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September 20, 2014 | 25th Elul 5774

Homecoming II

Galilee Diary #290, June 18, 2006

Marc J. Rosenstein

In that day, My Lord will apply His hand again to redeeming the other part of His people from Assyria – as also from Egypt, Pathros, Nubia, Elam, Shinar, Hamath, and the coastlands.

He will hold up a signal to the nations and assemble the banished of Israel,

And gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.

-Isaiah 11:11-12

For a hundred years now, we have been declaiming the biblical prophecies of ingathering at ceremonies and inscribing them on the walls of public places. The Zionist revolution may have rejected the religious definition of Judaism, but it did not reject the Bible, and was especially attached to the prophetic visions of the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael. While our pioneers were humanists, redeeming the people and the land with their own hands, they were not averse to seeing themselves as fulfilling the biblical vision of return. So while the majority of Jews continued to live in the Diaspora, the association of the modern Zionist endeavor with the prophecies of ingathering became commonplace in Jewish discourse in Israel and elsewhere.

The question is, do we mean it? Does anybody mean it? Do we in fact anticipate the ingathering of all the Jews, or just an option for those who want/need a place to go? Is the use of the biblical verses just bombastic rhetoric, or do we really envision all of the Jews ultimately packing up and coming home to Israel? Would it even be a good thing for all the Jews to be concentrated in one small geographic enclave? Moreover, there is the tricky historical question: is the ingathering a precondition for redemption, or the end result thereof? Up to us, or up to God? A part of history, or a vision of a post-historical ideal?

It was common to hear in Israel, for years, the "classical Zionist" argument, a corollary of this idea of ingathering, that ultimately all the Jews who did not return to Israel would disappear due either to holocausts or to assimilation – so the net effect would indeed be that all the Jews would live in Israel. And it followed from this that if you were not part of the solution you were part of the problem, and that it behooved every committed Jew to climb aboard the ship of state and help with the sacred work of redemption. The state needed able-bodied Jews, to till the soil and staff the laboratories, to build and to be built by the experience. A historical plan was being worked out, and if we didn't join by choice, we would ultimately be dragged along willy-nilly.

One can still hear this claim, but more softly now, as the number of former Israelis living in the Diaspora, without even a pretense of temporariness, climbs towards seven digits. There was a time, I think, when this argument fulfilled the need of Israelis to comfort themselves over the fact that they, the idealists and fulfillers of the dream, were living difficult and endangered lives, while their Diaspora brothers and sisters were staying at their fleshpots and doing very well, thank you. By looking forward to a long-term working-out of the prophetic vision, they could better justify their own discomfort and deprivation, and keep with the plan. Now, however, that we don't feel so third-world here anymore, and we don't have so much to envy of the lifestyles of our Diaspora brethren, we feel less pressure to seek biblical and historical justification for living here. We are, it seems moving toward a "live and let live" approach to Israel-Diaspora relations, which recognizes different individual choices as of equal moral validity.

If that is indeed the case, then the question remains, what is the meaning of aliyah in the American Jewish community? Is it still, in some way, an ideal – or just an option? Is it the fulfillment of an obligation – or the abandonment of an obligation – or, perhaps, unavoidably, both?

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