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Monday, December 27, 2004

Going Down?

In the comments section of Friday's post, I fell into a discussion with someone about the abundance of Israeli culture and communities abroad.  In the context of that discussion I shared a joke which, admittedly, is not in very good taste.  However it got me thinking about the issue and... well... as you know, that's what I use this space for; thinking out loud.

The Joke went like this:

A man is waiting for the elevator outside the Israeli Consulate in New York City (which happens to be on the 14th floor of a midtown Manhattan office building). When the elevator finally arrives it is full of people speaking Hebrew. He asks them in Hebrew, "Yordim?" (which can mean both 'going down?' or 'a derogatory term for Israelis who have emigrated'. In unison the occupants of the elevator answer, "Lo, Shlichim!" ('No, we're here as emissaries / temporarily').

This joke illustrates a couple of points which bear some discussion.

First and foremost it points out a simple fact that is ignored by many:  If moving to Israel is called 'Aliyah' (literally 'going up'), then by default leaving Israel must be 'Yeridah' ('going down). 

Whether one looks at aliyah from a religious or cultural point-of-view, the fact remains that moving to Israel is regarded by many as a positive act.  However, this puts Israelis who want to exercise the same right to decide where in the world they want to live, in the unenviable position of doing something which is perceived as negative.

This is the reason the joke I related leaves such a bitter aftertaste, even to those who laugh at its humor.  The sad truth is that many, many Israelis who have made the decision to live their lives abroad feel compelled to tell anyone who will listen (and sometimes even themselves) that their residency abroad is only temporary...  and that they will one day move back.

I guess the question that is troubling me so much is, If I had the right to chose where in the world I wanted to live... why do Israelis feel guilty about exercising the same freedom of choice?

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Posted by David Bogner on December 27, 2004 | Permalink

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Just found your site from "squarepeg" - love the pix! My wife and I miss Israel dearly (lived there for a year after we got married). Keep posting!

Posted by: Isaac | Dec 27, 2004 9:56:30 PM

I left Israel when I was 9, in 1977. I still remember my parents telling me to tell all my teachers and friends that we were just going for 2 or 3 years, though they told me that this wasn't true; we weren't coming back. The social pressure not to leave Israel was very strong, and in retrospect I think there must have been a lot of friction between my dad, who left, and his sister, who stayed and put three sons through the army.

You ask "why do Israelis feel guilty about exercising the same freedom of choice?" I honestly don't know. Perhaps it's because of the guilt they imposed on previous generations making the same choice. I am not sure there's anything wrong with that, though. Israel has a strong sense of communal fate, of we're-all-in-this-together. So it's to be expected that those jumping ship, especially when the ship needs a lot of help, will be regarded with suspicion or even disdain. I don't feel guilty, and I'm very comfortable saying that I'm coming back only to visit. (And I am grateful for those making Alyiah and fully believe that I am a little safer because of the decision the Bogners made.)

Another question (which is probably a tangent you don't want, or want on a seperate post) is: what can Israel do to slow the tide of Yeridah?

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Dec 27, 2004 10:02:50 PM

What an interesting subject. I've never thought of it before.

Posted by: Alice | Dec 27, 2004 10:45:11 PM

Isaac... Welcome aboard. Glad you stopped by.

Doctor Bean... Other than the Israeli economy catching fire and peace breaking out I can't think of any one thing that would stem the tide of Yiridah (Israelis leaving Israel). Just as there is no one reason that people move to Israel... so too there are as many reasons for leaving as there are people who leave.

Alice... I hadn't really thought about it either until Jack and I started talking about it in the comments section of the previous post. I'm hoping that it isn't too touchy a subject for me to be musing out loud over.

Posted by: David | Dec 27, 2004 11:13:23 PM

As I mentioned in my post the other day, according to the definition, Shlichim (and Ambassdors) are counted amongst the Yerida figures by the bureau of statistics. I have a real problem with the negative association the term has and I think that the reasons for Yerida are better understood and therefore the stigma has lessened with time.

Gilly

Posted by: gilbenmori | Dec 27, 2004 11:13:49 PM

Gilbenmori... Which begs the question; Once the stigma is removed from the act of leaving Israel, will the flow of emigrants increase or decrease?

