Posts Tagged ‘Zionism’

Abbas and the Jewish state

With the building freeze over for several weeks, Israelis living in the West Bank have been watching PM Binyamin Netanyahu to see if he will buckle under US pressure and reinstate a building moratorium to try to keep Abbas in his seat at the peace negotiations.

Yesterday I learned that Bibi had offered the Arabs an additional two months of no settlement building in exchange for an official Arab recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.  Personally, I was thrilled.  I know many people who think Bibi is slippery, and as weak as any Israeli PM in the face of American pressure.  But for some reason I can’t quite pin down, I believe he’ll do the right thing.  He’s cool-headed under pressure.  He doesn’t lose sight of Israel’s goals and role in history as the cradle of our nationhood and current homeland for Jews everywhere.  He knows his support base and weighs their needs and expectations carefully in making his decisions.  Because of this, despite being what many would call “hawkish” (a ridiculous term, since the “dovish” left has never succeeded in making peace either), Bibi enjoys a stable coalition in the government, and a generally satisfied—if slightly leery—base among the electorate.

I was also not surprised at the immediate Arab rejection of Bibi’s offer.  Critics of the current negotiations have stated that Arafat painted any successor into a corner by declining the offer of land and limited return of refugees to Israel, and refusing to end the conflict.  If Arafat did not accept that offer, the pundits say, Abbas cannot accept anything less.  In addition, Abbas has no mandate to lead the Palestinian Arabs, since his term of office expired in February 2009, and he’s remained in office, postponing elections indefinitely, for 20 months.  Instead, he repeatedly threatens to resign and dissolve the PA if his every demand is not met by Israel and the Americans.  And when he’s not threatening to resign, he’s been shopping around the Arab League for permission to dissolve the talks anyway.

So who is really interested in peace here?  Bibi has called his bluff.  He agreed to the 10 month building freeze to coax Abbas to talk.  Abbas waited until one month before the freeze expired to pull his finger out and get on a plane.  Now he’s miffed that the housing freeze isn’t being reinstated just to keep him at the table.  And for the first time in a long time, an Israeli prime minister has turned the tables on an Arab leader and made a clear, simple demand: recognize the Jewish state for what it is.

But Abbas can’t turn his back on the great aspiration of the Palestinian cause: to one day rule over all of Israel.  Their idea of a one-state solution is one with no overt Jewish symbols, Jewish curriculum, or Jewish law of return.  In other words, a state to be ruled by its majority, which in time, they expect, will be Arab.  Failing that, their idea of a two-state solution is a Palestinian state alongside an Israel that is democratic but not expressly Jewish, so that the remedy for a Jewish state could eventually come in the same way as for a one-state solution.  This is not paranoia; it’s fact, stated very clearly in the PLO charter (which has never been revised or discarded), and the raison d’etre of Hamas.

Those who despise Israel will find a way to blame Bibi for the probably breakdown of these talks.  Indeed, he’s already been excoriated (not least by Israel’s leftist press) for the offer, which they see as a “political ploy to sabotage the talks.”  (It just goes to show that Israel can expect any demands it brings to the table to be rejected automatically, whereas Palestinian Arab demands are part and parcel of any peace negotiation, and Israeli compliance with them is expected.)  But those with eyes to see will witness the fact that Bibi takes peace seriously, and Abbas does not.  Bibi is willing to give as well as take.  Abbas believes it is Bibi’s job to give, and his to take.  Bibi is willing to work to see both nations settled successfully in their own lands.  Abbas will only work toward the PLO’s goal of seeing every dunam of this land successfully in the hands of the Arabs.  Bibi’s goal is to end the conflict.  Abbas refuses to declare an end to the conflict until the Jews have been rendered powerless and are at the mercy of the Arabs.  Bibi’s plan will allow Arabs in Israel to remain Israeli citizens.  Abbas will not allow a single Jew to reside in a future Palestinian state.  I don’t know about you, but if no peace breaks out as a result of these talks, I’ll know whom to blame.

I have blogged previously (here and here) about recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.  For further reading on the subject of Israel as a Jewish state, Emmanuel Navon recently wrote a blog post explaining the meaning of “Jewish state.” This post by Lurker on the Muqata blog discusses the new, hotly-contested loyalty oath for new citizens of Israel, including a discussion of the nature of Israel as a Jewish and “democratic” state.  Sort of.  And while some Arabs may anticipate the opportunity to open new hostilities in a third “intifada,” this Arab writer thinks that’s a bad idea.

