Reside in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; I will assign all these lands to you and to your heirs, fulfilling the oath that I swore to your father Abraham.” (Gen. 26:2-3)Shalom,
Mere moments after Jacob and Esau parted company after the unfortunate incident of trickery and selling of his birthright, a famine comes to the land. And just like his grandfather Avraham, Jacob might have been tempted to flee Canaan for greener pastures and a more bountiful surplus. But God advises otherwise. Stay here, he is told. Do NOT go down to Egypt.
From the very beginning of the book of Genesis, the question of immigration vs. emigration was born. The image of the first Israeli immigrant Avraham was soon dashed by the fact that only 9 verses later he left the Land of Israel for Egypt due to famine and the need to find food. And we know the story of his grandson, Jacob who flirted with the idea in this week’s parsha, and 20 chapters later we know what happens:
I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” (46:4-5)
The stigma of the Yored, the one who commits “ירידה /Yerida”, “descent” -literally emigration by Israeli Jews from the State of Israel. Yerida is the opposite of Aliyah (עליה, lit. “ascent”), or immigration to Israel. There has been a long-standing general critical approach to the act of yerida and the term carries a derogatory impression.
While there is a lengthy halakhic discussion on the issue of leaving Israel, there was clearly an early highly charged stigma in Israel’s early years.
In a 1976 interview, Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin identified the Israeli emigrants as נפולת של נמושות or “Dropout Weaklings,” consistent with the pervasive Zionist view of שלילת הגולה or Negation of the Diaspora.
The stigma was so strong that from 1948 until 1961 Israeli citizens required an exit visa as well as a passport to travel overseas even temporarily. Initially, the intention was to prevent the departure of Jews who ought to be fighting, but also due to a perception that those leaving harmed national solidarity. Later the restrictions were eased somewhat but still many administrative hurdles were put in front of those wishing to leave. To prevent the outflow of foreign currency, tickets could only be purchased with money sent from abroad. The general need for an exit visa was finally abolished in 1961 after several court cases and Knesset decisions, and today more Israelis travel abroad than ever before.
According to Prof. Eliezer Schweid, who has written extensively on the issue, since about 1970, the idea of the negation of the Diaspora was removed from the basic premises guiding national education in Israel. One reason for this was the need of the State of Israel to “reconcile” itself with Jews in the Diaspora, which still is a much-discussed topic between the two largest Jewish communities in the world.
Despite a softening of the general public toward emigration, and a rising number of Israelis living abroad, the anti-Diaspora position is present within the Israeli literati to this day, with author A. B. Yehoshua being considered chief of this sentimental strain. Yehoshua has often been cited as critical of Diaspora Judaism as being inauthentic and rootless in comparison to Israeli Judaism, and the Judaism-tinged Diaspora existence as being stifling to the identity and conviviality of secular Jewish culture.
While Precise data are hard to come by, it is even harder to clearly define clearly an Israeli. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics estimates that between the state’s founding in 1948 and 2015, about 720,000 Israelis emigrated and never returned to live in Israel. In 2017, it estimated that between 557,000 and 593,000 Israelis, not including children born to Israeli emigrants, were living abroad. According to demographer Sergio DellaPergola, some 700,000 Israelis have abandoned the Promised Land since its creation. However, those who reside in communities like New York/New Jersey, Los Angeles, Miami, or the Bay area, might feel like there are many more Israelis living in these cities, some connected and some not.
In 2007 a special program by the Immigrant Absorption Minister of Israel was announced, intended to encourage Israeli emigrants to return to Israel. It was further decided that by 2008 the Ministry would invest 19 million shekels to establish lucrative absorption plans for the returning emigrants. By 2011 the ministry put out what many would consider to be offensive commercial ads using assimilation scare tactics to warn Israelis of the danger of remaining abroad.
But the trends continued and in 2014 a Facebook group launched called Olim Le-Berlin, “Let’s ascend to Berlin”, using the same rousing verb Jews reserve for emigrating, or “ascending”, to Israel, documenting the noticeable trend of Israelis flocking to the German capital (of all places).
Referencing the book of Genesis and the story of Jacob the Israeli band Shmemel composed a song called “Berlin” showing expatriate Israelis in the various places around the world where they have chosen to emigrate. “Even our forefather, Jacob, went down to Egypt to earn double the salary and pay a third of the rent,” sing the hip-hoppers.
It used to be that one would meet an Israeli living in North America who came for 1 year 30 years ago, but now, more and more Israelis are recognizing the fact that they are here to stay and have even become organizing. One example is the Israeli American Council who’s mission is “to build an engaged and united Israeli-American community that strengthens the Israeli and Jewish identity of our next generation, the American Jewish community, and the bond between the peoples of the United States and the State of Israel.”
Initially funded by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, the IAC recognizes that “many [Israelis in America] didn’t plan to stay, most remain deeply connected to Israel as they become proud Americans,” and claims to be 10% of the American-Jewish community running robust programming and conferences that bring classic Israeli bands, high-level sessions on a variety of topics, and even a speech by President Trump(!)
As a Reform Movement, we should see it is our mission to welcome and even accommodate the Israelis in our communities. Many of our congregations hire local Israelis to teach Hebrew and religious school, and our camps greatly benefit from Israeli shlichim who often (in their own words) ‘come as Israelis and return as Jews.’
In addition to the critical efforts to be welcoming of intermarried families, Jews of Color, LGBTQ Jews, and those with disabilities, we are missing a huge potential to reach out to Israelis and include them in our communities.
While some still are coming to terms with the notion that Jewish identity costs money, there is also a realization that it isn’t automatic outside of Israel and are seeking…something. We, as a movement are keenly positioned to re-think how we do Hebrew school, B’nei Mitzvah training, and even Kabbalat Shabbat to welcome Israelis and help foster a strong Jewish and liberally religious identity. What would it look like if we offered programming in Hebrew in areas rich with Israeli ex-pats, and brought in more Israeli based programming? A few of our congregations have been doing this successfully, and as we see a growing trend now of second and third-generation Israelis in North America, there is a tremendous potential to keep them connected to the Jewish community.
We know that in the end, Jacob does go down to Egypt, only to be enslaved and not to return to the Promised Land for four centuries. As the children of the modern State of Israel flock to the bright lights and bustle of our communities, let us include them in the vibrant life and strong community that we have developed, and to show that Jewish life that is not dependent on the Government for sustenance does have what to offer. In the end, this will strengthen our Movement abroad, and in Israel.