Reflections on Yom Ha’atzmaut as a New Immigrant

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Yom Ha'atzmaut
30 Apr 2009
Yom Ha'atzmaut
Thousands of Jerusalemites packed Sacher Park on Independence Day for a vast BBQ. (Photo: Gil Zohar)

I’ve just celebrated my 4th Yom ha-Atzmaut since making aliyah in 2005.

What’s life like for a middle-aged, middle class guy from Toronto, Canada adjusting to quotidian Jerusalem, you may wonder.

Good, mostly, I suppose.

That first year, trying to immerse ourselves in our new-old country, my wife Randi and I went to a series of state rituals in the spring of 2005. The first was at Yad Vashem where we heard then President Moshe Katsav and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert memorialize the six million victims of the unremitting tragedy that we label the Holocaust. Though we didn’t have invitations to the Yom ha-Shoa ceremony and were warned we would have to stand if we could get in, we persisted through the very tight 15-minute security check to discover plenty of empty seats.

The mitzvah of aliya

How is it, I often wonder, that the Jews of America, Canada, Britain, South Africa and Australia remain aloof from the dream of Zion that has so gripped my imagination, heart and pocket book? Surely, as the economic reality evolves and Jews see that the standard of living in Israel is comparable to that of the West, some one million immigrants will come home to Israel driven by both the pull of Zionism and the push of economics.

Rabbi David Samson, in his book “Ask the Rabbi,” urges the many Torah-observant Jews in the English-speaking world to come home. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, he today lives in Jerusalem and teaches at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva.

The mitzvah of dwelling in the Land of Israel doesn’t only apply when the Messiah arrives, Rabbi Samson notes.

“The very special relationship between the Jewish People and the Land of Israel was made clear with God’s very first words to Abraham: “Get yourself forth to the Land that I will show you.”(1)

“The Ramban writes that the commandment to settle the Land of Israel is one of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah.(2) He bases this on the language of the Biblical verse, “And you shall dispossess the inhabitants of the Land and dwell in it.”(3) We are enjoined with two tasks: first to conquer the Land, and secondly to dwell in it. The Ramban states that this mitzvah (commandment) applies in every generation. Furthermore, all of the early and later Torah authorities (Rishonim and Achronim) who formulate Halacha agree on this matter.(4)

“In his sweeping Halachic (Jewish legal) compilation, the Mishna Torah,(5) the Rambam quotes the Talmud: “In all times, a Jew should live in the Land of Israel, even in a city where most of the inhabitants are idol worshippers, and not live outside of the Land, even in a city where most of the inhabitants are Jews.”(6)

“Our Sages stated that the mitzvah of living in the Land of Israel is equal to all of the commandments of the Torah combined.(7)

“These weeks, in the weekly Parsha readings in the Book of Deuteronomy, we are being treated to an explanation of the Torah by Moses himself, as it says: “Moses began to explain this Torah, saying, The Lord our God spoke to us in Horev, saying, You have dwelt long enough in this mountain….”(8)

“The time has come to journey on into Israel, Moses teaches. The Torah is to be kept in Eretz Israel, not in the wilderness.(9)

“Again and again, Moses emphasizes this fundamental principle upon which all of the Torah rests: “Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should perform them in the Land whither you go to possess.”(10)

““And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you may perform them in the Land which you go over to possess.”(11)

““But as for thee, stand here by Me, and I will speak to thee all of the commandments and statutes and judgments which thou shall teach them, that they may do them in the Land which I gave them to possess.”(12)

““Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the judgments which the Lord thy God commanded me to teach you, that you might do them in the Land into which you go to possess.”(13)

““All the commandments which I command you this day shall you observe to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the Land which the Lord swore to your fathers.”(14)

“The commandments were given to be performed specifically in the Land of Israel, as the Ramban states: “The essence of all of the commandments is that they be performed in the Land of God.”(15)

“Understanding the centrality of Eretz Israel to Torah and God’s plans for the Jewish People, we can appreciate the enormity of the Sin of the Spies for not wanting to live in Israel. The Zohar teaches that the Spies, who were the princes of Israel, were worried about their honour. They feared that upon entering the Land, new leaders would be chosen, and they would lose their positions of authority and prestige.(16) As was highlighted in last week’s answer by the words of the Gaon of Vilna, this failure to put Eretz Israel in the forefront of Jewish life continues tragically until today.(17)

“Regarding your question regarding Messiah, a Jew is called upon to fulfill the commandments whether the Messiah has arrived or not. As the Rambam writes: “The obligation of the commandments is not dependent on the coming of Messiah. Rather we are to busy ourselves with Torah and its precepts, and to strive to fulfill everything we can… However, if a man remains in a place where he sees that the Torah is waning, and where the Jewish People will be lost with the passage of time, and where he cannot stay true to his faith, and say. ‘I will stay here until the Messiah comes and survive where I am,’ this is nothing but an evil heart and a great loss, and a sickness of reasoning and spirit.”(18)

“Today, thank God, the Land of Israel is once again the thriving heart of the Jewish People. Jerusalem is once again the Torah center of the world. While there are many great challenges and problems in returning an exiled people to its ancestral homeland, Jewish life in Israel continues to grow in a miraculous fashion. So if you want to fulfill the mitzvah of waiting for the Messiah, the best place to do it is Israel.

