By Marcus Dysch
March 18, 2010
There is plenty of talk at the moment about the future of Britain’s Jewish community.
Friday night dinner tables are buzzing with debate on why the community’s younger members are leaving in such numbers [aliyah rates were last year at their highest for 25 years].
People keep asking me how British Jews will survive if robbed of a generation of community leaders.
Non-Jews question why youngsters with fantastic degrees and privileges their grandparents could have only ever dreamed of are leaving for a potentially turbulent, troubled new life in Israel.
I have few concrete answers. There are, of course, many reasons why someone chooses to make aliyah. Each is a personal decision based on the realities of that person’s life.
A friend of mine is making aliyah this Sunday and as part of the moving process has written this piece explaining his decisions to leave Britain behind for Israel.
I think it is an interesting insight into why young British Jews are leaving the country.
Why I am making Aliyah
To the Israel neophyte and the disillusioned Israeli sabra alike, my decision to make Aliyah comes across as nothing short of incomprehensible. Put simply, I have an amazing family, many wonderful friends, and until recently, had a fantastic job. If that wasn’t enough, I live in London, one of the world’s most dynamic, vibrant, and multi-cultural cities.
Indeed I am immensely proud and grateful to have been born in England. Whether it’s watching football on a freezing cold winter night, singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at Twickenham in the spring, or drinking Pimm’s while wandering between the perfectly manicured Wimbledon courts come summer, I am quintessentially English.
From Countdown to Monty Python, from Panorama to Top Gear, and from University Challenge to Match of the Day, there is an endless list of Anglo-isms that I am loathe to leave behind. England has given me a healthy dosage of self-deprecating humour, a love in – equal measure – for afternoon tea, curry, and fish ‘n chips, and a delightful cynicism – tinged with appreciation – for life’s inevitable ironies, mishaps, and twists-of- fate.
What then, could I possibly offer by way of explanation for wanting to leave all this behind? Certainly, to explain why I would ever leave the UK is a challenge in itself, let alone to explain why I would ever move to Israel. For many, Israel is a country that is almost always at war, a country that is divided between seemingly irreconcilable political and religious factions, a country that is losing its way and in so doing, losing the hearts and minds of its people. In this light, the question becomes even more pointed: why on earth do I want to make aliyah?
For me, the answer is simple. I am making Aliyah so that I can live as part of a Jewish majority in the Jewish state. To paraphrase Yair Lapid, for me, Aliyah is living in a place where Hebrew is not only the language used to thank the Creator, but it’s also the language used to swear at lunatic drivers.
It’s where the Bible not only offers religious guidance and covers national history, but also overlaps with today’s geography. King Saul went in search of mules on what is today Highway 443, Jonah the Prophet boarded his ship not too far from what is today a restaurant in Jaffa, and by now the balcony where King David peeped on Bathsheba must have been bought by some oligarch, converted into a luxury apartment, and sold to Abe and Ruth Greenberg of Palm County, Florida.
As a deeply secular Jew raised in a passionately Zionist home, Israel is where I can take for granted that the working week starts on a Sunday and ends on Thursday, it’s where I won’t use up precious vacation days from work because the Jewish holidays are the national holidays, and it’s where my particular brand of secular Judaism can be twisted and turned into a profoundly enriching and fulfilling lifestyle, a lifestyle encapsulated by Tel Aviv.
It might be a stretch to say, but in Israel, merely by waking up each day, going to work, and paying the taxes, I will be fulfilling the dream of Jews who lived and died long before me, the dream that the Jewish people would return to their ancestral homeland.
Of course, there are less ideological factors influencing my decision to make Aliyah. I attended a Jewish primary school, belonged to a Zionist youth movement throughout secondary school, spent a gap year in Israel, became president of the Jewish society as a Cambridge undergraduate, worked in pro-Israel political communications for a year after, and then completed a master’s degree at LSE in which the subject of my dissertation was… yep, you guess it, Israel. If this isn’t a life bio for Aliyah, then I’m not sure what is. As I’ve said to my parents: “How can you be surprised, you’ve only got yourselves to blame.”
Of course, in no way do I anticipate an easy transition. I’ve heard the horror stories of bank/municipal/telephone workers driving new immigrants to despair. And it’s sad yet probably realistic to say, but when it comes to being made to feel welcome by the Israeli public at large, I’ve set low expectations.
Thus without close family in Israel to help me navigate the inevitable difficulties that lie ahead, I am incredibly fortunate to have a network of friends in Israel, not only fellow British olim in whose footsteps I am following, but also native-born Israelis. With their help my post-Aliyah plans are to move to Tel Aviv, rent an apartment with Israelis my own age, and volunteer at a non-profit organisation called Omanoot set up by a friend of mine. Then, once I’ve found my feet and established a routine, I’m determined to find employment in the political-diplomatic field.
As for the challenges Israel faces – the conflict with the Palestinians, the relationship between synagogue and state, the divide between rich and poor, and the question of how to integrate Israel’s non-Jewish population, as well as create a joint identity for people from over seventy different countries – I believe that Israel has the capacity to rise to these challenges and overcome them.
Israel has the capacity to make peace with her Palestinian neighbours, the capacity to overcome divisions between religious and secular, the capacity to bridge the divide between the rich and poor, and the capacity to recapture the imagination of the Israeli people, both Jewish and non Jewish, with a national identity that speaks to all.
My confidence in Israel may seem misplaced. But let us not forget that for two millennia Jewish people held onto the hope – the hope that was put into action over a century ago by a secular Austrian Jew wandering the streets of Paris – to create a modern liberal democratic state for the Jewish people.
And look at what was achieved.
From the early chalutzim planting their pitchforks into the marshes of what would become Kibbutz Degania, to the iconic image of three battle-weary paratroopers liberating the Western Wall in 1967, to the innovation of Israeli companies today in the fields of agriculture, medicine and technology, a democracy was established in a region of dictators, a state was developed where the Jewish language, culture and religion could flourish.
Remember, a country was born in 1948, and in little over sixty years is now a place where the quality of life for six million Jews and one million Arabs supersedes that of 1.3 billion Chinese, one billion Indians, the whole African continent, and the entire Arab world, with the exception of the Sultan of Brunei.
David Grossman once said: “I am totally secular, and yet in my eyes the establishment and the very existence of the State of Israel is a miracle of sorts that happened to us as a nation – a political, national, human miracle. I do not forget this for a single moment.
Even when many things in the reality of our lives enrage and depress me, even when the miracle is broken down to routine and wretchedness, to corruption and cynicism, even when reality seems like nothing but a poor parody of this miracle, I always remember.”
These words embody the essence of my decision for when all is said and done, I would rather be with my people in the thick of things, than clapping or shouting from the sidelines, rather be a part of the raging debate over my people’s future, than to be 2,000 miles away commenting on it.
I leave on March 21st and cannot wait for this new chapter in my life to begin.