Israelis - within and without

By Michal Kohane, Director of the Israel Center

Two ads, issued a few months ago by Israel’s Ministry of Absorption and aiming at Israelis living abroad, have stirred public opinion in the Jewish world globally. Here is the first: The second portrayed grandpa and grandma talking on Skype with their granddaughter. There is a menorah behind them but when they ask the girl what holiday is coming, she says excitedly, Christmas! The caption reads: they will always be Israelis; their grandchildren might not. The latter link has been removed.

Few, if any, found these ads useful. There are no reports of massive returnees following their airing. Many, however, found them offensive and confusing. While initially wanting to pull at the heartstrings, they hit below the belt. I for one see anything to do with Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and am immediately choked up, but do these ads make me want to pack my bags? Should they?

The debate -- whether authentic, meaningful Jewish life is possible outside of Israel -- isn’t new. Abraham was told to go to the Land where he will become a blessing unto the nations; his grandson, Jacob left with his children to Egypt when there as a famine, and there became a big nation. Ever since, leaving Israel is considered "yerida" (going down) while going to Israel is considered "aliya" (going up), even if one migrates from the Dead Sea to the Himalayas or from Mount Shasta to the Valley of Jezreel.  It’s a spiritual concept, not a geographical one. Just like receiving an “aliya” when one goes “up” to the Torah, going to Israel is always considered “up.”

This conversation continued throughout the centuries: During the Talmudic era there were two centers: Babylon had significant wealth and knowledge;  and Jerusalem? Well, it was after all Jerusalem, no matter the destruction and desolation, and despite the fact that the Jewish center even in the Land of Israel itself has moved to the Galilee. Babylon succeeded in proving that one can have a rich Jewish life outside the Land and that Jewish continuity isn't dependent on the location. On the contrary: life in Israel, then and now, hasn’t always been “safe”. And yet, that "proof" didn’t diminish one iota from Jerusalem’s crown and Israel’s centrality in the life of the Jewish people.

In later years, Poland in Hebrew was named "Polanya," possibly an amalgam of three Hebrew words: po (here) lan (dwells) ya (G-d); Vilna was called the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” and Rabbis Yehuda Halevi of 11th century Spain wrote in his poem: “my heart is in the East, and I am at the end of the West,” long before he knew how far west we would go.

Jews have lived in the Diaspora for centuries. Had the claim that ‘one cannot live an authentic Jewish life outside of Israel’ been true, we wouldn’t be having this conversation now, simply because we wouldn’t have made it through two millennia. Viewed this way, no wonder the ads can be offensive. They use a scare tactic rather than showing how great it is to live in Israel, and why one should live there. But what’s even worse is that they take the gap between two segments within the Jewish people and magnify it; instead of using our joint challenges to reach out, educate and engage, it perpetuates the “no one will ever understand us anyway” syndrome of one side to push its agenda.

I remember preparing for a Yom Hazikaron ceremony in Sacramento when one of the community members walked into my office. Naturally, as a “never understood” Israeli, especially on this issue, I started preaching to him about the importance of coming to the event. He said he will, then asked, “Will you also come to the cemetery, and honor my friends and me, the Jewish veterans on (the U.S.) Memorial Day?” I had to pause. It dawned on me that while I was so absorbed in my story, I neglected to notice other stories; and while it is quite possible that “no one understands Israelis on Yom Hazikaron,” it is also possible that there are a myriad of deep, meaningful values regarding being Jewish that Israelis can learn about, especially from the Jewish community abroad.

The Jewish people are a complex puzzle, where the sky isn’t more important than the blades of grass or the ships on the water. The best we can do is not negate who we are, but reach out, connect and engage with those around us in a respectful way to create the beautiful landscape we can be.

Categories: Israel, Videos


December 09, 2011


The Federation