As my mother-in-law always says at the conclusion of any political conversation, “Well, we’ll see what happens.”

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Jewish histories seem to have a theme to them.  I remember reading Solomon Grayzel’s History of the Jews and his beautiful introduction in which he states clearly his thesis, that whenever a door was closed on the Jews somewhere in the world, another was opened.

Abba Eban too has a theme in My People—that no matter where the Jewish people found themselves, no matter how well or how ill things were going for them, deep down their spiritual life was still rooted in Eretz Yisrael.  This is not surprising given Eban’s contribution to the founding of the State of Israel and his service in many capacities, including as Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Ambassador to the US while simultaneously serving as a liaison officer to UNSCOP (United Nations Special Committee on Palestine).  He was a master of the English language (and nine others besides), a fact which becomes clear in this fluid, incisively written history.  It also accounts for the facts he chooses to include in his uncluttered, well-digested narrative.  He stresses the dignity, ethical foundations, flexibility, work ethic, diplomatic skill, and worldwide network of fellow Hebrew-speakers that allowed Jews to move from place to place and re-establish themselves, create successful business ventures, and act as diplomatic and economic liaisons between countries and societies (e.g. European Christians and Arab Muslims).  He also makes clear the Jewish claims to return to the land of Israel and the evolution of Arab attitudes toward this claim, from a willingness to compromise (Palestine only having been in Arab hands for 400 of the past 4000 years of historical record) to a rejection of their former support for a Jewish National Home and insistence on being awarded Palestine to compensate for the lands Britain and France refused to give them after World War I, and an attitude that persists to this day “that sovereignty belonged to Arabs wherever they were and to Jews nowhere at all.”  He also spells out in detail the chipping away of Britain’s post-Balfour promises to the Jews, including “the exclusion of Transjordan from those provisions of the Mandate which referred to the establishment of the Jewish National Home,” the closing off of Palestine to Jewish immigration in the Jews’ greatest hour of need (the Shoah), and its refusal to protect the Jews during Arab riots and massacres, or even to let the Jews protect themselves.

Jewish histories are often hard to read because of the necessary exploration of the destruction of Jewish life in the Holy Land, the expulsions, the Inquisition, the Shoah, and the seeds of the current conflict over Israel’s existence.  To live as a Jew in the 21st century is to study the alternately glorious and horrific past, and to hope tentatively for a glorious, more secure future.  It’s to be told to quit whining over the Shoah, that it never happened, that it wasn’t as bad as it’s made out to be, or that an even bigger, better one is on the way, so get ready.  Eban writes something about the Shoah that I think describes well how it fits into the modern Jewish psyche:

Jewish history and consciousness will be dominated for many generations by the traumatic memories of the Holocaust.  No people in history has undergone an experience of such violence and depth.  Israel’s obsession with physical security; the sharp Jewish reaction to movements of discrimination and prejudice; an intoxicated awareness of life, not as something to be taken for granted but as a treasure to be fostered and nourished with eager vitality, a residual distrust of what lies beyond the Jewish wall, a mystic belief in the undying forces of Jewish history, which ensure survival when all appears lost, all these together with the intimacy of more personal pains and agonies, are the legacy which the Holocaust transmits to the generation of Jews grown up under its shadow.

Much has been written about the possibility of creating a single state here, democratic, with Arabs and Jews participating fully in the political process.  I think it is easy to imagine that from a distance.  Doesn’t that happen, and with Christians and others besides, in the US?  Isn’t that happening (albeit with some serious problems) in Europe as we speak?  Why not in the Middle East?  Eban writes of the Jewish and Arab nationalist movements following in the steps of the nationalist movements that created much of the European landscape in the 19th century, and as the Middle East was redrawn following World War I and the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire.  Neither the Arabs nor the Jews envisioned the other as full participants in their own society: the Arabs because the Jews would once again be relegated to dhimmi status as infidels (if indeed they were allowed to remain, which is not part of the current Arab Palestinian dream), and the Jews because after living for nearly 2000 years as guests in other countries, being tolerated when they were needed and either expelled or killed when they were not, it was time to return Home, to have a small—but to them significant—piece of land on which to build a state where they were welcome, not tolerated; in which immigration quotas which had spelled the doom of millions in Europe were lifted forever; where they could build a society centered around their language, their religious roots, their history, their ethical values.  Addressing the impression given by Arabs that this land is rightfully Arab, Eban writes, “[T]o be Middle Eastern does not involve being Arab or Moslem.  It is not an offense against the Middle Eastern tradition for a non-Arab and non-Moslem sovereignty to live and flourish in the original home of Hebrew memory and thought.  The question is not whether Israel will change its special nature, but whether the Arabs will come to terms with Israel as it is.”

