Good for the Jews?: A Few Thoughts on the Debate About Aliyah
Today, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the survival of the Jews and the survival of Israel are the same; and whether Israel can survive depends, among other things, on the numbers and talents of Diaspora Jews who will come to it – which means it depends on you… – Hillel Halkin, Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist’s Polemic (1977)
When visiting Israel one generally encounters an inquisitiveness of where you came from and what reason brought you to Israel. While those questions are standard for almost any person visiting any place in the world, it is the question that generally follows that is unique in the Israeli context – and that is the question of whether one plans to move to Israel and make Aliyah. Indeed, how the question is formulated and in whatever tone it is spoken it can be more than a simple inquiry; it is often a suggestion, a complaint, a possibility or a prayer. In a nation filled with all types of olim, Aliyah is still a notion that fills the heart, the mind, and the discourse like few other ideas do. In 2009, the debate about Aliyah has in many ways overshadowed the encouragement of Aliyah, and unlike when Halkin wrote his strongly worded essay on the its urgency thirty-two years ago, we now more often speak of Aliyah as an ideological aspect of the Jewish State as opposed to an answer to the existential question of the Jewish State.
During the second day of the Facing Tomorrow: The Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, the complexity and the passion of the Aliyah debate was fully evident in a packed and provocatively titled panel discussion that asked – is Aliyah good for the Jews? Moderated by Alisa Rubin Kurshan, the Vice-President for Strategic Planning and Organizational resources for UJA-Fed NY, the panel included Matthew Bronfman, Rabbi Ricardo Shmuel Diesegni – the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Meir Kraus, an expert in the field of Israeli/Diaspora relations, Rabbi Michael Melchior, former Minister of Diaspora and Social Affairs, and Jay Sarver – co-chair of the Aliyah and Klitah Committee of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors. Each member of the group expressed insightful and often strongly worded positions, and certainly those in the audience looking to understand the contours of the Aliyah debate were not disappointed. From Rabbi Melchior’s frank and forceful assertion that there is a total abscess of support for encouraging and sustaining Aliyah in the Israeli political establishment to Matt Bronfman’s personalized and optimistic assertion how Aliyah is being refined in this area of interconnection and the “living bridge”, each panelist brought to the table a voice that authentically expressed the challenges and opportunities of Aliyah at this point in history. And they were not alone, members of the audience too expressed their opinions (under the guise of questions) regarding the challenges not only relating to Aliyah, but of the challenges of absorption and integration into Israeli society. Were there agendas and opinions in the room? Of course. But there also was genuine interest and concern, and that was what made the discussion so powerful.
For my own part, I walked away from the discussion with a few key observations. First (and as usual), I found the debate among an academics and professionals to be of distant relevance to the debates I hear back in my own community in Atlanta. For a vast majority of North American Jews, Aliyah is a concept to be understood, but not an opportunity to be examined. Certainly there remains the possibility to encourage North American olim, but just because there is a possibility does not mean there is a substantially realistic outcome to be expected. And while the concept of redefining Aliyah and reframing Israeli-Diaspora relations within the context of the “living bridge” certainly sound like imaginative approaches in an era that depends on increased Jewish creativity, we cannot lose sight of the fact that certain concepts lose their integrity when we casually begin to change their meaning. Lastly, I was reminded by the discussion that although Americans often think of Diaspora relations as North American relations, there are other communities that have vital stakes in the debate regarding the future of global Jewry and their relationship to the State of Israel and we are myopic if we don’t recognize the entirety of the participants in this truly global discussion.
Aliyah perhaps is no longer just a strategy to respond to an existential need of an Israeli future, it is now more so a factor in the evolutionary nature of Jewish existence. While there can be little debate that historical the essence of Aliyah has been of a physical nature, the continuing assertions of spiritual Aliyah challenge us to think harder about what it truly means to encourage personal and communal commitments to Israel. We also can’t lose sight of the impact on Israeli society (and the correlative impact of global Jewish communities) when considering what role Aliyah can and should play in the future of the Jewish People. So, in the spirit of Mr. Halkin’s thirty-two year old polemic and in response to the question of whether is Aliyah good for the Jews, I respond with a different question – if Israel still truly depends on Jews (whoever and wherever they are), are thoroughly modern Jews good for Aliyah?
Now that is a panel discussion I would like to see.
Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an Atlanta-based attorney, activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. Seth is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program, Vice Chair and past Allocations Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, member of the board of Joshua Venture Group and First Vice President of Jewish Family & Career Services in Atlanta. Seth regularly shares his thoughts on where we are going as a Jewish community on his blog, Boundless Drama of Creation, and is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy. Seth can be contacted directly at seth.cohen [at] agg.com.