Re-imagining Aliyah As The Jewish Immigrant Experience
Aliyah is often conceived of being a unique immigration experience. But it’s time for an attitude change. In fact, it’s rather typical. Even banal.
To the best of my knowledge, research into aliyah — and post-aliyah retention — is a field in its infancy.
Thankfully, that is fast changing.
The literature narrating olim’s experience in Israel — and asking hard questions about why many of them return to their countries of origin — is growing.
Former Ambassador to the US Michael Oren penned an articulate and insightful piece on The Times of Israel a few days ago. It’s well worth a read.
It laid bare some uncomfortable realities about life in Israel that seem starkly at odds with Zionism, the ideological tenant upon which the State of Israel is founded (indeed they are).
For one, as Oren explains, even within the vaunted halls of the Knesset there is a general apathy towards aliyah — sometimes even a hostility — that runs entirely contrary to the lip service Israeli politicians routinely pay it as an ideal.
To weathered long term olim , inured to the trials and tribulations of life in this quarrel-strewn part of the Middle East, this probably comes as no surprise. To those yet to step on the plane to Israel, however, this fact alone may strike as quite shocking. And rightly so. Because it is.
This shocking attitude on the part of our overpaid and largely unaccountable parliamentarians needs fixing.
Without it, it’s unlikely to expect the kind of concrete policy reforms that Oren argues urgently need enacting.
When there’s a will, there’s a way. And when nobody really cares about aliyah because it’s largely the concern of people without much influence in Israeli society, it’s hardly surprising that issues like these simply languish until we reach a breaking point of rage (see: 2019 Ethiopian protests against police violence).
When it comes to how we, olim, think about aliyah, however, I’d like to suggest that there’s also an attitude that we can adopt.
It’s to stop thinking of aliyah as a unique immigration phenomenon, a message which is heavily pushed by Nefesh b’Nefesh, the Jewish Agency, and just about everybody else who evangelizes the Jewish Diaspora with grand messages about the merits of coming “home” to Israel.
Rather, it’s time to start thinking aboYouTUbeut aliyah as simply today’s normative Jewish immigrant experience — much as perhaps showing up to Ellis Island from Poland was in the last century.
And when we start conceiving of aliyah through a frame of reference that more closely mirrors its grisly reality, we can do a better job at advancing our shared struggle for a better future in Israel.
Aliyah Is No Exception To The General Law Of Immigration
So I’d like to suggest that it’s high time that we stopped thinking about aliyah as the great exception to The General Law Of Immigration.
Because that’s what we currently largely do think.
We think that because we’re Jewish — and this is a Jewish country founded on Jewish values which we Diasporans and tsabrim share — that our experience as immigrants to Israel will, somehow, be different.
Consistently, generation after generation, we find that it isn’t.
Rather, we find that it’s just about as good — and as bad — as that of Jamaicans showing up as immigrants to New York.
Some of us stay. Some of us return to our countries of origin bearing horror stories about the squalid apartment we rented in Ramat Gan or Tel Aviv. Some of us thrive and manage to climb through the ranks of Israeli society (or at least its high tech world). And some of us don’t.
Many of us, however we end up, report instances of exploitation and discrimination along the way. In a country with stifling defamation laws, and a sizeable population of immigrants who believe that maligning anything about Israel is a religious sin, most of these go unchronicled, the stories exchanged only around informal water coolers.
And those very same crushed expectations are the root cause of huge amounts of heartache and bitterness among those who have found themselves used, abused, and thrown out on the garbage heap of Israeli society. That may not be the majority of olim. But they are a portion of them. And vocal.
No, the General Law isn’t a real thing, by the way. But if it were, it might go something like this:
- Immigrants the world over are generally taken advantage of by a malevolent minority of the population who look to exploit weaker segments of society for underpaid labor — or to rent them shoddy accommodation without properly informing them of their rights (or ripping out their toilets while they are at work, etc etc). This is a problem that plagues immigrants the world over and which has spurned some excellent literature over the years (I contend that many olim would find much that resonates in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London) . Which is also why most people don’t willingly subject themselves to this plight (this is the key point about which Israel and Zionism truly are exceptional and perhaps also what underlies this mental disconnect; largely, from Western countries, it’s a very voluntary migration pattern.)
- Immigrants the world over generally struggle to get the non-immigrant majority — or at least its political class — to adequately care about their issues. Because generally, as individuals and collectives, humans are selfish creatures who care about themselves and their problems. In a tribal society such as that which exists within modern Israel, this dynamic is magnified. Ben Gurion once remarked that “We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew.” He made an immensely important point. In one enormous respect — it’s the world’s only Jewish country — Israel in unique. In so many others, it’s banally mundane.
- Immigrants usually face concrete challenges to their absorption. In the case of Israel, these are usually both linguistic and cultural. As such, it’s quite normal for immigrant communities to exist within enclaves as they make the slow process of assimilating into the larger culture that surrounds them. Maligning so-called Anglo enclaves is therefore quite unreasonable, or at least the kind of double standard that those who peddle in hasbara often love to complain about. At a minimum, it’s quite understandable that they exist — much as London has entire neighborhoods that culturally and demographically resemble Ireland.
Aliyah May Achieve A Beautiful And Unique End. But It’s A Gritty, Typical Immigrant Experience Nonetheless.
So aliyah — like Israel in so many respects — is a paradox.
Both unique and commonplace all at the same time. Which — doubly paradoxically — almost makes it somewhat unique.
Compared to other major population movements, it’s a sui generis form of population movement.
Aliyah represents the homecoming of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland, a process of re-self-determination without many (if any) historical parallels. That’s why we, Jews, largely engage in it.
Olim largely move to Israel because they feel an ideological pull to do so; the weight of history, even. It’s a pull migration. Commonly, modern day olim commit to aliyah, and Israel, knowing that it will represent a substantial hit to their financial future and standing in society.
For those truly committed to the ideal, the satisfaction of playing a role in the migration usually mitigate against all the hardships encountered along the way. And so they go through with it anyway.
So while most olim can probably agree that the enterprise of aliyah is lofty and even sacred, that doesn’t mean — I contend — that we need to keep paining ourselves to prop up an image that depicts aliyah as some kind of Zionist fairytale.
Because it’s not. It’s a gritty and jagged immigrant experience — even the quintessential one — undertaken by a heterogeneous group of Diasporan Jews from Addis Ababa, Paris, London, New York, and everywhere in between, to a somewhat dysfunctional and young state in the Middle East.
We don’t speak the same language. We often don’t look the same. And yet we share many of the same challenges.
Rather, aliyah — while unique — is awfully common.
Filled, often, with dodgy employers who forget to make pension contributions (I’ve had that happen); landlords who rip out your toilets while you are paying rent (ditto); and other ugly manifestations of the gritty existence that typifies life as an immigrant the world over.
It’s the Jewish immigrant experience, no less.
Originally published at https://blogs.timesofisrael.com