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The Aliyah Guilt Trip

Posted by FriarYid on August 5, 2007

Nefesh b’Nefesh French Jews arriving

I’m summarizing and editing this from an earlier post over at Friar Yid. Basically, there’s been a new aliyah push recently, and this time non-Orthodox Jews are getting in on it, too. The unfortunate part is that there seems to be a tendency, different among the non-Orthodox, but still there, that seems to denigrate Diaspora Jewry in order to elevate moving to Israel, exemplified in some recent statements by Avi Weiss, a rabbi from the liberal fringe of Modern Orthodoxy (I say this as a compliment):

Rabbi Avi Weiss, of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, says the question of his having not yet made Aliyah (immigrated to Israel) is one he asks himself every day. “I only feel very alive in the Land of Israel. I don’t feel that alive – in a Jewish and emotional sense – in the exile.”

“The only place where we can fully express the mission of the Nation of Israel is the Land of Israel. For me, Israel is not only important as the place that guarantees political refuge, not only as the place where more mitzvot can be performed, not only the place that, given the high rate of assimilation and intermarriage in the exile, can guarantee continuity – it is much deeper than that. The Land of Israel is the only place where we have the potential to carry out our responsibility as the chosen people. In the exile we are not in control of our destiny. It is only in the Jewish state that we have the potential to be a beacon of light to the larger world.

“A Zionist is someone who lives in Israel…Who is a talmid chacham? The man or woman who is versed in Torah. A benefactor of a Torah institution is very important, but is not a talmid chacham. Similarly, a Zionist is one who lives in the State of Israel, who lives in the Land of Israel. I take the position that I am not a Zionist. I am a strong supporter of Zionism – a doresh Zion – seeker of Zion.”

Rabbi Weiss follows up these provocative ideas with a drash:

But whether or not one maintains that Rambam believes it is a mitzvah to live in Israel, doesn’t this commandment, as clearly understood by Ramban, fly in the face of our mission to be an or la’goyim? How can we be a light to the nations of the world if we don’t live amongst Gentiles and are ensconced in our own homeland?

Good question, Rabbi. What’s the answer?

One could argue however, that the mandate to live in the chosen land of Israel is crucial to the chosen people idea. Being the chosen people doesn’t mean that our souls are superior. Rather it suggests that our mission to spread a system of ethical monotheism, of God ethics to the world, is of a higher purpose. And that can only be accomplished in the land of Israel.

…In exile, we can develop communities that can be a “light” to others. But the destiny of the Jewish people lies in the State of Israel. Israel is the only place where we as a nation can become an or la’goyim. In the Diaspora, we are not in control of our destiny; we cannot create the society envisioned by the Torah. Only in a Jewish state do we have the political sovereignty and judicial autonomy to potentially establish the society from which other nations can learn the basic ethical ideals of Torah.

As we near Tisha B’av… this position reminds us of our obligation to think about Israel, to visit Israel, and, most important, to constantly yearn to join the millions who have already returned home. Only there do we have the potential to be the true am ha-nivhar (chosen people).

I’m really not sure I buy this. If I follow the logic here, Rabbi Weiss is saying that if Jews try to be as good as possible (which, of course, they need to make aliyah to do, since you can’t do all the mitzvot in exile), somehow it will filter out to Gentiles? How, osmosis? Put aside the issue of crowding, put aside the fact that the major influx of non-Orthodox and frankly, generally irreverent American Jews, would probably throw a lot of Israeli institutions into chaos (not that I’d mind that, per se). Let’s go back to the issue of being a light to the world, of being ambassadors, if you will. The reality is that this is impossible without engaging with the world. Forget about even positively influencing non-Jews, you won’t even be able to combat anti-Jewish stereotypes if the only Jews people have ever see are while they’re on vacation in Israel. We can only help our image by being out in the world interacting with others.

