Time to rediscover the land where dreams are fulfilled
They wept on arrival, tears of joy, and sang the Hatikvah. After the plane landed on Israeli soil, there were emotional reunions for relatives long separated. The 53 men, women and children spoke of returning from exile, of a dream being fulfilled. "We've been waiting for this moment for hundreds of years," said one man.
These were scenes straight out of the early years of Israel, when Jews from around the world made their way to the promised land; Eastern Europeans who had barely survived the Holocaust, refugees from Arab lands, Yemenis airlifted to freedom on Operation Magic Carpet. And later, in the 1980s and 1990s, the same scenes; this time Amharic-speaking Ethiopian Jews, filling an emptied-out 747 plane, babies born en route.
Last month, it was the turn of the Bnei Menashe Jews from India, following a reversal of a visa ban. A modern Ben Gurion airport, with sushi stalls, the buzz of mobile phone conversations, and tourist tat for sale, but the same narrative, played out once again, an against-the-odds-story of a people triumphing over adversity to reach the place they dreamed of. The community, believed to number some 7,000, claims to be descended from a lost tribe exiled after the Assyrian invasion. The new immigrants, who will now have to formally convert and still face questions about their Jewish identity, join 1,700 already in Israel and will be followed by hundreds more.
"We are now in our land," said one woman, arriving with her husband and daughter. "Israel is everything to me," said another.
We sometimes forget, from our relatively cosy perch in the UK, that Israel is not simply a given, that not everyone can come and go to the Jewish state as they please. We see Israel in terms of its landmarks and selling points; the kotel in Jerusalem, the bars of Tel Aviv, Masada at sunrise or Eilat beach as the sun goes down. We think of it in the context of visiting family and friends, of flying out for Pesach or weddings, of enjoying ice coffees at Aroma, sushi at Japanika, or fresh rugalach from Marzipan bakery at Machane Yehuda.
Last year, it was the turn of the Bnei Menashe
What do British Jews think of when we think of Israel? Politics, sure, and rockets, and terror, peacemakers and road maps and hopes endlessly dashed. But also the place we visited for the first time age 16 on Israel tour. The one where every cab driver has an opinion about the two-state solution, which he delivers as he blasts recklessly down the highway, catching up with the other "Israeli drivers". The country where you can buy kosher snacks on the beach, where tinsel is more often used for Succot than for Christmas.
Do we see it as the answer to our prayers? Of course many in the western diaspora yearn for Israel, dream of it. Many go as far as making it their home. We are not complacent about its survival; we fundraise, challenge Israel's critics and advocate for it when world opinion is swayed away. Israel is in our hearts; you only have to observe the applause as the wheels hit the tarmac to know it's not just any old holiday destination.
But few of us today, I'd hazard, yearn for it as the Bnei Menashe have done, or the Falash Mura, or any of those who fought tooth and nail to reach it. For the most part, that's good, a sign that all is well for our community in Britain, that, unlike in history, we don't need to think in black and white terms of a safe haven. Still, perhaps it's time to resurrect that narrative, study the photographs of the Bnei Menashe arriving with everything they have, full of hope and faith that Israel is the answer to their prayers.
Not because we are in danger in the UK. And not because Israel is perfect, everything it should be - reality can never match the ideal - but because we need to remember what it represents and why we should fight for it to be the best country it can be. We need to remind ourselves of the Israel that embodied the best hopes for the future, the country that welcomed its melting pot population with open arms and debated earnestly the best structure for society or how to build the most moral army in the world. And, equally, we need to stand up and challenge when Israel falls short.
We need to not simply accept it as a necessary compromise when Israel's leaders do things that are at odds with its ideals - even in light of the repeated attacks from its enemies - such as approving settlements that inevitably knock the peace process off course, discriminating against refugees, putting personal political gain above progress, or allowing religious extremists to dictate the direction of society.
We owe it to the Bnei Menashe, and to everyone who has ever seen Israel as a beacon of possibility, to do so.