The hard sell

Asking somebody to leave their family, friends, home – and I don’t use that last word lightly – to act as a blood infusion for their society takes more than a little bit of chutzpah.

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Grand Synagogue in Paris, January 11, 2015 (photo credit: screenshot)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Grand Synagogue in Paris, January 11, 2015
(photo credit: screenshot)
Only since coming to Israel five months ago have I experienced the phenomenon of total strangers giving me major life advice.
One of those bizarre sessions unfolded a few days ago on the Jerusalem light rail.
I’m chatting with my roommate, a fellow Anglo, when a woman who looks to be in her mid-thirties joins our conversation in British-accented English. She asks us what we do, why we’re here, where we’re from. Good friendly platitudes all, nothing alarming for a couple of Americans.
And then, before our train had made it from City Hall to Mahane Yehuda, she began pressing us to make aliya – to pack up and move our lives here, permanently.
Maybe Israelis don’t realize this, but asking somebody to leave their family, friends, home – and I don’t use that last word lightly – to act as a blood infusion for their society takes more than a little bit of chutzpah. And in less than five months living in Israel, I’ve been asked over and over again, by distant cousins, by soldiers – and in November even by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a speech to thousands of Masa participants.
In the wake of an atrocious act of murderous anti-Semitism in France, that call is being repeated to thousands of French Jews. It’s being broadcast in speeches by Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, in press releases and op-eds and messages on social media.
Depending on who’s listening, the plea is made either subtly or not so subtly.
Speaking to world audience about the tragedy in France, Netanyahu has been careful to moderate his promises of safe haven in Israel with equally forceful denunciation of anti-Semitism abroad.
But speaking Wednesday to a very different crowd – a group of Taglit-Birthright participants experiencing Israel in many cases for the first time, in wide-eyed collegiate excitement – he walked a very different line.
“Tonight I call on all of you, and I call on young Jews from the world over, come to Israel, make aliya, this is your land, this is your birthright,” he belted to the crowd, which responded with raucous applause.
Those two messages – the assurance of a Jewish homeland that Netanyahu broadcasts from the world stage and the direct call for aliya he issued from the Taglit-Birthright stage – are intertwined, but carry a very important semantic and philosophical difference.
The idea of Israel as a Zionist homeland is chicken soup for the Jewish soul.
It’s a salve against the global scourge of anti-Semitism and the assurance of a friend who will be there in the direst need. As a Jew, I support it wholeheartedly and with all the conscientious criticism I think true patriots should afford their governments. On the other hand, to the ears of a Diaspora Jew, the feverish entreaty to drop whatever I have going on back home and join the Zionist experience sounds less like, “I’m here for you,” and more like, “I know what’s best for you.”
It’s an easy difference to miss, especially when spoken in the brash and blunt Israeli tones.
The Zionist experiment is important – I understand that. I understand, further, that all of you calling for me to pick up and move my life to Israel are only thinking of my own good. You believe, somewhat patronizingly I have to say, that my life as a Jew will be better in the Jewish state.
Thank you for your sentiments. And please, let me make my own life decisions.
That’s the most frustrating thing about this hard sell: it off-handedly dismisses the idea that just maybe Diaspora Jews know what they’re doing.
Many of us have a spiritual connection to the land of Israel and a physical connection to the places we live. For Israelis, those two identities are one and the same. But believe it or not, they can coexist separately.
My example is clear enough. I have a deep spiritual, nationalistic and political connection with this place. But my connection to California – to its people, its unique body politick, to the unshakable beauty of the Sierra Nevada, and even the cultural chaos of Los Angeles where I grew up – runs just as deep.
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with Diaspora Judaism, and maybe even a lot that’s right.
Maybe Diaspora Judaism says that despite having our spiritual homeland in Israel, we can still contribute to secular societies around the world. Maybe it says that Jews know how to coexist just as well as they can exist among themselves.
Maybe it even proves that through pogroms and Holocausts and violent, primitive acts of anti-Semitism, we aren’t intimidated by the prospect of living among other nations.
So wantonly asking me to make perhaps the biggest life choice possible tells me that my Judaism in the Diaspora is worth nothing, and yours in Israel is worth everything.
It’s important for Diaspora Jews to know they have a home and stalwart protector in Israel. That idea was the founding purpose of the state and should be the source of gratitude and support owed to Israelis by Jews from Southern California to South Africa. But that message must be tempered with an understanding that Jews in the Diaspora often feel just as home as Jews in Israel. We know what we’re doing. Our Judaism is just as good as yours.
So this is an exhortation to all the people I haven’t met who might ask me to move to Israel: don’t. The opinion of strangers counts for very little in my life decisions. And you’re not telling me anything I haven’t heard before.
I have a plane ticket out of Ben-Gurion Airport later this month headed back to California, my Land of Milk and Honey. I’m not making aliya – not at this point anyway.
Please understand, Israel, that this doesn’t mean I don’t love you. I do.
But I want to see other nations. There’s somebody else, but you’ll always have a special place in my heart.
The writer is a reporting intern for The Jerusalem Post. His recent reporting has taken him from the Old City of Jerusalem to Western Ukraine.