Besides this questionable argument, there are other problems with Rabbi Weiss’ thesis. First, the suggestion that the dividing line between authentic and inauthentic Zionists is voting with your feet seems to be a major shot across the American Jewish community’s bow. I consider myself a Zionist though I’ve never even been to Israel and have no intention of making aliyah, at least no time soon. I suspect, though, that my Zionism and the Zionism Rabbi Weiss is speaking about are of two different types. I am a Zionist because I support Israel and care about what happens to it and its people. Even more than that, I identify with it. Out of all the countries in the world, what happens in Israel matters to me. But that’s not the same thing as longing for Zion. My “longing” amounts to little more than the fact that I’d like to go sometime and visit my cousins. Oh, and that people would stop dying there.

So on a personal level, the not-so-subtle accusation that anyone in Exile is not a real Zionist isn’t that big of a deal. But I think that on a national level, it’s a pretty big shakeup in terms of Jewish consciousness. Zionism has long been a central prism through which the majority of American Jews, or at least Jewish movements, have conceived of their Jewish identity. To pull that out from under them is a big shock, to say the least.

The real way in which I think Rabbi Weiss’ rhetoric is damaging, and the reason that I’m somewhat concerned that he’s being joined in this by non-Orthodox voices as well, is that there is a not-so-subtle message here that no matter how much work, how vibrant, how successful, the communities and lives Jews create in the Diaspora, they’re still somehow deficient.

Pardon me for saying so, but I think that’s crap. Not only is it crap, it’s a slap in the face from Weiss to his own community. Weiss has put in years of work creating his own kind of Orthodoxy, a very, pardon me for saying so, American, kind of Orthodoxy, which included founding his own Yeshiva. In New York. And now he’s saying that all this is eternally flawed because it’s closer to the Hudson than the Jordan? I don’t buy it. To say that the Jews can only fulfill their mission in Israel means that, by default, work being done elsewhere just isn’t good enough, if it’s actually important in the first place. If he really believed that, how could he have put in all the time and effort to build and sustain communities and institutions in the Diaspora? You only feel alive in Israel? What have you been doing the past 50 years?

It’s one thing when it’s coming from someone like Weiss. His movement practically invented religious Zionism, and all the statistics indicate that the MOs are, far and away, the largest proportion of Americans that make aliyah. That Diaspora is forever second fiddle to Israel is a tenet of the faith, and while I don’t like it, I can’t exactly be angry about it. But coming from a secular perspective, this kind of talk seems unfair, even absurd.

It is the secular Jew living in America who is in cultural peril. And assimilation is the imminent threat to his or her Judaic existence.

In Israel, if a youth rebels against his or her traditional upbringing, wanting to pursue a more secular life-style, he or she can escape to Tel Aviv. There they might not keep Shabbat or kosher anymore. But they’ll be present when the siren goes off on Holocaust Remembrance Day. They will speak Hebrew. They will still take off work for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – even if it’s to take a three-day cruise to Turkey.

And chances are they’ll marry another Jew.

In Israel, being Jewish is organic; in America it is not.

In America, a cosmopolitan Jew who is completely secular and not culturally connected to a Jewish community has no connection to our people. So in New York City, Los Angeles or London, such a Jew would have little reason to have a Shabbat dinner or take off work for Rosh Hashana.

Falling in in love with a non-Jew is a very real possibility. And, over the generations, those Jews’ lineage would likely come to an end. Thus, the secular Jew, no longer attached by faith, also risks detachment from tradition and peoplehood by living in America.

Being Jewish in America requires a special effort. Although most of the Jews making aliya from America today are affiliated with some branch of Judaism, it is secular Jews who need Israel the most. Only Israel can save them from long-term cultural decline. Only in Israel can they redefine what it means to be a Jew.

