Reflections: Aliya: A matter of choice

It must be admitted that there is something ingenuous about telling people to come to Israel because they will be safe here when we have all seen that there is no less terror here than in France.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu and French President Francois Hollande speak at the Grand Synagogue in Paris. (photo credit: REUTERS)
PM Benjamin Netanyahu and French President Francois Hollande speak at the Grand Synagogue in Paris.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 Statements calling for the aliya of French Jewry made by various Israeli officials following the terrible events in Paris have stirred a controversy. It seems these statements went much further than simply stating that all Jews have a home available to them in Israel, and will be made welcome.
This aroused anger in the French government, and was also upsetting to European Jewish organizations and to individual Jews – who feel that France is their home, and that everything possible should be done to permit Jews to live in safety in France. One French official even said, “France without Jews will not be France.”
Jewish organizations felt these calls only encouraged anti-Semitism and furthered terrorist activity, painting a picture of Jewry as a foreign element in European society. There was resentment against the feeling that Israel looks for any opportunity to tell Jews, “You see? We told you there was no future for you there!” It must also be admitted that there is something ingenuous about telling people to come to Israel because they will be safe here – when we have all seen that there is no less terror here than in France. How many Jews have been killed in France over the past year or two by Islamist terrorists, and how many were killed here? We cannot ignore the recent slaughter in a Jerusalem synagogue, the three yeshiva students who were murdered and the various incidents involving Palestinian vehicles that ran over residents in the capital this year. And it was not that long ago that so many were killed by suicide bombers in buses and elsewhere; I did not feel very secure then.
Nor can we simply forget the rockets that rained down last summer.
Unfortunately, safety cannot be guaranteed here, just as it cannot be guaranteed in Paris, London or New York.
Should Jews from France come here on aliya? As a dedicated Zionist who left the comfort of the US to make aliya, obviously I cannot be opposed to that. But on the other hand, I believe that aliya should be a matter of personal choice – something done because one wishes to be part of a Jewish state, to live where Jews are a majority and participate in the renewal of Jewish sovereignty after 2,000 years.
And I also believe that the Diaspora has a right to exist, and that Jews should be able to live in free communities anywhere in the world. I would call for mass aliya only from places where Jews are not free or are in danger because of the policies of the government of that land.
For Jews to have remained in Germany when the Nazi government was in power was a tragic folly, and in any similar situation Jews should be encouraged to leave. However, where the government is their ally – as in France – the choice is surely theirs.
Herzl was right when he looked at the Europe of his time and felt Jews could not live there. Governments were themselves anti-Semitic and encouraging hatred of Jews. Ironically, it was France that then took the lead on that, while Germany was not far behind and Russia was an open enemy of Jews and Judaism.
That is hardly the case today. The governments of Paris and Berlin, although they may not take the stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that our current government desires, are certainly not anti-Jewish. The Israeli government should not be telling Jews in such countries that they should leave. It should be telling all nations it is their duty to ensure that Jews can life in safety wherever they are, and not be afraid to practice their religion freely and openly.
Where governments are themselves guilty of anti-Semitism, Israel has the right to openly urge Jews to make aliya.
Otherwise, the encouragement of aliya should be left to indigenous Zionist organizations – while the Israeli government should take the necessary steps to make aliya easy and attractive. Jews should see Israel as an option, one they will take if it is attractive enough and if they desire to live in a fully Jewish environment.
I cannot envision a world in which Jews live only in Israel. What are we to say – that a Jew living elsewhere ceases to be a Jew? From a historical point of view, there has never been a time when Jews did not live outside of the Promised Land. The Diaspora began when the two-and-ahalf tribes asked Moses for permission to live on the other side of the Jordan River – and permission was granted, so long as they did their part in conquering the land first. After the Babylonian exile, the vast majority of Jews remained in Babylonia, and during the period of the Second Temple large communities of Jews lived in Egypt, Rome and throughout the empire – and there was no call for them to disband and return to Jerusalem.
They came here on pilgrimage, but they lived in Alexandria, where the world’s largest synagogue was built.
The very existence of a new Diaspora – namely native Israeli Jews in the hundreds of thousands who have chosen to live in Los Angeles or Berlin – demonstrates that even with the existence of a Jewish state, the Diaspora will continue to exist. Therefore, it is imperative that while continuing to welcome aliya and to present Jews with the alternative of living here, we must be cautious about anything that denies Jews the right to live wherever they wish.
The last thing we want to do is to imply that we view the persecution of Jews anywhere in the world as an opportunity to increase aliya.
Let us rather encourage Jews to be Jews, and do whatever we can to ensure their freedom and their safety wherever they may be, while welcoming them with open arms if they decide to make their future with us. ■
The writer is a Jerusalem author and lecturer, a past president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and the founding director of the Seminary of Jewish Studies (now the Schechter Institute). Twice awarded the Jewish Book Council prize for the year’s best book of scholarship, his forthcoming volume is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy, Jewish Publication Society.