Making aliyah: Should I stay or should I go?

"The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles," declares the country's Declaration of Independence.
Friends and relatives dance with newly arrived Jewish immigrants coming from France upon their arrival at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on July 20, 2016. More than 200 French Jews were expected to immigrate to Israel aboard this aliyah (Immigration to Israel) flight, the largest of the summer from France. / AFP / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

What is making aliyah? Simply, it means a Jewish person in the Diaspora moving to Israel, but for many people it’s way more complicated than that.

“The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles,” declares the country’s Declaration of Independence. This means all individuals of Jewish descent (and converts) are entitled to immigrate to Israel (certain eligibility standards do apply).

The more complicated question about aliyah is should I do it?

Who is making aliyah today?

New Jewish emigrants from the Bnei Menashe (sons of Manasseh) community in India, hold Israeli flags as they cheer upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel-aviv. 250 emigrants of Bnei Menashe community, claimed to be one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel that settled in India, arrived 13 October 2021 in Israel as part of an operation by the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration (Immigrant Absorption). (Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images)

In 2020, during the height of the Coronavirus pandemic, Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog announced that approximately 250,000 people were expected to immigrate to Israel in the next 3-5 years. This prediction is corroborated by recent reports from Israel’s office of Aliyah and Integration, Nefesh B’Nefesh, and other organizations, which also identified a 50% increase in North American Jews’ interest to make the move to Israel. In fact, 4,000 U.S. immigrants moved to Israel in 2021, the highest figure since 1973. Israel’s real estate is seeing a similar trend, including a boom in interest from American Jews.

Making aliyah: Should I stay or should I go?

Buchenwald survivors arrive in Haifa to be arrested by the British, July 15, 1945. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This question is not new. From a religious perspective, it is a question that is as ancient as the Torah itself with Rambam (Maimonides) and Ramban (Nachmanides) duking this out a thousand years before Zionism turned into a political movement. From a modern political perspective, this big question drives three other questions as well:

  1. What does it mean to be a Zionist in the first place? 
  2. What is the goal of Zionism ultimately? 
  3. What should the relationship be between World Jewry and Israeli Jewry?

This is a debate between some less famous but formidable Zionist leaders. Rabbi Judah Leib Maimon, Israel’s minister of religion, took one side of the great debate, declaring in 1950 that “We must educate the Jewish youth abroad for many years, until it understands that the Land of Israel is the only place for the Jewish people.” Rose Halprin, national president of Hadassah, scoffed at this idea, saying, “The conception that no one can be considered a Zionist who does not come to Eretz Yisrael is false.”

In the same year, Jacob Blaustein, head of the American Jewish Committee, blasted David Ben Gurion, saying, “I would be less than frank if I did not point out to you that American Jews vigorously repudiate any suggestion or implication that they are in exile.”

And now, organizations like Z3, led by Amitai Fraiman, are bringing forth the idea that Zionism 1.0 was about questing for the Jewish homeland, Zionism 2.0 was about building the Jewish home, and Zionism 3.0 is asking what it means for there to be a vibrant Israeli Jewry and a vibrant World Jewry. These ideas are not new. Hebraist Simon Rawidowicz advocated for a deep relationship between both communities, providing the metaphor of “an ellipse with two foci, the Land of Israel and the Diaspora of Israel,” i.e., a modern day Jerusalem and Babylon. 

Why Does This Matter?

Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant, by Benjamin West, Benjamin West, 1800.

Before we talk about aliyah from a modern perspective, is there a normative Jewish view on where Jews should live? The Zionist ideal of the Jews returning to their ancient homeland has roots in the Biblical idea of kibbutz galuyot (the ingathering of the exiles). This term refers to the promise made by Moses to the people of Israel, before they are about to enter the Land of Israel, in Deuteronomy 30:1-5. Crucially, Moses states: “Even if your exiles are at the end of the heavens, the Lord, your God, will gather you from there, and…bring you to the land that your forefathers possessed.” The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, each echo this promise of the “gathering” of the dispersed Jews, and their eventual return home.

While rabbinic authorities tend to agree that it is a mitzvah to live in the Land of Israel, much ink has been spilled over whether this is a Biblical, or a rabbinic, commandment and whether it is a mitzvah kiyumi (commendable, but non-obligatory) or a mitzvah chiyuvi (obligatory commandment). The classic debate on the issue is between Rambam and Ramban. Rambam notably omits “living in Israel” from his list of the 613 Biblical commandments contained in his “Sefer haMitzvot” (“Book of Commandments”). Does this suggest that Rambam did not count this as a Biblical commandment? Subsequent authorities have speculated that living in Israel did not make Rambam’s list, because he believed that this particular commandment was not given to all generations; rather, it was meant to apply to those living before the exiles, and in the future Messianic era.

This theory is based on Rambam’s own statement that he only included commandments that were binding for all generations. When Ramban reviewed Rambam’s list of commandments, however, he concluded that Rambam had “missed” the mitzvah of living in Israel. Ramban argued that this is, in fact, a Biblical commandment, based on Numbers 33:53: “And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess.” So, the jury is out, but we do know that these two giants certainly thought it was more than just a “good” thing. 

