Making Aliyah: To Stay or to Go?

(Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

What Happened?

Birthright trips may be canceled for the rest of the year, and Israel’s skies may remain mostly closed to tourists for the next few weeks, but in brighter news for the economy, Israel is anticipating an upsurge in new immigrants following the coronavirus crisis. Last week, Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tomano-Shata announced that approximately 90,000 new immigrants are expected to arrive in Israel from around the world over the next 18 months. This prediction is corroborated by recent reports from the Jewish Agency, Nefesh B’Nefesh, and other organizations, which identified a 50% increase in North American Jews’ interest to make aliyah. Israel’s real estate is seeing a similar trend, including a boom in interest from American Jews. Tomano-Shata also announced her intention to bring the remaining members of the Falash Mura community in Ethiopia to Israel; “this is an injustice that screams to the heavens,” she stated. Tomano-Shata, who assumed her ministerial position last month, is the first Ethiopian-born woman to serve as a member of the Israeli government.

Why Does This Matter?

Does Jewish law obligate Jews to live in Israel?

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?

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).” 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

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.”

Diversity of Perspectives

Why do Jews move to Israel? Lots of different reasons. 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, Israeli politician 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.