Posted by: David | Dec 27, 2004 11:16:57 PM

If you want to get frum for a second, living in Israel allows one to partcipate in many more mitzvot. The act of living in Israel is a mitzvah by itself.

I think the net affect to the country is greater for an Israeli to leave then if I were to leave the USA. Leaving Israel is not a neutral act. Israel is not just another nation. Yet, I think exploring theis issue taps into yet greater ones, what is the purpose of Israel and how do we balanve the needs of the few with the many?

Posted by: Marjorie | Dec 28, 2004 12:25:34 AM

hey, I thought the comeback was "Rak L'shnatayim". Are you saying I've been telling this joke incorrectly?

Posted by: shmiel | Dec 28, 2004 12:57:28 AM

Hi David,

I wanted to mention that I did see the joke and this post but haven't responded yet because I haven't come up with anything profound yet. I may not, so here is a 30 second try.

If we operate from the premise that we work hard to provide our families with the best possible life, it makes it easy to see the attraction of living in certain places.

It is hard to balance ideology with your children's lives and that is what you have to do if you live in Israel. When you look at this in context of being part of a group, which you must it is easy to see how you could feel disappointment in leaving the group and how the group could be disappointed in you.

Posted by: Jack | Dec 28, 2004 2:12:05 AM

At first I was thinking of it in terms of the people you knew in college who dropped out to get jobs. When it's something to which you aspire, sometimes it's hard to see others take a different path.

But after more thought, I think it might be closer to "Eat your peas. There are starving children in Africa."

Posted by: Tanya | Dec 28, 2004 2:16:47 AM

Let me briefly and gently object to the notion that seems to be underlying some of the comments (not from David) that a commitment to living in the United States is simply a decision to place personal comfort or wealth above ideology. I am certainly more secure and more financially comfortable in the States than I would be in Israel, but my commitment to America is entirely idealogical and would persist if peace broke out in Israel and the economy was wonderful. I believe the Constitution is the best way that humans have found to govern themselves. I think I have a clear idea of what America stands for and what the Founders tried to achieve. I have no idea what the secular state of Israel hopes to be, nor do I think most Israelis do. Once Israel is not under the daily threat of destruction (a day I hope comes soon) Israelis can get to the difficult task of figuring out what it is they are trying to build. Until then, it's a democracy and a relatively safe place for Jews, which is still pretty great.

I hope I'm not upsetting any Israelis. Please know that I adore Israel, and help it through my vote in the US, through donations, and through moral support. But only one nation can lay claim to my residence, my work, my taxes, my children's service in the armed forces (if they choose) and for me and my wife that's the USA.

Yikes! Did I say "briefly" in the first sentence? Sorry...

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Dec 28, 2004 3:29:58 AM

Marjorie... Obviously there are those for whom the religious issue trumps all other consideration. I am sort of in that camp, although there are other ideologies besides pure religious obligation wrapped up in my (our) decision to move here.

That having been said, I know plenty of religious Israelis who have found compelling reasons / justifications for leaving. To use a 'Kal V'Homer' (if this than definitely that) comparison, how much easier is it for Israelis whose only connection to the land is cultural?

Shmiel... It doesn't matter since you probably deliver the punchline in Yiddish anyway! :-)

Jack... as usual you've hit the nail on the head. In any group, whether Military or civilian, there is a sliding ratio of group/individual benefit. Too high a ratio of individual entitlement and you have anarchy. Too low and you have communism. Israel's socialist roots and religious foundation provide two very compelling reasons for people to feel bound by perceived obligation to the group. But there is also a very strong part of the Israeli mindset that is firmly focused on 'Magiah Li' (I deserve it for myself)... a strong sense of personal entitlement that often pushes aside the needs of others. I also think that as the stigma of Yiridah lessens, there will (unfortunately) be an increase in the flow of emigrants.

Tanya... That is an apt illustration, but only so far as those doing the finger wagging go. The 'kids' in your example are becoming less and less susceptible to the kind of guilt such a statement once held. They are effectively saying "OK, here... send them mine!"

Doctor Bean... It always terrifies me when I hear Jews confess such loyalty and confidence in a host country. Yes, the US is presently one of the most comfortable places for Jews to live and I have tremndous loyalty to it for the prosperity and success that my family has experienced there. The constitution offers protections that are unheard of in much of the world... and protection is a warm blanket beneath which the Jews have seldom slept during our history.