I happen to think this is crap, too. The idea that American Jews should give up working to stay Jewish because it’s hard and turn to Israel as their life raft is a pretty screwy idea, and doesn’t seem to speak well of either culture. I object to the ever-present “Jewish grandchildren” hand-wringing, and I sure as hell object to the kockamamie idea that secular Israeli culture is some great thing that will save the Jewish people. Don’t get me wrong, I recognize there are benefits to being a non-religious Jew in Israel, if only through identity reinforcement. But honestly, “at least they’ll speak Hebrew?” “They won’t care about the holidays, but they’ll have to take off Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat because it’s the law?” Since when is that some kind of accomplishment? Why is Israeli culture, no matter how watered-down, seen as vastly superior to being a quasi-committed secular Jew in Diaspora? (And let’s be honest- the super secular, super assimilated Jews this guy is saying need Israel the most- they aren’t going, ’cause they don’t care!) A Judaism through coercion (and that seems to be what this guy is praising; a low-level cultural coercion) is nothing to get excited about. If the only way you encounter Shabbat is by being locked out of your office, guess what? You don’t care about Shabbat. And I for one don’t think that having it foisted on you really counts as “observing” it. That’s fine, but it’s hardly a victory against assimilation. It’s hardly meaningful. Raising people in secular Israeli culture only constitutes a “win” if you consider “non-affiliation as a Jew” to be the ultimate loss. If you’re actually looking for some substance, however defined, then dipping apathetic secular Jews in Israeli culture is just putting a band-aid on the whole thing. Merely being in Israel doesn’t make you a committed Jew, and if you have issues with Judaism in the Diaspora, the answer isn’t necessarily hopping on an El-Al flight.

If anything, I think the above article shows the real problem with people that view aliyah as a blanket, cure-all solution. There are real problems in Diaspora Judaism, America included. The answer isn’t to run away to Israel (which, incidentally, has problems of its own). If you want to go, go, but don’t do it for that reason. I would love to see Israel get a little more American democracy when it comes to flavors of Judaism, but it’s not like there isn’t work to be done at home, too. Mostly, though, I reject the idea that Diaspora Judaism not being “organic” is a reason to run away from it. If anything I think that it’s a reason it could potentially be more fulfilling. Like the writer said, a Jewish life here requires effort. Jewish life in the Diaspora always has. Most of the accomplishments of the Jews in the past couple thousand years have been in the Diaspora. Most of the rabbis we study today were Diaspora Jews. Are Maimonides’ or the Baal Shem Tov’s accomplishments any less because they never made it to Jerusalem?

Israel is not the be-all and end-all of Jewishness, and those of us who choose to stay put should not be chided for that decision. We shouldn’t be pitied or written off as soon-to-be-extinct branches of the Jew tree. Diaspora Jews, and specifically American Jews, have a lot to be proud of. While Israel is important, we shouldn’t elevate it at the expense of our own achievements, and we should challenge those who do. This isn’t about bashing aliyah. If some people want to make aliyah, go for it. I wish them the best and hope they lead wonderful and fulfilling Jewish lives, and that they make Israel the better for their being there. But there is a problem with people trying to sell aliyah on the premise that Diaspora Jews, no matter how accomplished, are eternally inferior because of where they choose to live, or the scare tactic that Israel is the only way to keep uninterested Jews within the fold (speaking Hebrew does not a Jew make).

We are not inferior. We are not defective. We are Jews too, regardless of where we choose to plant our feet. Long for Zion all you want, but don’t forget about (or ignore) the people right in front of you.

[Ed.: photo from IsraelInsider]


8 Responses to “The Aliyah Guilt Trip”

  1. Lunza said

    Two arguments against everyone making aliyah:

    1. There’s as many Jews in the U.S. as there are people in Israel — what if the population of your already crowded city/county/state suddenly doubled?

    2. Having all Jews in one place would make it oh so tempting for someone like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

  2. Oyster said


    The ‘overcrowding’ argument was used by the Arabs to reject the creation of Jewish communities in pre-state Israel. Back then, there was ~500,000 people between the river & the sea. Now, there is 9 million. I just don’t buy it.

