The State of Israel turned 72 on Wednesday, and what a peculiar birthday it was. If not for television and the Internet, it might have passed by unnoticed. Indeed, thanks to the coronavirus-spurred 27-hour curfew, the customary annual celebrations were void of participants, other than dignitaries delivering speeches and celebrities performing to venues filled with empty seats.
The sparse fireworks that were permitted in the end went off with more of a whisper than a bang. And anyone not fortunate enough to possess a balcony – or whose garden is secluded – missed out on the sense of solidarity that singing the national anthem on terraces around the nation provided.
As for the traditional barbecues, well, many took place with immediate family members, either indoors or on private patios. So, while the smell of charred meat wafting through the air was strong, the gatherings were subdued.
THIS IS NOT to say that the atmosphere was lacking in cheer, however. On the contrary, the weeks of virtual isolation leading up to the holiday, alongside the gradual reopening of shops that began a few days earlier, contributed to a sense of shared hardship on the one hand and budding optimism on the other. Nothing symbolized the latter better than the news that the beauty parlors were back in business.
Apparently, it’s a lot easier to pay tribute to the Zionist enterprise – particularly in the wake of weeks spent engaging in cabin-fever sloth and gluttony – with a proper haircut and fresh manicure.
This is natural.
As deserving of awe and enthusiasm as it is, the Jewish state is not purely the realization of a dream; it is an actual country, made up of real people. As such, we do not judge the quality of our lives by the Star of David on our flag or the international acclaim received by our start-ups. Though we may take pride in those things on an intellectual, ideological or political level, they do not govern our daily grind. What does preoccupy us most of the time is family, work, bills and errands. Religion helps some of us bear the burdens more gracefully than others, through gratitude. But even Judaism doesn’t deny the human condition.
WHICH BRINGS us to one peculiar side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic: a spike in the desire of Israelis living abroad to return home, and an increase in the interest of Diaspora Jews to make aliyah.
According to Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog, the government should prepare for a “major wave of immigration to Israel when the coronavirus crisis ends.”
In a recent interview, Herzog referred to the fact that Jewish communities around the world have been hit hard both by the virus and by the antisemitism that it has evoked. He said that the Jewish Agency has been receiving thousands of inquiries from Israelis, and hundreds from British, French and American Jews.
Two families who arrived this month – a couple from France and the Israeli parents of American-born children returning after a 14-year stint in New York – told Channel 12 on Wednesday that a major factor in the timing of their move was Israel’s handling of the pandemic. Both said they felt far safer in Israel, from a health standpoint, than in the US and Europe. The now former New Yorkers pointed to all the people in Brooklyn “who are dying like flies.”
The French wife stated that Israel, unlike her country of origin, does not have a shortage of surgical masks.
Two young Israeli men studying in Italy who came rushing back when the crisis struck expressed the same sentiment. One told Channel 12 that he used to take Israel for granted, but when he witnessed Italian hospital staff refusing to provide ventilators to any patient over the age of 60, he had an awakening.
“Even if Israel ran out of equipment, it would find a way to acquire the machines before letting anyone die,” he said.
It’s a great lesson for all the Israelis who have been whining and winging about the country’s “disastrous” healthcare system in general and the Health Ministry’s “poor” management of the COVID-19 crisis in particular. Sadly, it’s a message most of us won’t hear, especially not now, when the decreasing number of patients on ventilators has enabled us to focus the brunt of our anxiety on the decimated economy.
TO GRASP the depth of the catastrophe, just look at the data. While Israel’s coronavirus death toll has not exceeded the low 200s, its unemployment rate jumped in the past few weeks from 3.4 to 26 percent, with more than a million citizens out of work. Even a new hairdo and painted nails cannot mask the despair that this has wrought.
Nevertheless, social media has been awash with calls on Diaspora Jews to make aliyah. Now.
For example, when a report was published on Holocaust Remembrance Day about neo-Nazis hacking into a Zoom Torah lesson given by the chief rabbis of Frankfurt, Leipzig and Dusseldorf, one commenter on Facebook admonished the Jewish leaders to “get out of Germany.” Another appealed to all Jews to leave “any country you’re in and come home to Israel.”
The appointment of former Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) chief Dianne Lob as chairwoman-elect of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations elicited similar reactions. HIAS is a radical leftist group with ties to the anti-Israel BDS movement. Her election, then, either makes a mockery of mainstream US Jewry or reflects the conference’s shift in an anti-Zionist direction.
Twitter users outraged by her appointment suggested that this was yet another sign that American Jews should immigrate to Israel. As though picking up and leaving one’s country of birth and native language is as simple as singing Hatikvah on Israel Independence Day. Oh, and doing so with little-to-no prospect of landing a job. Not to mention having to spend two weeks under quarantine in a crappy coronavirus-designated hotel upon landing at Ben-Gurion Airport.
SERIOUSLY, IF anyone should be aware of the pitfalls of moving to Israel even under normal circumstances – let alone during a pandemic that’s wreaking havoc on the economy – it is those of us who already live here.
Yes, we love it, even when we complain. We also appreciate its amusing paradoxes and the unbelievable accomplishments it has made in the mere 72 years since its establishment. But not every day. Not in the midst of worrying about our families, searching for jobs or commuting in traffic to work, paying endless bills or running errands.
No, you can’t take Zionism to the bank. Nor should you expect it to schlep your groceries or do your laundry. You certainly mustn’t view Israel solely as an escape hatch, unless you genuinely have no other choice – which is not the case for most Jews in the West, including those who get beaten up on the streets of London, Paris or New York. They have the option to change neighborhoods without relocating to a foreign country, even one that happens to be the Jewish homeland.
And make no mistake. As familiar as Israel feels to Diaspora Jews who visit, it instantly becomes a foreign country when they move here, as any newcomer having to hunt for an apartment while maneuvering bureaucracy in Hebrew can attest. As I told a close friend who was considering aliyah a few years ago, the lobby of the King David Hotel is not Israel. Nor is dancing the hora through the streets of Jerusalem. Anyone harboring either fantasy is destined for disappointment.
Those who see and adore Israel for what it is, on the other hand, can count on a successful and rewarding aliyah. Because the truth about the Jewish state – which is a breathing organism, not an ethereal concept – is that there’s no place quite like it.