one broken political system for another; I found United States President Barack Obama’s reelection as reassuring as I find Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s seemingly inevitable reelection—this time as leader of an even less sensible Likud—to be downright depressing.
And yet, in the long days of Operation Pillar of Defense, when our optimism was not whether there would be peace or victory, but at best-case scenario a ceasefire, I was huddled over my Aliyah application. “Why,” I often find myself asking when I’m alone with my thoughts, wondering if my decision can stand up to any rational barometer: why I am trading the land of comfort and security, of friends and family, of Amazon, Pandora, and Netflix, of $2 happy hours, all in exchange for a forecast of perpetual instability? 
Am I blind to Israel’s glaring problems? Seemingly not. I am aware that like in the United States, the gaps between Israel’s socioeconomic classes are widening at an alarming rate, that the cost of housing is surging faster than the corresponding rise in salaries, and that Israel’s education rankings continue to slip. Demographically speaking, Israel is no more promising: the majority of Israel’s first grade students are either Palestinian-Israeli or ultra-Orthodox, and nobody knows what the country will be like when the class of 2025 graduates from high school. Divisions between the religious and secular, between the right and the left, seem as incisive as ever; politically, while Israel as a whole shifts to the right, the parties of the center-left are fractured to the point of absurdity. This is without mentioning any security related problems of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, etc, the cost of deploying more Iron Dome systems, or whether international BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) efforts against Israel will see more success.
In this respect, I’m glad to be far from the oleh who arrives in a state of flag-waving euphoria, prostrating himself on the Ben Gurion Airport pavement, thankful that all of his problems have ceased to exist. I’m well aware that I’m not solving any personal problems by coming here—I’m just a slightly more tanned wandering 23 year old than I was in Washington Heights—while also cognizant of the fact that I’ll be picking up the difficulties unique to daily life in Israel.
It’s hard to say for sure why I’ve still decided to come. Mostly, my desire to live here is rooted in a sense of belonging and attachment to the people here; growing up as an observant Jew in New York, I always felt that my being Jewish came prior to any other identity I had as an American. Consequently, I more easily identify with the plight of the average Israeli than I do with the average American. In typical Israeli style, many will insist that this is absurd—I can barely conjugate a Hebrew sentence, let alone see myself as an “Israeli” culturally. Why force myself to learn a language, to assume an Israeli identity that does not come naturally?
But I am trying to do just that.
There’s something deep inside of me that I find compelling about the state of Israel, that when confronted with absolute honesty I know cannot exist in the United States. It is not because of a failure of Americans or a success of Israelis—it’s simply because of the dissimilar natures of the two countries. It’s why I have cried, even in New York, on Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial day) and partied on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence day); there is simply no emotional substitute for me anywhere else in the world.
That I have found myself glued to Israeli news sites on occasion, constantly refreshing my browser as I switch from one media outlet to another is unsurprising: no story is as compelling to me as the story of Israel. The real question for me is not if I care, but why.  For all of its flaws, the goal of creating an ever-improving Jewish state, a state informed by Jewish tradition and Jewish values, a society in which Jewish life dominates the public sphere, still speaks to my heart. That these are discussions which Israeli society has implicitly neglected to address for decades makes them no less pressing or purposeful. Ultimately, Israel in my eyes is an ongoing experiment that I’d rather participate in than watch from the sidelines.
If successful, the experiment of Israel forces one to confront the tension between nationalism and liberalism, between universalism and particularism, between being a citizen of a nation-state and a citizen of the world. Israel may still have a ways to go in this regard, and perhaps we should be thinking more about how to be a light unto ourselves before aspiring to shine for others, but it’s a mission in which I know I can find meaning.
The only question is whether it’s worth sacrificing the comforts of the United States for this experiment, to be a character in Israel’s story. To that, the answer is clear: there’s only one way to find out.