In Israel, the past few weeks epitomize the contrasting emotions of sadness and exhilaration which embody the life of the Jewish people. We experience profoundly mixed sentiments when, after Pesach we successively commemorate Holocaust Day, mourn and honor those who sacrificed their lives to defend the Jewish state on Yom Hazikaron, and switch into rejoicing 24 hours later as we celebrate the miraculous rebirth of our nationhood on Independence Day.
These events have a particular resonance for those who made aliya from Western countries, and encourage us to reminisce. I hope I will not bore readers by sharing personal musings and a retrospective review as to whether my decision to settle in Israel was vindicated.
I was fortunate to grow up in Australia, a spectacular country with a magnificent quality of life. My parents arrived in Melbourne on one of the last boats to leave Belgium on the eve of the Second World War and many of my family perished during the Shoa. I grew up in a religious Zionist household within a thriving committed Jewish community which was enriched by refugees and survivors from the Shoa and which had a formative impact on my Jewish identity.
After graduating from University I came to Israel but my aliya was short-lived because my father suddenly passed away, obliging me to return to Melbourne and manage the family business.
Engaged in public Jewish life from my student days, I ultimately assumed leadership of the Australian Jewish community and a global Jewish role as one of the senior heads of the World Jewish Congress.
In my twenties, I was recruited by the late Shaul Avigur, the principal Israeli orchestrating the global campaign to free Soviet Jewry. This dominated my life for many years and involved major international diplomacy including direct relations with leading Soviet officials as well as refuseniks and dissidents. Despite my arrest and expulsion from the Soviet Union, ironically I was the first Jewish leader invited to return and report on President Gorbachev’s glasnost revolution. This led to initiating the first Hebrew song festival and establishing the first Jewish cultural center in Moscow since the Bolshevik Revolution. Witnessing firsthand the miraculous achievements of a few hundred courageous Soviet Jews profoundly reinforced my Zionist outlook.
My Soviet involvement and subsequent collaboration with Israeli authorities in establishing diplomatic relations with China and India led to frequent meetings with Israeli prime ministers and political officials. This obliged me to visit Israel as often as five or six times a year – no mean feat considering Australia’s geographical isolation which, prior to direct El Al flights to the Far East, entailed at least 30 hours of travel backhauling through Europe.
Thus, when my children implemented their Zionist upbringing and began making aliya, my wife and I needed little encouragement to purchase a Jerusalem apartment and divide our time between Australia and Israel. We soon concluded that this arrangement was utterly destabilizing, and sold our home in Australia and made aliya.
This move took place during the euphoric period when many of us were convinced that nothing could undo the “irreversible peace process”. But shortly after settling in Jerusalem we found ourselves at the center of the second intifada. This was a radical culture shock and nerve-racking experience with suicide bombings a frequent occurrence, often in close proximity to our home. But we consoled ourselves that we had made the right decision as we visualized life in Australia relying on long-distance telephone calls to maintain contact with our children every time an incident occurred.
Like all olim we endure the frustrations: bureaucracy continues to irritate me; Israeli drivers are amongst the worst and most stressed in the world; and I still desperately miss Sunday as a day of leisure complementing Shabbat.
I also soon realized that referring to Israelis and Diaspora Jews as one people was somewhat simplistic. There are strong ties between Diaspora Jewry and Israel and yes, Jewish identity is primarily based on Israel, but our lifestyles are totally different.
For other than the most committed Jews, being Jewish in the Diaspora is somewhat incidental. Israeli Jews, including those devoid of traditional values, live in a pulsating Jewish state in which the Hebrew language, culture and the national holidays create a unique Jewish lifestyle, which Diaspora Jews can never experience.
It is impossible to ever become bored in Israel. Travelling on a bus or a train one rarely sees an Israeli instinctively turn to the back of the newspaper to see the most recent sports results before catching up on the latest news. The reality is that Israelis confronted with the burning issues facing us cannot appreciate the relaxed environment of life in the Diaspora.
Additionally, whilst 18-20 year old Jewish students in the Diaspora are enjoying the best years of their lives in universities, their Israeli counterparts are serving in the IDF, many facing life threatening experiences. No Diaspora Jew can appreciate the tension borne by Israeli parents and families when their sons serve in combat units.
Thus, when meeting friends with whom we had grown up, we frequently discover that we no longer share the same world outlook and that our priorities in life have irrevocably changed.
Whilst not anticipating imminent mass aliya from Western countries, the exponential growth of anti-Semitism in Europe will undoubtedly encourage more aliya from those who do not wish to see their children live in societies that treat them as pariahs. Undoubtedly, many will settle here and an ever growing proportion of world Jewry will be domiciled in Israel.
However, despite assimilation and anti-Semitism, large numbers of Jews will always remain in the Diaspora, especially in strong Jewish communities of North America. We must respect them and encourage them to strengthen their Jewish identity.
Diaspora Jews remain our most important ally and have frequently made major contributions towards strengthening our relationships with their host governments. We Israelis can glean enormous benefit by tapping into the rich range of intellectual, cultural, economic and political talent they represent. Indeed, some of them have proven more adept in promoting our case to the world than our own representatives.
My advice to committed Jews residing in more enlightened countries like the US, Canada and Australia who are seriously contemplating aliya – if you can afford to make the move, it is worth the effort because nothing can remotely match the fulfillment of Jewish life experienced by living in Israel. And in a Jewish state where children automatically receive a Jewish education, you are far more likely to maintain Jewish continuity than in the Diaspora where there is no immunity to the ravages of assimilation and intermarriage.
When my wife and I review our aliya, we say with considerable pride and satisfaction that we have never, even momentarily, regretted our decision – notwithstanding the trials and tribulations we endured like all Israelis, and despite the unanticipated threats that challenge us today. In fact, as we look back, our sole regret is that we failed to come much earlier.
The writer may be contacted at [email protected]
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom