Last week my wife and I made aliya after more than six decades of life in the United States. We are officially Israeli citizens, which affords me the right to criticize the Israeli government without being told to move here if I want to have a say, and the right to denounce American Jews for remaining in the fleshpots of the exile. But I’m going to hold off on both for the time being…
It would be easy to make Aliya if we were fleeing persecution but that is not the case, notwithstanding that rabbis have always been among the most persecuted Jews, and usually by other Jews. But that is not why. It would be easy to make Aliya if America had become unlivable, a place without a long-term Jewish future, and one can make a compelling argument that the handwriting is presently on the wall waiting to be read. Nonetheless, when I announced to the shul eighteen months ago that we would be making aliya in July 2020, the United States was peaceful and prosperous, President Trump was cruising to a (narrow) election victory, and pandemics, economic collapse and race riots were not even on the horizon. That we left amid all this turmoil in American life is a coincidence and not the proximate cause of our departure. In any event, “coerced Aliya” (running from something) is not as salutary or enjoyable as “voluntary Aliya” (running towards something). We are in the latter category in fulfillment of the verse in Shir Hashirim (1:4), “Moshcheini, acharecha narutza.” Pull me and I will run after You.
It would be easy to make Aliya if our children lived here – and two children already do, with grandchildren, but two still live in the US with grandchildren. We have experienced the range of emotions, of farewell and reunion, as can be expected. It would be easy to make Aliya if I was out of a job and had nowhere else to turn, but that would also be untrue. I could have stayed. It was a l’chatchila choice (ab initio, even granting the long time abroad), not a b’diavad (post facto).
Politically, it turns out to have been a lateral move. I went from one country (the USA) where leftists and anarchists are daily and violently protesting the government’s failure to deal effectively with the Coronavirus and where the media elites despise the head of government to another country (Israel) where leftists and anarchists are daily and violently protesting the government’s failure to deal effectively with the Coronavirus and where the media elites despise the head of government. Like I said, a lateral move.
So why make Aliya now? And the simple answer is: it was time. Personally, professionally, and ideologically, it was time to make the move that is the mandate and destiny of all Jews.
For one thing, the future of the Jewish people is in Israel rather than anywhere in the exile. If the events of the last few months (or century) have not demonstrated that, then nothing will ever be sufficiently convincing. The exile is drying up around us. More Jews live today in Israel than in the rest of the world combined. Moreover, after millennia of persecution, punitive measures, and harsh restrictions directed against Jews generally and specifically those who wanted to dwell in the land of Israel, today there is no Jew in the world living in a country from which he or she cannot freely emigrate and come live in the land of Israel. And if there are (Cuba?), there are just a relative handful. That is a divine gift.
It was time to be a player in the grand game of Jewish life rather than just a highly interested and vocal spectator. And I do not doubt that for all the dedication of rabbis, teachers and professional leaders in the Jewish world – and for all the vast investments in Jewish infrastructure that makes the United States such a hospitable and pleasurable exile – life in the exile is a holding pattern. We are trying to hold on to something – powerful in its own right and indispensable for almost two centuries – that cannot be sustained in perpetuity. We are not building as much as we are trying not to fall. We are walking on a ledge rather on solid footing. And now this is true not only spiritually but also physically and politically.
Few will deny that America has experienced two terrible traumas in the last five months, both unpredictable but both bearing an imprint that will leave a long term mark on American life. The Coronavirus pandemic exposed the greatest vulnerability in America today: the polarization that is itself an epidemic. The hatred of the President has reached self-destructive proportions, in which his legion of political and media enemies would rather see the country collapse further than recover even gradually. The tirades about Trump’s failures to halt the pandemic or economic dislocation are vociferous, and inversely proportionate to the suggestion of any alternative plan or approach. It is particularly unctuous, which is to say typical of politics at its worst, to criticize every policy without offering even a hint of how you would have done it differently or better. So they do what politicians love doing – printing money and claiming credit for distributing it to the voters, and trying to WIN at all costs.