It sometimes seems, especially from an Israeli vantage point, that the discourse on the Arab-Israeli conflict is really a way of voting, populating, or recognizing Israel out of existence.  (All this because open war and terrorism have not succeeded in eradicating it.)  And yet, UN Security Council Resolution 242, adopted unanimously on 22 November 1967, made clear that “[w]ithdrawal from occupied territories was made conditional on the establishment of peace, the total abolition of belligerency, and the establishment of secure and recognized boundaries.”   Absenting the conditions laid down—i.e. establishment of peace, cessation of violence, and creation of secure borders—withdrawal is not an expectation.  Nowadays, as then, Israel’s friends and not-so-friendly acquaintances have pushed it to take “risks” for peace (many of which Israel has taken, and gotten bloodshed instead of peace).  Indeed, Eban’s following words could have been written as easily today as decades ago: “[A]dvice tendered to [Israel] from safe distances on how to be secure without resisting Arab assaults was received with robust skepticism.  Popularity was important; but it was more important to be alive than to be popular.  A weakened, vulnerable Israel attracted more affection than a strong and resistant Israel.”

Eban’s telling of the story of the Jews follows their fortunes as they were forged as a people, established themselves in their own land, dealt with the tensions of their location as powers rose up and jockeyed for position around them on all sides, the loss of their land, their sojourns in other countries among other peoples, and their eventual return to their homeland.  Given what the Jewish people endured, achieved, and—uniquely among dispersed peoples—survived, their return to the Land of Israel is a great gift—a miracle, a mitzvah to perform, and a tremendous relief.  Never again to have to depend on the whimsy of governments and hostile majorities, and to be reunited with the land of our birth, are not something the Jews should be expected to give up.  Part way through the War of Independence in 1948, Eban writes, “While Arab armies invaded Palestine, the Security Council met to debate whether a breach of peace had taken place, as the Americans charged.  The Americans demanded sanctions and a cease-fire; Britain opposed.  Arab delegates promised peace only if Israel’s independence were rescinded.  The Israeli answer was brief.  ‘If the Arab states want peace they can have it.  If they want war they can have that too.  But whether they want peace or war, they can only have it with the State of Israel.’”  Later, he states, “Israel would have preferred to flourish in peace with her neighbors.  But she was also capable of flourishing without it.  Behind the shield of strong military defenses, with an eye vigilantly fixed on hostile frontiers, Israel went on with its work.”

The saddest thing about reading history?  One might just as well be reading a newspaper.

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Settlements 101

I recently renewed contact with a secular friend from Tel Aviv on Facebook.  He asked if we’re ever in Tel Aviv so our families can meet each other.  I said we’re not there often, and at the moment don’t all fit into our 5-seater sedan to drive there (despite Banana’s helpful suggestion that we strap Bill’s carseat to the roof of the car).  I asked him, in turn, whether he and his family would come to see us in Efrat, and he responded that they couldn’t, that it’s Palestine, and that he would have to bring a passport.  He followed it up with a little lopsided smiley-face (colon-close parenthesis).

But still.

I know the settlements are a popular whipping-boy these days.  There are those who like to say that they are the chief object that stands between humanity and Middle East peace.  They like to say that settlements are a shameless land grab on the part of the Israelis in an effort to deny the Palestinians their rightful land for their rightful (and as yet imaginary) state.  There is even a European who works with the Arabs in “Palestine” who encourages Israel to continue building the settlements so they’ll have something substantial to give up on the day when the Arabs finally pull their finger out and decide to concede Israel’s right to exist.

But I’d like to point out a few things about settlements for those who may not have thought the issue through very carefully.

First of all, settlements didn’t exist in British Mandatory Palestine.  There were Jews and Arabs dotted all over the landscape.  There were times and places where they got along and even went into business together, and there were times when they did not, when the Arabs became violent and slaughtered Jews under the unconcerned nose of the British.

Settlements were also a non-issue in 1948 and 1967 when surrounding Arab nations decided to gang up on Israel in the hope of taking the rest of the land, something they (except for Egypt and Jordan, in popularly unsupported peace treaties with Israel) never gave up on to this day.