What is the Law of Return?

New immigrants arrive in Israel from Ethiopia on December 3, 2020 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Israel’s Law of Return, passed in 1950, states that, “every Jew has a right to come to this country as an oleh (immigrant).” Under this foundational law, Jews are entitled to automatically receive citizenship if they emigrate to Israel, except if they pose a threat to the public order.

Israeli citizenship includes the right to vote and to be elected to office. The basic principle of the Law of Return was stated, two years earlier, in Israel’s Declaration of Independence: “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the exiles (kibbutz galuyot).”

Yemenite Jews on their way to Israel during Operation Magic Carpet which saw the country’s entire community of ~49,000 people evacuated to Israel. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The question of who should qualify as a “Jew” under the Law of Return was intensely debated in the Israeli government for many years. To be eligible under the Law of Return, should a “Jew” be defined based on whether a person is born to a Jewish mother, or should this status apply to anyone who identifies with the Jewish people? The Israeli government reached a compromise between these two positions in 1970, when it amended the Law of Return to apply to anyone who has a Jewish parent or grandparent. This is the criteria that is still in effect today. To learn more about this foundational law, watch our video and explore these additional resources.

Aliyah: A source of tension between Israeli and Diaspora Jews

The new government of Israel in the late 1940s launched a unification campaign after a wave of immigration following World War Two.

Ever since Talmudic times (and perhaps before), the relationship between Israeli and Diaspora Jews has been complex.

Indeed, the Talmud suggests that there was significant competition between the two major centers of Bavel and the Land of Israel, over Torah scholarship, work ethic, and personal character. A similar friction between Israeli and Diaspora Jews can persist in our own day. For example, at a recent, Israel-sponsored International Bible Quiz for Jewish youth, the Israeli host, Dr. Avshalom Kor, described Jews living outside of Israel as living in “exile.” This prompted backlash from American Jewish leaders. A tweet published by Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, following the tragic stabbing at a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey, New York, had a similar effect on many American Jews.

Writing in Hebrew, Liberman tweeted: “Alongside the deep sadness and wishes for a speedy recovery to the injured, it’s important to know that the main solution to these trends is immigration to Israel.”

Liberman’s suggestion did not sit well with many Jewish New Yorkers, including Monsey residents. The tension between the communities is not one-directional, but cuts both ways. For their part, Israeli Jews sometimes take issue with Diaspora Jews for having strong opinions about Israeli policy, without knowing the reality of life in Israel or making the sacrifices that Israelis do.

One Israeli put it this way: “Israelis fight for this country, pay taxes in this country, and vote. Americans don’t. And as long as that’s true, Americans shouldn’t have an automatic say in how Israel runs things.”

Why do Jews move to Israel?

New Jewish immigrants making Aliyah (Immigration to Israel) from France walk down the airplane upon their arrival at the Ben Gurion International airport, 25 July 2007. At least 600 new French Jewish immigrants were expected to arrive to Israel assisted by the Jewish Agency for Israel, a record number of olim (immigrants) from France this year since 1972. (Photo: JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

There are lots of different reasons why Jews make aliyah. Some, like Daniel Gordis, are motivated by the ideological dream of being connected with one’s ancestors and history: “Those of us who chose to be here chose to join that never-ending story.”

Others, like 33-year-old Marta Mosez, make aliyah due to the greater sense of belonging they experience in Israel: “Here I feel like an insider,” she explained. “In America, I was the outsider, even though I lived in a very Jewish community…I’m my best, happiest, most thriving self here.”

In interviews published by The Forward, American Jews applying to move to Israel in the wake of the pandemic, attributed their decisions to a variety of factors. Avromy, a 29-year-old physical therapist from New Jersey, decided to make aliyah after being furloughed from his job, and no longer having financial incentives to remain in America.

Michal Geiger, who is also from New Jersey, said that her decision was partially a response to recent antisemitism that she and her family have experienced. Rabbi Moshe Davis and his wife, Ariela, said that while leaving their community in South Carolina will be hard, reflection they did during the pandemic made them realize that Israel is where they want to live.

At the same time that some Diaspora Jews are seriously reconsidering their relationship with Israel and aliyah, Israeli Jews are engaged in a parallel discussion about Israel’s role with respect to Diaspora Jewry. Should Israel’s objective be to persuade Diaspora Jews to relocate to the Jewish state, or, should Israel instead accept Diaspora life, and commit to supporting Jewish communities outside of the Jewish state? While this question continues to be a source of debate, the Israeli government has shifted its tone in recent years, in favor of investing in Diaspora communities.

In 2015, soon to be Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett explained this evolution in Israeli government policy: “In the past, senior ministers objected to a budgetary investment in [the] Jewish Diaspora that was not related to aliyah, but today, it is understood that…resources and budgets must be earmarked for this,” he said.

Strengthening the bond between Diaspora and Israeli Jews, and enhancing mutual understanding, has been a key priority for former Israeli politician and human rights activist Natan Sharansky. During his tenure as the head of the Jewish Agency, he oversaw a program that sent young Israelis to American college campuses; upon their return to Israel, participants would teach other Israelis about what it means to be a Jew in the United States.