    Your second point is rock-solid. I completely agree, and it factors into my personal philosophy of modern Zionism.

  3. FriarYid said

    The overcrowding issue is an interesting question. I think it’s largely dependent on what kind of geography/society Israel wants to have and maintain. You can have 20 million people in a place the size of Jersey and make it work, but it basically means you’re going to be having a lot of high-rises, etc. It’s certainly doable, but would probably mean the Israeli dream of having your own house/farm, etc, with a little parcel of land would have to make way for a super-mechanized city-state on the scale of say, Hong Kong. Also, we would probably see a lot more people leaving for “the burbs,” which in this case, would mean settlements. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on one’s own politics.

  4. Oyster said

    the Israeli dream of having your own house/farm, etc, with a little parcel of land

    … eh? Where does this come from?

    Unless you were a ‘sabra’ kibbutznik, most immigrants to Israel preferred densely-populated cities/towns, where most people lived in 3-story (or taller) apartment blocks. Remember the old stereotype of Jews being wandering cosmopolitans, with no tie to any land and an aversion to farming?

    The turning of moshavim into American-style ‘suburbs’ is a relatively new phenomenon from my understanding.

    The settlements aren’t the only alternative, despite what the Yesha Council might try to sell you. The Galil and the Negev are in great need of “settlement”, too. I wouldn’t mind living on a moshav in the Galil…

  5. FriarYid said


    Thanks for the correction. Just chalk it up to my own ignorance. I’m aware that most of the coast is pretty heavily developed. By the same token, I’m sure that some people that head for Israel are indeed pursuing some derivation of the pseudo-sabra dream, and it’s interesting to wonder how much of the country still identifies with the idea of Zion as wilderness (though presumably not to a great extent, given where the major population centers are). Again, I’m not saying Israel can’t do it, just that such a major population influx would obviously require a lot of changes, one of which would be increased development and density. Incidentally, I definitely agree that Israel would be well-served to continue developing places like the Negev. Of course, then we get into issues like where to get water. 😉

    I think the moshav as settlement has been going on in various forms since the late 80s, early 90s, probably in part the result of the new immigrant boost from the Soviet Union. It’s always interesting to read about people that head for Yesha not for real ideological reasons, but because they want larger homes, gardens, etc. Perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of these folks tend to be Americans, who I guess bring their own expectations and standards to their new homes. 🙂

  6. Oyster said

    ’m summarizing and editing this from an earlier post

    lol, some summary! I read both. :-p

    In my opinion, there are two models for Jewish living:

    * you can be a literate, involved Jew in some diaspora community.

    * you can live in a Jewish country (I’d consider ‘The Pale of Settlements’ to fall in this category to a degree)

    Both models have flaws. I hear of more & more Israelis who leave Israel, and end up marrying non-Jews because their chiloni parents never bothered to remind them that they should marry Jewish (since it was taken for granted in Israel). But I rather live in a world where there is a choice between the two.

    As for the denominations promoting Zionism: not too strange. Both Conservative & Reform Judaism have branches in the WZO. You’re very right in observing that it’s hard for them to kvetch about their unfair treatment in Israel when they have such small numbers; they have about as much political clout as the Karaites. Also, I think going back to my ‘two models’ shpiel and the goal of Taglit/Birthright, they see living in Israel as an experience that only solidifies and strengthens an individual’s Jewish identity. Whether that individual leaves after 3 years, or stays, they get a benefit. A double-mitzvah of sorts! :-p

  7. Oyster said

    Perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of these folks tend to be Americans, who I guess bring their own expectations and standards to their new homes. 🙂

    Right, this goes back to your observation that a good deal of North American olim tend to be more on the religious side, since secular Zionism is on the decline currently. Who better to attract to Yesha than Modern Orthodox Jews with a built-in expectation of a suburban ranch home?

  8. Oyster said

    Thanks for the link, Chasida!


    Is it just me, or are people not using trackbacks?

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