Happy 64th birthday

Even after two and three generations of living in England, Israel always beckoned on the horizon.

Hot air balloon near Kibbutz Ruhama 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hot air balloon near Kibbutz Ruhama 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When, at the end of the 19th century, two of my Lithuanian great-grandfathers emigrated from eastern Europe to Leeds and Edinburgh, respectively, they could little have dreamed that just over 100 years later they would have well over 100 grandchildren and great-grandchildren living in the sovereign State of Israel.
When they died in the 1930s, the Holocaust had not yet taken place, they were probably still in contact with many of their distant relatives in eastern Europe, while the idea of an independent Jewish state would have been, even given their strong Lithuanian anti-Hassidic religious beliefs, nothing short of Messianic.
And while their many descendants underwent the classical Jewish immigration process and became successful in almost all walks of life within a single generation, the majority of them opted to leave their comfortable lifestyles in the UK and, at various stages, emigrated to Israel.
Both among the real pioneers, who came at the time of the establishment of the state to found a kibbutz in the Galilee (Beit Ha’emek) or to work as a doctor in the transit camps and then to found the nursing school at Hadassah Hospital, and the many others that followed in a steady stream throughout the ensuing decades, there was never a question that living in Israel was a much more meaningful and fulfilling way of fully expressing their Jewish identity.
Even after two and three generations of living in England, successfully integrating into the worlds of religion, education, academia, commerce, business and even public office, never fearing or being affected by anti-Semitism, living comfortable, middle class lives, part of a proud and self-confident Jewish community – Israel always beckoned on the horizon.
These olim and their many descendants are to be found everywhere in Israel, from right-wing settlements in the West Bank to left-wing kibbutzim and urban neighborhoods, in Orthodox and secular communities, in Jerusalem, Netanya, Rehovot, Petah Tikva, Ra’anana, Efrat, Metar, Kfar Haroeh, the Galilee and the Negev, with a diversity of lifestyles and opinions which reflects Israeli society. But they all have one thing in common – they all see Israel as their “natural” home.
Almost all of the younger “sabra” generations have opted to stay – indeed, it has never even been a question to consider relocation elsewhere. Just as their parents’ and grandparents’ generations came here because of a conscious and positive desire to be part of the Jewish state, not because of any form of persecution or anti-Semitism, so too the younger generations see Israel as the only place to live, study, work, serve in the army, marry and beget their own children. It is, for them, such an obvious reality that it is not even open to question.
THAT DOES not mean to say that we are not critical of the country and the way in which it has developed. Among the extended ex-British family, arguably the largest single clan (hamula) residing in Israel today (although there may be challengers to this), there are right-wingers who believe that the government is surrendering to external influences and that the entire Land belongs to the Jewish people.
There are the left-wingers who believe that the continuation of occupation and the denial of Palestinian sovereignty will threaten the security and the demography of the Jewish state in the future. There are the Orthodox who believe that the state has become too secular, and there are the secular who believe that the state is slowly being taken over by the religious.
Over time, Ashkenazi-Sephardi intermarriage has taken place as our children and grandchildren meet at school, in the army, at university and in the synagogues, bringing with it a richness of hybrid customs and traditions. The difference in backgrounds, traditions, food preferences and family histories becomes a matter of interest and humor for the younger generations seeking their family genealogy or comparing different customs around the Passover Seder, rather than a point of dissension. We have all become part of this amazing Jewish mosaic gathered here in the State of Israel.
When Israeli colleagues ask me what made me and my family decide to leave our comfortable homes and lifestyles in the Diaspora to voluntarily come to live in Israel, we don’t really understand the question. We tell them that it was part of our Jewish upbringing, that it was the education we received at home, in school, in the synagogues and in the Zionist youth movements. It was part of the natural course of things, inherently part of our Jewish identity and lifestyle, not something special or unique. Moving to Israel was always an option.
We came as tourists, as students (university or yeshiva), as kibbutz volunteers, as youth leaders and, at one point, to stay for good. The fact that we already had relatives here, that we understood Hebrew, and that England – as compared to the USA or Australia – is only a four-hour flight away, probably helped. It was one of life’s automatic choices, always to be considered.
One of the famous Beatles songs (at the height of their fame as I was growing up as a young child in Britain) is entitled “when I’m 64.” The lyrics of the first stanza read: “When I get older losing my hair / Many years from now / Will you still be sending me a valentine / Birthday greetings bottle of wine / When I’m 64?” As Israel celebrates its 64th birthday, all of my extended English hamula throughout Israel are still very much in love with the country of our choice. We suffered the bureaucracy of the immigration process (Israel loves aliya but doesn’t like olim), wax nostalgic over British customs and culture, even food (not least marmite), left behind – although whenever we visit the “old country” we are reminded just how advanced and progressive is the country we chose to live in over the one we left.
But even though many of us have lost, or are slowly losing, our hair, the love at 64 remains as intense as ever. For one day, it seems irrelevant that the country doesn’t always meet all of our expectations, or that the policies of this government (or the other one, depending on who is in power) are wrong. Precisely because we are lovers, because the emotional attachment is so strong, our disappointment with many aspects of political and social life of our lover is so intense.
This week we will write our Valentine Cards to the State of Israel, raise a toast to its continued success and prosperity, and then get back to the daily struggle, as each sees fit, of making it a better, more just, more moral, more enlightened place to bequeath to the next generations.
Happy 64th Birthday, Israel The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.