What is most damaging to American society is the growing notion among the elites – not the mob of racists and anarchists – that America was conceived in sin, nurtured in criminality and has no redeeming value. In the turbulent 60’s, the elitist institutions protected themselves against the anarchists. Today, the corporations, media and universities join hands with anti-American anarchists to stifle liberties like freedom of speech, assembly and worship in the name of some higher dogma, and routinely purvey lies, untruths and distortions of reality – in order to both protect and encourage the anarchists and, it can’t be denied, win an election. “Systemic racism,” all the rage today, is an indictment without any possible defense (to defend against it is itself racist); it is a cudgel more than it is a complaint.
Opposing sides that no longer share common values, a definition of truth or reality or even rules of speech cannot interact. When one side of a debate is perceived by the other not just as wrong but as evil and immoral, public discourse ends and mob rule begins. That the mob now rules – anarchists destroying private or government property, assaulting innocent people in the streets, attacking the police, “canceling” those who disagree with them (the latter, woefully predicted by Orwell) – will only be tempered and then only momentarily if President Trump is defeated in November. And if he loses by a whisker, amid allegations of voter fraud abetted by mail-in ballots, harvested ballots, forged ballots, and on line voting in key swing states, then all bets are off and the hostility will no longer be unilateral. And if Trump wins, as is eminently possible given the lies people tell pollsters and the fear of expressing public support? There will be even more violence. Uneasy times are ahead.
Jews should especially take note of this because we are in the unenviable position of being perceived as part of the privileged white establishment by the minorities who are now protesting across the country but not by the privileged white establishment itself who see Jews as outsiders. Jews will have no natural allies in the coming struggle, which will come as a shock to liberal Jews who think their liberalism and historic support for civil rights inoculates them from the disruptions ahead. The liberal Jew of old –tolerant, open, respectful, and supportive of even anathematic views like the right of Nazis to march in Skokie – is a dinosaur, because that type of liberalism has disappeared. The Democrat party of old, the church (or synagogue) of most modern Jews, no longer exists. It too pays obeisance to the leftist mob, and is unsympathetic to Israel and to the Jewish ethos, not that most Jews realize it.
In the best sense, none of that is a reason to move to Israel, although it might be the tipping point in people’s otherwise positive decision. Jews have an unblemished record of staying in the exile a bit too long and paying a heavy price for it. But more importantly, we all recognize certain basic truths about Torah and Jewish life. The long prophesied “Kibbutz Galuyot” (ingathering of the exiles) has not only occurred but is actually entering its final stages. Jews from over 130 countries today live in Israel. The return to the land of Israel, itself a biblical prophecy, is something that we now take for granted. Most Jews alive today cannot envision a world without the Jewish state of Israel. Even in quarantine (where I now find myself, in escalating tedium, life on hold), I realize that centuries of Jews would have given their right arms to be able to quarantine in the land of Israel.
It is not without its problems. As I am sure I will note in the coming years, many of the afflictions of the more modern, leftist, faddish elements of Orthodoxy, and its neo-Conservative offspring, exist here as well, along with the clamor for a more malleable mesorah and elastic morality. There is much to do here, especially in warding off the displacement of Jewish morality by Western morality. But these are the problems of growth, of building the future, rather than trying to preserve the past.
I feel blessed that I am able to be here, as I feel blessed to have succeeded in my careers in the exile. Even as a rabbi, I never hid the fact that Aliya was both a Torah value and an imperative, even if it was against my interest in saying so. I certainly don’t disparage the USA or its people, or my Jewish brothers and sisters there. I was the beneficiary of prior generations who not only built the wonderful Jewish community of Teaneck but who constructed the edifice of American Jewish life that enabled survivors and refugees to rebuild Torah after the horrors of the Holocaust. For that, I will always be appreciative of America, its history, its aspirations and the haven it provided to Jews and others.
Nonetheless, we should not let our gratitude and nostalgia for the past cloud our vision of the present and future. With blessings from Israel!