Why Now? What Making Aliyah Means in 2019

A little over a year ago I started telling people that I was planning on moving to Israel. Without fail, their first question was, “why?”

It’s a fair question. Practically speaking, the United States would be a better place to build a life. It offers more economic opportunity, social mobility, and a lifetime of friendships, not to mention the freedom from sirens and rockets overhead. In the States, I understand how to find work, how to pay taxes, how to date (sort of), and how to read and write and speak with ease. The US is familiar. Israel, in many ways, is still unknown.

My initial answer is true, albeit a bit clichéd. “Israel is my home,” I say with confidence. It is the place I was born—the place where, despite all those challenges, I feel a sense of belonging, of community, of family.

For most, this answer suffices and the conversation carries on to other topics. On rare occasions, someone will ask me a second question, one that I feel is more relevant than ever.

“Why now?”

I could answer this question on a superficial level by saying something about the importance of social integration to my chance of success in a country notorious for its prickly people and unforgiving bureaucracy. While true, my answer fails to get to the heart of the question, which I believe is actually two. The first—is it safe to be a Jew in America in 2019? The second—if so, why would anyone leave?

In November, I wrote about my grandparents’ journey out of Morocco. Now, as then, I believe there was an ideological component to their move. For many, hearing that Jews were building a state in their ancestral homeland made the dream of returning home from exile a little more tangible and filled them, little by little, with a hope that they too might one day return. Still, when Jews of the Middle East finally left for Israel, they did so largely as refugees.

Like all refugees, my Sabba and Safta were fleeing growing insecurity in their country of birth. This persecution prompted them to leave their microscopic Moroccan village in 1950, nearly 20 years before the end of the Arab world’s mass Jewish exodus which, all told, resulted in the displacement of nearly 850,000 souls. Jewish history is, in many ways the story of refugees fleeing from persecution to persecution. Rome. Spain. France. Great Britain. Germany. Iraq. Tunisia. Iran. Russia. Poland—to name a few.

Today, in the U.S., there is a sense that this insecurity is again creeping into the mainstream and hatred of Jews is again becoming normalized, if it ever wasn’t. In the past year alone, we’ve faced attacks in our houses of worship and on the streets of major American cities. Our graves and our schools have been desecrated by symbols of hate meant to intimidate us into feeling like outsiders. Antisemitic canards have been employed by prominent members of both major American political parties while simultaneously taking up the mantle of defender of the Jewish people to score cheap political points. It may be incorrect to say that the familiar sense of insecurity is creeping. Rather, it seems to have arrived with the fanfare and splendor of a great ruler returning to his kingdom, forcing us to confront our deepest paranoia—perhaps our safety is not guaranteed.

Then again, maybe it’s not about safety at all.

I know dozens of Jews who have never considered leaving the States. Perhaps it’s fueled by naiveté, but in spite of these hardships, they have never experienced the fear to which I am referring or expressed any serious concern for their own personal safety as a direct result of their Jewish identity. Their belief is that the U.S. will continue to be a safe place to be Jewish for the foreseeable future, a result of their lived experience in a time of unparalleled American comfort.

Who is right? The paranoid or the naive? As always, the answer is somewhere in the murky gray area between the two extremes.

It is correct to say that Jews need always to be vigilante. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has articulated, antisemitism is a virus which can mutate and spread at a rapid pace, and it is our responsibility to remain watchful, not only for our own safety, but for the safety of all marginalized groups. Where antisemitism goes, all other forms of hate will surely follow. On the other hand it is true that the US has afforded Jews unparalleled opportunity and prosperity. Healthy skepticism of our institutions and leaders, matched with our responsibility to improve the world can ensure that the US remains a safe place to be a Jew.

This now begs the question, if the US can be a safe haven for Jews, why would anyone leave? The answer, in fact, lies in the very security and prosperity we’ve experienced in the States.

I often wonder if my grandparents’ feelings about Israel changed at all because they came in search of refuge. Was the spirit of early Zionists conferred to them? Did they feel as though they were liberating themselves and taking their destiny into their own hands or was their liberation a consequence of the absence of choice?

As Jews living in America in the 21st century, we have a privilege that virtually no prior generation has had—that is total agency. With that agency comes the power to choose for ourselves and for future generations, to never be refugees again. I have a chance to take advantage of a unique and non-guaranteed opportunity as a Jew to go to Israel out of an immense love for my home and not, like my grandparents, in search of refuge.

