Candidly Speaking: On aliya, Independence Day (JERUSALEM POST OP-ED) By ISI LEIBLER 04/25/12)
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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 Passover, 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 members perished during the Shoah. I grew
up in a religious Zionist household within a thriving, committed
Jewish community which was enriched by refugees and survivors from
the Shoah 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 20s, 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 being 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 among the worst and most stressed in
the world; and I still desperately miss Sunday as a day of leisure
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, while 18- to 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
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.
While 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 toward 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 at
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. (© 1995-2011, The Jerusalem Post
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