Settlements only became an issue when the Jews had control of land lost by Arabs in their desperate bid to destroy the Jewish State.  This was a “humiliation” for the Arabs, a major loss of face, and their further attempts to topple Israel from the outside (the Yom Kippur War) and the inside (two terror wars, popularly known as “intifadas”) show their insistence on getting what they imagine is theirs back.

But it’s not theirs.  Not anymore.  The Bible says it’s ours.  The archeological evidence of Jewish life everywhere say it’s ours.  The British Mandate said it’s ours.  Our presence here for thousands of years says it’s ours.  And our win—and their loss—say it’s ours.

This is not to say that there aren’t some Israelis interested in a two-state solution.  But this does not involve restoring a sovereign nation to its land; it’s giving a gift of land to a people to whom it doesn’t currently belong.  It’s not the right of aggressors who lose to have land held for them in escrow indefinitely.  If anything, the settlements should be seen as an incentive for the Arabs to come to the peace table.  The longer they wait, the more we’ll build in the settlements.  They are not a bargaining chip; they are a ticking clock.  And if the Arabs choose to dally instead of make peace with us, eventually there should be no land left for them, and they should consider going elsewhere to establish their national home.

Contrary to the way the West chooses to view Arabs, they are grown-ups, they are smart, and they are capable of seeing that their choices come with consequences.  To behave toward them as though they are tantrumming toddlers, possessed of limited faculties, is patronizing.  They are like anyone else; they respond to incentives.  If you make clear to them that they stand to gain if they act in their own interests now, you may be more successful than if you coddle and do their bargaining for them, scold and humiliate the Israelis, and do everything else possible to maintain political and diplomatic instability in the region.

Settlements are not the issue, and never have been.  As  Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon said in a recent interview, “In Judea and Samaria, if you are talking about peace, there is enough place for Jews and Arabs. If you are talking about war, it is more complicated. How much open space do you have in Judea and Samaria? Quite a bit. What percentage of the territory do the Jews control? Five percent. That is what everything hinges on?”  In Ya’alon’s view, even in the eventuality of a land gift to the Arabs, not one settlement should be uprooted: “I don’t even want to talk about territorial withdrawals in an age in which the withdrawal from Lebanon strengthened Hizbullah, and the withdrawal from Gaza strengthened Hamas to the point where we have the second Islamic republic in the Middle East – the first in Iran, and the second in Gaza: Hamastan. That is opposed to our strategic interest, and to the strategic interests of the west.”

It’s time to stop perseverating on settlements and start perseverating on what is REALLY the issue: peace.

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I’ve long been a card-carrying religious Zionist—one of the few labels I’ll allow myself.  As such, my tent is firmly pitched in the camp of those who believe that the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 was not just a happy event, but the work of Hashem and—dare one hope—the beginning of the geula, our redemption.

In today’s Jerusalem Post, I read a letter to the “In Jerusalem” section addressing the issues haredim have with Yom HaAtzma’ut (Independence Day), including the fact that religious Zionists refrain from saying Tahanun on that day.  According to the letter’s author, Shira Twersky-Cassel,

In Midrash Shlomo, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Rivlin, part of a large contingent of Vilna Gaon students that settled in Jerusalem in 1812, wrote that during the Omer they did not say the Tahanun on two special days.  ‘These are ruled by compassion…and therefore untouched by the klipa [the unclean spirits that damage the soul].’  These two days were the 20th of the Omer 5 Iyar and the 42nd day of the Omer 27 Iyar.  A century later, on 5 Iyar 1948, the State of Israel was declared.  On 27 Iyar 1967, Israeli paratroopers broke into the Old City of Jerusalem, freeing the city from the 19-year Jordanian occupation.

There are times when Judaism, Jewish history and practice take my breath away.  This is one of those times.

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Caution: Movie spoiler

Back in 1999, the Cap’n and I saw the film “Sunshine” in the movie theater.  It tells the multi-generational story of a Hungarian Jewish family’s rise from provincial distillers to movers and shakers in the nation’s many disparate governments.  In the film, each generation finds itself limited by its Jewishness and is persuaded first to change its name, then its religion, and finally abandon its identity as Jews altogether.

The tale of assimilation disturbed us the first time around, but this time even more so from our standpoint as ex-Diaspora-dwellers.  The Sonnenschein family’s loyalty to the Austro-Hungarian emperor, then the Socialists, (taking a break from loyalty during the Fascist government), then the Communists proves unfounded in every case, and only one character, Valerie (in the second generation of the film’s focus), manages to stay true to her identity as a Jew and remain aloof from disappointed loyalties.

