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October 8, 2015 | 25th Tishrei 5776

Going up, going down I

Galilee Diary #204
October 24, 2004
Marc J. Rosenstein

In a van from the airport to Haifa, erev Sukkot. It has been a long trip and a long wait and I generally don’t talk to fellow travelers unless spoken to, so I am dozing but can’t avoid hearing the conversation among the other three passengers, all sabras: a 25-year old college student, returning from a wonderful summer of travel in the US; a 45-year old body-builder and fitness consultant, involved in the health club business in California, coming to visit his mother; a 60-ish businesswoman, involved in clothes boutiques on the east coast, also arriving on what Israelis call a “homeland visit.” The college girl is a bit wide-eyed as the other two engage in one-upmanship regarding their business and social achievements in America. They have “made it” over there – but there is no place like home, no cooking like Mom’s. There is a remarkable exchange regarding their awareness that there is some holiday coming up; he can’t remember just which one, but is informed that Simchat Torah is soon – “maybe Tuesday” (Sukkot was due to start in a few hours; Simchat Torah the following Thursday…). Thankfully, they too doze off eventually.

The experience of the tens of thousands of Israelis who have emigrated to the far corners of the world, from Miami to Melbourne to Munich, casts in fascinating relief the ongoing dilemma of defining Israeli identity. For many, perhaps the majority of these, the local Jewish community, based on religious belonging, is a foreign body. Their Jewish identity is often limited to “Israeliness” and manifest in their social contacts with other émigrés, reading the American editions of Israeli newspapers, and ethnic traditions like falafel and Israeli popular music. An identity based on nostalgia is hard to pass on to the next generation; some communities have organized special supplementary school programs for the children of emigrants. Moreover, whether consciously admitted or not, they cannot really excise from their identities the Zionist root, which defines aliyah (“going up,” immigration to Israel) as a Jewish imperative, and yeridah (“going down,” emigration) as a kind of betrayal, jumping ship, copping out. The resultant guilt is sometimes expressed as defiance, sometimes as a highly negative view of Israeli society and life, sometimes as “of course, this is just a temporary sojourn…” And interestingly, that Zionist ideological perspective on migration has been absorbed even by those who have never even considered leaving their North American homeland: I have heard American Jewish educators say that they don’t like to employ Israeli teachers because they are, by virtue of their emigration, negative role models; and in the 70s and 80s there were many who agreed that there was something “not right” about Soviet Jews getting out on exit visas to Israel only to change destinations to western Europe or the US once they were free.

This dilemma of the conflict between the ideal of living in Israel and the reality of its difficulty is not new. It started with the patriarchs (who spent a lot of time elsewhere), continued through the Talmudic period – and affected even the pioneers of the Second Aliyah of the early 20th century, many of whom became the founders of the state – while many of their colleagues packed up and went elsewhere within a few years.

The Rambam fled Spain to escape Moslem fundamentalist persecution in the mid 12th century; he got as far as Cairo, where he lived out his life. He wrote (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 5:9):

It is forbidden to emigrate from Palestine and go abroad, unless one goes to study the Torah, or to marry a wife, or to rescue property from heathens, and then returns to Palestine. But one is forbidden to make one’s home abroad… but if… money is scarce and one is unable to earn it and has no savings, one may go to any place where one can make a living. But though one is permitted to emigrate, if one does, the act is not in conformity with the law of saintliness.

How many “buts” can one put in one short paragraph? It seems that the Rambam here is codifying his – and our – ambivalence.

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