But I would remind you that the Jews of Germany and France and Spain and Portugal and England and Babylonia and Rome and Greece and so many other places all felt that they had finally found the pinacle of humanity and cultural evolution... a warm dry place to rest.

Do I think the Jews of America will be forcefully placed on trains anytime soon? Of course not. But since WWII, there has been a silent holocaust of another kind going on in America... one of assimilation... that has effectively erased another 6 million Jews.

Just remember that all protection... even the nearly perfect protection of the US Constitution... comes at a price. Obviously it was a price I was not willing to pay.

Posted by: David | Dec 28, 2004 10:39:26 AM

Well now we're getting into something I've actually thought about, unlike eggnog. I hope you don't mind me continuing the discussion here. If you do, let me know, we can always email.

First of all, don’t be terrified. I know well the history of the fate of Jews in the Diaspora, and at the first sign of trouble I intend to show up with my wife and kids on your doorstep begging for a meal! Until that time, I may be of some service to you and to Judaism right here.

I don’t love the US or its Constitution for the protection or the affluence. I love them for the liberty. Obviously, many religious Jews see it as another in the list of “host” countries beginning with Egypt and ending with Germany – a place for material comfort for a few generations before expulsion or worse. I disagree. I realize that a nation’s temperament can change in a blink, but I also see the unique place of the US in history. It was the first nation defined on a set of ideas, not on an ethnic group or a specific patch of land – anyone can be an American. It was the first nation to give Jews equal rights. It is the major reason the world is neither Nazi nor Communist.

Liberty does, indeed, have a high price, particularly to our military. It also allows our children to make choices we disapprove of. I fear that Judaism has still not grown to handle the consequences of liberty and to compete for minds and hearts against the temptations of secularism. I was born in Romania. (I left for Israel when I was 5.) My parents are holocaust survivors. I don’t think I’ve heard the phrase “silent holocaust” before, and I’ll have to think carefully about using the same word to describe millions of people freely choosing to leave Judaism and millions of people being murdered. In any case, raising four religious children is about as much as I can do for Jewish continuity. If they or their children choose to leave Judaism, I will be very sad, but will see that as Judaism’s failing.

I’m not sure Judaism in Israel is doing better. You can virtually guarantee that your children won’t intermarry, but Israel is largely secular, and the antipathy to religion there is much greater than among secular Jews here. Is Judaism better off if my secular grandchildren live in Israel than in America?

Please know that this is all meant with affection and respect.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Dec 28, 2004 5:10:46 PM

Doctor Bean... I can't argue (too much) with the first part of your comment. But when you arrived at "...but Israel is largely secular, and the antipathy to religion there is much greater than among secular Jews here", I had to take exception.

The word secular means very different things in Israel and in the diaspora.

Here, secular can mean celebrating Jewish Holidays... enjoying (and understanding) Jewish culture... being knowledgeable about Jewish history and Jewish religious texts... being aware of the Hebrew calendar... being completely comfortable participating in (rather than being a passive spectator at) Jewish life events.

In the diaspora being secular often means being ignorant of even basic Jewish life events... Jewish holdiays... religous texts/Hebrew. And, Jewish culture often starts and ends with bagels, lox and cream cheese. Is this always the case? Of course not... but please don't tell me that what I described is the exception. I grew up in that world... what I described is the rule.

I would be sad if my children chose to become non-observant Israeli adults... but being a secular Israeli is such a far cry from the very real dangers of being a secular diaspora Jew.

Posted by: David | Dec 28, 2004 5:35:39 PM

Point taken. I hadn't thought of that. Thank you.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Dec 28, 2004 9:34:43 PM

Doctor Bean... Any Time. Rereading my response to you I see that it probably reads a lot stronger than it was intended. SOrry if it sounded as though I were angry... I wasn't. Also, you can tell from my many letter transpositions that I am quite tired (fatigue brings out my dyslexia like nothing else!).

Posted by: David | Dec 28, 2004 9:40:31 PM

It didn't read angry. It read thoughtfully disagreeing. I felt the love! Get some sleep.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Dec 29, 2004 1:23:46 AM

My blog (click my name) currently has a post up about why I think yeridah is the most Zionist thing someone can do.

Posted by: Isaac | Aug 8, 2005 5:09:44 AM

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