I thought seriously about making aliyah in my twenties. In many respects, it made a lot of sense — by the time I’d finished university I had already lived in Israel for two separate years, and in the period that followed, I went regularly for professional reasons. I had friends there, I loved the place and I was reasonably confident that I could have found work. But for various personal and professional reasons, it never quite felt like the right time. I delayed, life inevitably took over, and despite going back there for a couple of years to take up a fellowship at one stage, I never took the leap.
But there was another important factor. My generation grew up with a rather downbeat view of British Jewish life. In 1985 — the same year that I went on an Israel summer tour — the American Jewish historian, Howard Sachar, published his book, Diaspora, in which he entitled his chapter on British Jewry “The Jews of Complacence.”
“The quality of religious-educational life among British Jews,” he wrote, “remains exceptionally shallow.” The British Jewish community was far more adept, he argued, at “exploiting its common denomination of ethnic gregariousness, than at responding to new and religious challenges.” That view, usually articulated rather less eloquently, dominated much of my Jewish education, particularly in youth-movement frameworks. British Jewish life was dull and somnolent; life in Israel was the opposite: vibrant, courageous, sexy and edgy.
However, just at the point when I might have made aliyah, the British Jewish community started to go through something of a renaissance. The new Chief Rabbi at the time, Jonathan Sacks, helped to fuel it with the Jewish Continuity initiative, and key professionals like Jonathan Kestenbaum, Clive Lawton and Jonny Ariel grasped the new agenda and put it into practice. We are still feeling the results today — the British Jewish landscape has been transformed over the past generation with new schools, cultural festivals and institutions, charities, kosher shops and restaurants. Indeed, if Howard Sachar came back today, I’m not sure he’d recognise the place. And, in many respects, it was that dynamic that most compelled me to stay; the notion that Jewish life here could, in fact, be invigorating and renewing.
I still feel that. British Jewish life cannot possibly compete with the extraordinary richness of Jewish life in Israel, but it has a certain stability to it that is very comfortable and, in London at least, there are interesting Jewish activities going on every day of the year that touch on every aspect of Jewish life. Indeed, with apologies to Samuel Johnson, if you are tired of Jewish London, you are tired of Jewish life.
I reflect on this because, in the aftermath of Yom Ha’Atzmaut, I did my annual audit of aliyah data. I keep a close eye on aliyah figures because they reveal a great deal — about the allure of Israel, about the fear of antisemitism or oppression in diaspora countries, even about economic conditions for Jews.
In short, Jews make aliyah in unusually high numbers when Israel is exceptionally attractive (for Western Jews immediately post-1967); when antisemitism feels particularly threatening (for French Jews in recent years), or when economic conditions in the host country deteriorate significantly (for Argentinian Jews in 2001).
So what do the 2016 data reveal? They are terribly boring I’m afraid: 598 Jews from the UK made aliyah in 2016, down from 623 in 2015, up from 486 in 2014, but more in less in line with the average over the past decade of 557.
What does this mean? Well, first, it means that aliyah from the UK is not a mass phenomenon. The proportion of British Jews who emigrate to Israel each year is very small — about two in every thousand. But from the perspective of Jewish suburban London, it’s rather good news. Nothing earth-shattering happened in Israel to shake our sense of self; any antisemitism we have encountered is not unsettling enough to cause us to up and leave; and any deterioration in the UK economy is not sufficiently consequential for us to seriously question our future here. So, perhaps part of Sachar’s portrait remains after all —despite all the apparent turmoil, Jewish life here remains remarkably quiet and stable. And, on reflection, I kind of like it that way.
Jonathan Boyd is Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research