I don’t love to think about anti-Semitism.  I don’t like to think of its still flourishing, or lurking under the surface in contemporary societies.  But the anti-Semitism that exists in so much of Western society these days, especially on liberal college and university campuses (wearing the thin cloak of “anti-Zionism”), proves the point made by Alvin Rosenfeld, the Irving M. Glazer Chair in Jewish Studies and professor of English at Indiana University, that “Nazism was defeated in Europe nearly 65 years ago.  Anti-Semitism was not.”  (Rosenfeld is founder and director of the new Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism at Indiana University.)  This makes the claims that so many have made in the last century—that Berlin was the New Jerusalem, that Hungary was the Promised Land, that Jews have found their last, best home in America—all the more unsettling.  There may not be Crusaders marching across the countryside with their priests’ exhortations to “kill a Jew and save your soul” running through their heads, or goose-stepping Brownshirts chanting “Juden raus” down the city streets, but it is clear from the sorts of guest speakers invited to university campuses (David Irving, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad) that the hatred and lies used to perpetuate anti-Semitism are just as protected as the truths of what happened in Operation Cast Lead, if not more so.

In that kind of climate, Jews can’t help but wonder what it takes to garner acceptance.  Some, as ignorant about Israel as the average American, hop on the bandwagon and denounce the Jewish State.  Others, believing the canard that Israel is the greatest threat to world peace, blame Israel (and by extension, the Jews) solely for Middle East unrest, the Palestinian “refugee crisis,” stealing land rightfully belonging to Arabs, and worldwide terrorism.  Still others find their support for Israel flagging in the face of the constant barrage of hatred and libel, and just don’t have the strength to fight it anymore.

Jews have always been suspected of dual loyalty.  I think it was Alan Dershowitz in his book Chutzpah who described being asked by more than one person, “If the US and Israel went to war, whom would you support?”  In some sense, it puts even more pressure on Jews to support and be active in their Diaspora societies, to show their loyalty to their host country.  In every case I’ve ever heard of, that participation and patriotism has been genuine, and one always hopes and expects that it will be taken as such.

And yet, it isn’t always.  It seems a small step for the second generation in “Sunshine” to change their last name from Sonnenschein to Sors, and the glee with which they skip down the stairs of a government building after officially making the change shows that they believe that will be all that will be asked of them for acceptance and promotion in Hungarian society.  But then the next generation rises, and a young fencer cannot even win a match against a Gentile, much less fence in the most exclusive club, without converting to Catholicism.  When he makes the change, he is greeted by the General who directs the exclusive Officers’ Fencing Club who tells him, “You made the right choice; assimilation is the only possible way.”  This Sors’s single-minded pursuit of success (and total lack of connection to his Jewishness) becomes apparent when he discusses a letter he has received from one of the fencing coaches who has fled to Algiers after the rise of the Fascists.  Here is the conversation between him and the General:

“He’s a traitor, sir.”

“It’s not that simple.  The Baron’s wife is Jewish, so his children are considered Jews.”

“He’s a traitor, sir.”

“Anti-Semitism is the creed of resentful and unsuccessful people.  It’s a shared madness which the Baron couldn’t accept.  But we have.  The worst thing about anti-Semitism is that it’s a philosophy of philistines.  It’s in bad taste.  I don’t know how much longer I can go along with it.”

In the very next scene, the Sors family sits around the radio listening to the new “racial laws” of Hungary, desperate to find grounds on which they themselves are exempt from the new legalized exclusion and persecution of Jews.  As disgusting and irrational as the laws themselves are, the family’s belief that they are safe because of their service to the country is just as irrational.  In their own way, they too have accepted the racial laws.  Rather than view the Big Picture and ask themselves, “What the hell happened to this country we thought was so great?” they wring their hands and look for any way they can to try to stay true to a country that no longer appreciates them, and perhaps never did.

Of course, their exemptions and safety are short-lived.  Shortly before the fencing champion is rounded up and sent to Auschwitz, he has a final conversation with the General, who says, “Sors, something I once said to you—that assimilation was the right choice.  I want to ask your forgiveness for having said that.  I was profoundly wrong, and I apologize.”  That the Gentile General can bring himself to apologize for having encouraged Sors to do what thousands of Jews had to do to participate fully in European society is marvel enough.  And yet, knowing Sors as the viewer does, he would never cling to something as meaningless and inconvenient to him as his Jewishness just for its own sake.  His ambition was too great, and his attachment to Torah too little.

