Living a true life outside Israel

By Jake Wallis Simons, June 26, 2014

It is an old cliché that Jews should have a packed suitcase by the door. But now, it seems, European Jewry has decided that the time has come to put the suitcase to good use. This week, Natan Sharansky announced that global aliyah has grown this year by an astonishing 55 per cent.

By the end of the year, more than 5,000 Jews from France alone are expected to move to Israel, a record-breaking one per cent of the entire French Jewish community. "Never in the history of the State of Israel has there been a Jewish community in the free world that has sent such a large proportion of its Jews to Israel," said Mr Sharansky.

Europe has a far more serious problem of anti-Semitism than Britain. The failure of the immigration system in a swathe of countries - from Sweden to France - has led to pockets of poor, angry, Muslim men who have failed to assimilate into their host countries. This is one of the principle drivers of the Jew-hatred that is reaching unprecedented post-war levels on the continent.

But for some Zionists, the only way to live an authentically Jewish life is in the land of Israel, whether you fear persecution or not. When I appeared at the Jerusalem Writers' Festival in May, the distinguished Israeli novelist AB Yeshoshua restated his position that living outside of Israel is "a very deep failure of the Jewish people".

In a public tirade directed at the American writer Nicole Krauss, he rejected all non-Israeli Jewish literature, from Saul Bellow to Philip Roth, as being "unimpressive" because it lacked a Zionist stance.

We may be dusting off our suitcases

Admirably, Ms Krauss kept her cool; Mr Yehoshua was being rather rude. But beneath the bluster, was he making a reasonable point?

Although it is hard to admit it, his argument will resonate with many in the Diaspora. Almost every British Jew reports being deeply moved by visits to Israel. The experience of no longer being part of a minority is life-changing and the sense of self-confidence and pride that comes from existing as a Jew in a Jewish state can be a powerful intoxicant.

Moreover, many feel that simply living in Israel automatically creates a deep sense of purpose. Making a life in the Jewish state is an expression of triumph over the dark history of Jewish persecution, which lends a certain vitality to life.

Of course, naïveté may be at work here. If it is the case that more Jews are moving to Israel than ever before, it must also be acknowledged that at the same time, large numbers of Israelis are moving abroad, including to places like Berlin.

There are strong rational defences against Mr Yehoshua's argument. For one thing, is it reasonable to suggest that Avi the Tel Aviv taxi driver is more Jewish than Moses Mendelssohn? Than Maimonodes? Than Baron de Rothschild (without whom Israel would be unlikely to exist at all)?

For another, he reduces the multiplicity of Jewishness to the binary opposition of Israeli verses non-Israeli. Mr Yehoshua himself is of Moroccan descent; does this count for nothing?

What about half-Jews living in Israel? Or anti-Zionists living on the West Bank? Or Israelis living in Germany?

Is it possible to measure Jewishness? I for one am equally proud of being Jewish and British.

But in the light of the latest figures, Mr Yehoshua's position looks increasingly sensible. Israel provides a refuge when life in the Diaspora becomes stalked by fear. And if levels of anti-Semitism in Britain go the way of France, we'll be dusting off our suitcases.

Last updated: 1:47pm, June 26 2014