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 11:12
Last week, another charter flight of new immigrants from North America arrived in Israel under the sponsorship of Nefesh Bnefesh, an organization that facilitates aliyah from western countries. The work of Nefesh Bnefesh is somewhat controversial, primarily, it seems from the media reports, because of a turf battle with the Jewish Agency. The Jewish Agency has traditionally assumed the primary responsibility for immigration especially the recruitment of prospective immigrants and their preparation for their big move. It continues to work, in a sometimes uneasy partnership with the government Ministry of Absorption, to help the olim get settled, learn Hebrew, find work, etc. The Jewish Agency is funded primarily by contributions from the UJC (the successor to the United Jewish Appeal as central fundraising framework for Israel in North America) and its equivalent bodies in other countries. The activity of Nefesh Bnefesh in stepping in to recruit and assist olim seems to imply a criticism of the Jewish Agency for not doing enough and/or for not doing it well. Nefesh Bnefesh raises most of its funding outside the UJC-Jewish Agency establishment.
The longing for the return to Israel has of course been a central theme of Jewish belief and identity, expressed in many customs and laws and liturgical texts, ever since the first time we lost our sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael in 586 BCE. Throughout the generations, time and again we felt we couldnt wait any longer, and put our hopes in a succession of would-be messiahs to lead us back to sovereignty in our homeland. There were many more of these than most people realize, as most were local movements that didnt have impact beyond a particular community or region. A fundamental assumption throughout Jewish history was that our dispersion was an anomaly, a punishment, and was temporary. We knew with absolute certainty that eventually God would forgive us, end the exile, and bring us all back.
There were, from the beginning, various different understandings of the purpose of the modern Zionist movement which was a secular nationalist movement a rebellion against the decree of exile and even against the belief in a God who might issue such a decree. However, the mainstream, dominant position became the view that the redemption is upon us, that the exile is destined to end soon, that the prophecies of ingathering are about to be fulfilled by means of our own efforts at ingathering and rebuilding. While before the Holocaust there was strong opposition to Zionism among both Orthodox and Reform Jews, eventually almost everyone accepted the Zionist principle that aliyah is some kind of a mitzvah, is inherently good, is to be encouraged just as its opposite, yeridah (emigration) is to be disparaged and discouraged.
Observing the controversy surrounding Nefesh Bnefesh and some other efforts to enhance aliyah in recent years - has caused me to take a second look at our assumptions. I wonder if the use of philanthropic dollars to provide personal grants to smooth the path of aliyah for middle-class American Jews or to seek out, round up, and bring to Israel esoteric tribes of possible Jewish ancestry from Africa and Asia is really the best way to insure Jewish survival. Maybe it is but only if you believe that the Diaspora is indeed destined to disappear. Those of us who choose to make aliyah are we doing some kind of secular mitzvah for the Jewish people? Or are we seeking personal fulfillment and authenticity? Are we doing it for you? Or are we doing it for us?