By the end of the Communist era, the family is decimated, their generations of heirlooms and possessions looted, lost, or hauled away with the trash.  All that remains to the last living member is a letter written by his great-grandfather containing his ethical will, describing his creed of justice, humility, and Jewish identity.  In it Emmanuel Sonnenschein has written, “Never give up your religion—not for God; God is present in all religions.  But if your life becomes a struggle for acceptance, you’ll always be unhappy.  Religion may not be perfect, but it is a well-built boat that can stay balanced and carry you to the other shore.  Our life is nothing but a boat adrift on water balanced by permanent uncertainty.”

The movie ends on a note of hope as the last living member of the family returns to the government office to change his name back to Sonnenschein.  He is unlikely ever to be as religious as his forebears, or to desire the power and possessions they once enjoyed, but armed with his great-grandfather’s prayers for his son, he once again has a sense of who he is, and what his life is a part of.  For years he has made himself into what others expected or wanted him to be.  The viewer gets the sense that he needs only his own acceptance now, and not that of others.

While a great story, and beautifully acted and filmed, “Sunshine” depressed the Cap’n and me even more than last time we watched it.  Not for ourselves—we are happily installed in the great Zionist Paradise, get all our holidays off without being snarled at by secular Jewish bosses who say, “Well, I’M working on Yom Kippur.  Don’t see why you can’t,” spend a fraction of tuition of our Diaspora friends, and live a stone’s throw from the holiest city on Earth.  But thinking of our friends whose kids in college and university are subject to disgusting anti-Semitic bias from fellow students and professors, who themselves are professors and make a concerted effort not to get drawn into discussions that are heated and unproductive, and who are so used to the vicious anti-Israel (and anti-Semitic) articles published by The Boston Globe and The New York Times that they’re surprised to see anything published at all that is fair to the Jews, we find ourselves incredibly grateful that the REAL Jerusalem is within our grasp, that the Promised Land is ours once again, and that the Jews’ last, best home is once again the one given us by Hashem Himself.

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The Cap’n and I often hear Jews in America say, “Well, I’d really like to make aliyah, BUT…” and after the “but” give lots of reasons.  Some of them make sense (elderly parents to care for, well-established careers that it would be impossible to replicate in Israel or to continue remotely or by commuting) but some of them are downright ridiculous.  Here is a list of the top 10 dumb excuses people give for not making aliyah:

1. Parnasah. One of the reasons one needs so much money in the US to be Jewish is because a house in the eruv, Jewish day school, Jewish summer camp (if you take advantage), kosher food, shul dues, regular entertaining, and getting hit up for mikvah renovations cost a lot of money.  In Israel, one can save around 95% on tuition.  Real estate (outside the main population centers of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv) is not nearly as insane as in frum neighborhoods in the US.  Camps are cheap and plentiful here.  There’s a shul (or two, or fifty) in every neighborhood, and dues are a fraction of what they are in an American shul.  Kosher food is available everywhere here, and shopping in a shuk can save a family a lot of money.  The government pays for mikva’ot and their maintenance.  And guess what?  You can AFFORD to have more kids here because of it.  Those who live in America and have to make their child-bearing decisions based on their finances would be free here to choose based on what they want and what Hashem gives them.

2. The rabbinate’s treatment of converts.  As if the American rabbinical establishment loves converts so much.  If certain Batei Din aren’t bad enough in the way they conduct conversions, there have been many American rabbis who have notoriously abused their positions of power with regard to women, children, and converts (including talk of revoking conversions for women who wore pants after conversion—the brazen hussies!).  There are mean people everywhere.

3. Hebrew.  Duh, you’re Jewish.  It’s your JOB to learn Hebrew anyway.  Why not use the Holy Tongue everyday rather than just for special occasions?

4. Fear of terrorism. Ahem.  September 11, London Tube, Madrid commuter train, Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur,…  And no one with the name of Umar who paid cash for a one-way ticket and had a bomb stashed in his underpants would have been allowed on a plane bound either to or from Israel.  Period.  It is interesting to note that despite all the awful stories that make it out of Israel, life expectancy in Israel is higher than in America.