When I’m asked why I’m moving to Israel or why I’m moving now, the answer is simple. I am among the first people in generations who has the opportunity to choose. How then could I choose anything else?

Fear, love and the Jewish refugee

Nov. 30 is a day meant to commemorate the story of the approximately 850,000 Jews who were forced to flee anti-Jewish persecution across the Arab world in the 20th century. Every year on this day, I have an opportunity to reflect on my own family’s story of exodus, and every year I find it gives me new insights into the story of Israel and the Jewish people.

This month, I had a conversation with a member of the Jewish “anti-occupation” camp. In the course of our discussion, my co-conversationalist said that he prefers not to base his understanding of the world in fear.

This quip took me by surprise, but it seemed to provide the basis for many of his political positions. To provide some context, we were discussing the Israeli security fence—each looking for the inconsistencies in the other’s argument. He attempted to connect my support for Israel’s barrier with U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. I protested, citing the reduction in the number of attacks from the West Bank since the barrier was constructed. He yielded saying, “I can’t argue with that.”

I might have smirked, satisfied that I had bested my opponent with an argument grounded in fact. Then he said it. “I just prefer not to base my understanding of the world in fear.” While the conversation itself focused on the issue of border security, I sensed that he meant also to suggest that Israel’s creation may have been a product of fear.

Having reached an impasse, the conversation ended, but that sentence lingered in my ears and began to replace my self-satisfaction with self-doubt. I began to wrestle with a question: Is my support for Israel borne out of fear?

To answer that, I looked to my grandparents—refugees whose stories have always served as a source of inspiration for my own exploration of Israel and Judaism.

My grandparents, Savta Chana and Sabba Moshe, were born in Tinghir, Morocco, some time in the early 1930s. No one is quite sure of the date because there is no record of their birth, so we celebrate their birthdays on Dec. 31, certain that the actual date must have occurred sometime in the last year. Tinghir itself is a small village at the base of the High Atlas Mountains comprised largely of the Amazigh people, more commonly known as Berber.

In the early 20th century, Morocco was seen as a relatively safe place to be Jewish, thanks in large part to King Mohammad V, who famously responded to the Vichy government’s demand to list all of the countries Jews by saying, “We have no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccan citizens.”

The “mellah” in Tinghir, Morocco.

However, Jews lived as second-class citizens, or dhimmi in Morocco, subject to taxes and other restrictions on their daily lives. In the two decades that followed the creation of the State of Israel, Morocco, along with the rest of the Arab world was virtually emptied of its Jewish citizens.

My own family suffered the consequences of being Jewish in the Arab world both before and after the creation of Israel. I heard stories growing up of occasional riots targeting the Jewish mellah, a walled Jewish quarter akin to a European ghetto. The men of the family would, after hiding their wives and children indoors for protection, be forced to stand outside and fight for their lives. In one such instance, sometime before Israel’s creation, my great-grandfather was lynched by an angry mob, leaving my grandfather, a boy of 4 or 5 years old without a father.

Yet based on conversations I’ve had with my family, I am certain it was not fear that drove our flight from Morocco, but rather a radical love for and devotion to the Land of Israel, instilled in them generation after generation for thousands of years until finally, they returned home. To be sure, thousands of the Middle East’s Jewish refugees were forced to leave their homes behind—motivated by threats to their personal safety—but in searching for a new home, most chose Israel because of this love and devotion.

It seems, in our time, there is great reason for a Jewish person to be fearful. A mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgha neo-Nazi marches in Charlottesville and a Labour Party leader in the United Kingdom whose public words and actions have left 40 percent of the country’s Jews considering emigration.

Even in Israel, citizens must endure threats from hostile Iranian tyrants with the proxies in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip armed well enough to back up their rhetoric. Israel is a young country whose citizens have endured the pain of loss since its creation. The scars of war and intifadas, kidnappings, stabbings and car-rammings are etched deep in every Israeli’s psyche. The further back in our history you look, the more you realize that this has historically been the price Jews have paid for their membership in this ethno-religious group.

It is in this context that I often wonder what possessed my family to remain Jewish through the years. In hostile lands, facing threats to their lives and more commonly the burden of their faith, it would have been easier to turn their eyes away from Zion. It is because they did not succumb to this fear that I can answer confidently that Israel is not a trepidatious project of self-ghettoization, as the person with whom I spoke may have suggested.

It is instead an expression of an enduring love that has survived a millennium built by Jewish refugees from across the world.