5. Fear of IDF service. This sticks in lots of people’s craw.  But there are a few things to consider.  One is that besides gan, this is one of the great social foundations in the life of an Israeli.  Boys become men there, friendships are formed, skills learned, all while ensuring every day that Israel continues to exist.  Everyone wishes that service in the IDF wasn’t mandatory, but no one can deny its necessity.  You may be familiar with the observation credited to Shira Sorko-Ram (in the Maoz Israel newsletter, May 2004), “If the Arabs put down their weapons today there would be no more violence.  If the Israelis put down their weapons today there would be no more Israel.”  Need I say more?  And if someone doesn’t agree with the role the IDF plays in turning settlers out of their homes, there’s nothing like being a fully enfranchised citizen to give weight to one’s opinions.

6. Israel’s hostile neighborhood. True, Israel doesn’t have many friends in the Middle East.  Over time, however, that may change.  In the meantime, thanks to peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, there is a bus that departs from central Jerusalem for Cairo every day, and Petra is only two hours from the border crossing at Eilat.  In addition, beautiful beach holidays in Cyprus and Turkey are available, Europe is only a time zone or two away, and Israel itself boasts plenty to keep a family busy on the holidays.

7. Expectation of downsizing. Many people don’t like the idea of coming to Israel because it may mean having to live in smaller quarters than they have in America.  This is true for some, but certainly not for everyone.  We increased our square meterage from what we had in the US when we made aliyah to a rented apartment, and again when we bought a cottage (semi-detached house with garden).  Some people want to live in a McMansion, however, and there are a number of neighborhoods with such absurdly large houses here in Israel.  Rampant consumerism has gained some traction in Israel for those who wish to adhere to it as a value.  But most people find they can do with less, and the upside of that is that cleaning for Shabbat takes less time.

8. No Sunday. When can you go to the mall/make day trips/get together with friends from out of town?  I know, this is a tough one.  But if a family can be shopped by Wednesday and cooked by Thursday, then Friday (especially in the warmer months) is a great day for that.  People usually only work half-days during chol hamo’ed (if they work at all then), and life is short enough that everyone bailing on work and school once in a blue moon could be nice.

9. I already spent a year in Israel.  Why should I live there? Because you probably came as a young person and enrolled in one of the many fine programs that allow young people to experience life in Israel in a well-structured, guided, sheltered environment.  Those are great, but to ask why you should live here, especially if that program year was a great year for you, is like asking, “I went on a date with this great guy.  But why should I marry him?”  Because he’s great.  Because he is your soulmate.  Because Hashem created him just for YOU.  And because he loves you more than anyone ever will.  How many people can you say THAT about?

And the biggest, all-time dumbest reason not to make aliyah:

10. Concern about the noise of IAF flyovers. (I swear I am NOT making this up.)  I’m afraid I have no response.

I know there are people who will read this and think, “But I still don’t want to go.  I like Israel, but not as much as where I am living.”  Okay.  But let’s break it down a bit more.

For those who believe themselves bound to perform mitzvot, this is a biggie.  So big, in fact, that it’s the one exception to the laws against writing on Shabbat, allowing a Jew to instruct a non-Jew to write in order to purchase property in Israel.

Another blogger (I can’t remember which one; chime in if it was you, and give a link to your post) once wrote about why more people don’t make aliyah.  For every reason listed, she determined that fear was at the root of the reason.  This is compelling.  Even the excuse of inertia, for people who would like to come here to live but never seem to think it’s the right time, is a form of fear.  Some reason that their finances are not in order, or that the kids aren’t the right ages, or their career is just taking off.  These, when examined closely, often boil down to a type of fear.

The Cap’n and I took years to come to the decision to make aliyah.  We had many of the excuses others have, plus perhaps a few more.  But we also had a strong desire to live here.  It was only after a Kol Nidrei d’var Torah given by a friend that we reframed our thinking.  He defined timhon levav in the liturgy as refraining from doing that which one knows to be right because it is easier to stick to the status quo.  When we heard that, we realized that the time had come to look into aliyah seriously.  The following Yom Kippur, we were in Israel.

I need hardly say that Israel is special.  As I’ve said many times, Israel may not be the only place for Jews to live, but in my opinion, it is by far the best place for them to live.  Israel is by, for, and about the Jews.  Nowhere else is.  It is flawed in many ways, and one of the best ways I can think of to find solutions to those flaws is to have bright, principled, well-educated Western technocrats come and build, develop, and improve the country.

When I look at my life in the context of the rest of the world, I felt my existence in America to be very small and inconsequential.  Outside my immediate circle of friends and community, my life made very little difference at all.  Here, however, an individual can rise to make a tremendous difference, both to the country and to the Jewish world in general.  To be part of it is to be part of one of the greatest experiments in Jewish history.  The last time Jews returned to Israel in any numbers from an exile was the return from Babylon in 536 BCE.  Even then, after only 50 years of exile, people were comfortable, established, and totally unmotivated to return to the land where only a half-century earlier the Jews had wept to leave.  Now, after nearly 2000 years of some of the most dolorous years in Jewish history, and some of the most shameful years in human existence, to have this land to return to is (to my eyes) clearly the work of Hashem.  Some might smile and say “thank you” politely, but decline the gift.  To me, though, the right thing seems to me to accept the gift and cherish it.

It is true that coming as adults (as opposed to kids, or young singles), we are limited in some ways in our ability to fully integrate as Israelis.  I can converse in the language, but have few Israeli friends.  But I have a wonderful English-speaking community which feels blessed to live here, and I feel very much a part of society here despite my own limitations.  Our children, however, are one of the main reasons we came here to live, and they feel very much Israeli.  While we are instilling in them the manners and values of Western society, they are fluent in Hebrew, have Israeli friends, and have few memories of America.  They will be the first generation of true Israelis in the family.

Like the old man who planted a carob tree knowing he would not live to see it bear fruit, we have brought our children here to bloom in their own lifetimes.

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No escape

The Cap’n and I were delighted and honored to receive a visit recently from the rabbi of our congregation in America.  Usually his trips to Israel are scheduled down to the last minute, but this time he was able to spare enough time to wipe some hummus with us at our home in Efrat.

When the Cap’n and I made the decision to make aliyah a few years ago, we had to decide where to live when we arrived.  We discussed the matter with our rabbi, who strongly discouraged us from coming to live in Efrat.  An American family he knew had lived in Efrat in the early 2000s when there were frequent road closures, suicide bombings, and the road into Jerusalem was a shooting gallery every night from 8 to 11 PM (in time for the news).  The couple, our rabbi told us, had left Efrat and returned to the United States because they could no longer handle the grief and stress of attending a funeral every week.

We listened to him, and for a host of reasons (including his advice) chose Beit Shemesh as our home for our first two years as Israelis.  But during our second year, when we were weighing where to make our home for the long-term, we began shopping around for a community and this time decided to consider Efrat again.

We are very glad we did so.  The proximity to Jerusalem is a great benefit for shopping, culture, and history.  We are better located to see and entertain friends who come to Israel to visit.  The climate is the best in the country.  There are dozens of choices of schools for our children.  We got much more home for our money here than we could have anywhere else we looked.  And when we spoke to Efratniks about their experiences during the Second Intifada, they told us about how the community bonded together, how the Emergency Medical Center was built to enable people to receive emergency care in the Gush when the roads were not safe for travel, how two widows whose husbands had been killed on the roads had outfitted a building at Gush Junction to serve coffee, soup, cake, and snacks to the soldiers whose job it is to keep us safe, how amateur music, drama, and dance performances were put on in the Gush to lift the spirits of the residents, how on several occasions armed residents closed down the road to Jerusalem at the Efrat junction and refused to let Arab or U.N. vehicles pass to let them experience first-hand the inconvenience that Jews experienced regularly, and how—remarkably—only a handful of families left the yishuv during those difficult years.  Many people we’ve talked to knew the American family who left, and told us that that family had been unhappy living here even before the Intifada began.

Our rabbi reminded us on his recent visit of the family who had left.  I can imagine how difficult it must have been to lose members of such a small community.  But I can also see that if everyone responded to the violence by pulling up stakes and going back to Chu”l, there would be no Israel.  Before the Cap’n and I decided to move to Efrat, we had many conversations about our concerns and feelings living out here.  We discussed our options if there is to be a Third Intifada.  Heartened by the accounts of those who lived through the last one and our optimism with the current government, well aware of the risks attending living (inside the Green Line) within rocket or mortar range of Arab population centers (or even just driving in this country), and steeled by our resolve to live in what we consider our land in the company of some of the bravest and most admirable people we’ve met in Israel, we have decided that if times get bad again, we will not flee, but will stand our ground.  To leave is to let our enemies win.  To leave is to abandon Zion.  We are not fighting Rome; we will not be led off to exile and slavery in chains.  We are here, and we are right.  We don’t want to live anywhere else.

And if we forget thee, O Jerusalem, may we be consigned forevermore to a life of sawdust-tasting pita, grainy hummus, and two-day yuntif.

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