“May the words of the Prophet soon be fulfilled: “The Lord God who gathers the outcasts of Israel says, ‘Yet I will gather others to him, besides those of him who are already gathered.’”(19)

To which I answer “Amen.”

1. Genesis, 12:2.
2. Supplement to the Sefer HaMitzvot of the Rambam, Positive Commandment #4.
3. Numbers, 33:53.
4. Pitchei T’shuva, Even HaEzer, Section 75, Sub-section 6.
5. Rambam, Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 5:12.
6. Ketubot 110B.
7. Sifre, Ekev, 10:1.
8. Deut, 1:6.
9. Ibid, 1:7.
10. Deut, 4:5.
11. Ibid, 4:14.
12. Ibid, 5:27.
13. Ibid, 6:1.
14. Ibid, 8:1.
15. Ramban on the Torah, Leviticus, 18:25.
16. Zohar on Numbers, 13:3. Also Mesillat Yesharim, On Cleanliness.
17. Likutei HaGra, at the end of Safra D’Tziniuta.
18. Rambam, Igeret Teiman. See, Kuzari, 2:24.
19. Isaiah, 55:8.

That was followed by our visit to the Kotel (Western Wall) for a repeat speech by Katsav lamenting the 22,123 Jews, Druze, Bedouin and others who have fallen in defense of Israel and the pre-state Yishuv dating back to 1860 – a figure which does not include victims of terror. (Israel maintains a hierarchy of bereavement, distinguishing between Halalei Ma’arachot Yisrael (Fallen of Israel’s Wars) and Nifga’ei Pe’ulot Eiva (Terror Victims), the latter of whom are only counted since 1948).

The night after Memorial Day almost without a breath in between, we switched emotionally draining gears to join the perhaps 50,000 Independence Day revellers who thronged downtown Jerusalem’s Zion Square, Jaffa Road and the surrounding streets in a raucous, hyperbolic display of patriotism symbolized by spraying shaving cream at total strangers.

Four years later I have a more mature perspective on these national rites. Both Katzav and Olmert have left the political stage under a cloud of scandal and allegations of criminality. I returned to Yad Vashem on the eve of this year’s Holocaust Day – this time as a tour guide in training. Similarly my class visited the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery. There I made a presentation at the monument to the INS Dakar, a submarine which sank on its maiden voyage in January 1968, with all 69 sailors lost at sea. After 25 search missions, the submarine was finally located in 1999 by the company which located the Titanic, lying on the sea bed at a depth of 2,900 meters (9,000 feet).

The statistics of Yom ha-Zikaron have continued to mount over these last four years. This Memorial Day 22,570 men and women were mourned over, including 133 members of the Israeli police and security forces killed in the service of the state during these last 12 months. The last soldier to have died in the line of duty was Capt. Yehonatan Netanel, a deputy company commander in the Paratroopers Brigade, who was killed during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip in January.

Symbolizing that each of the fallen is not just a life lost but an entire family immersed in tragedy, the Prime Minister’s brother Jonathan was killed during the 1976 IDF raid on Entebbe to free Israeli hostages.

According to the National Insurance Institute, 17 civilians were killed in the past year in terrorist attacks, bringing to 1,723 the number of civilians killed in hostile acts since the founding of the state 61 years ago. Three civilians lost their lives in rocket attacks in the course of Operation Cast Lead. In comparison, over the last year 34 Israelis drowned at Israel’s 143 official beaches (33 of which charge for entry), and many unsupervised swimming places. As for traffic fatalities, don’t ask.

The Central Bureau of Statistics’ just released data have a profoundly positive message. On the eve of Independence Day, Israel’s population stands at 7,411,000, a rise of 125,000 or 1.8 percent since last year at this time, and a huge increase from the 650,000 who fought off seven Arab armies during the savage 1948-1949 War of Independence.

About 75.5 percent, or 5,593,000, of Israel’s residents are Jews, while 1,498,000 are Arabs (20.2 percent), and 320,000 (4.3 percent) are designated “Others,” i.e. Russians who immigrated here under the Law of Return but who aren’t Jewish according to halacha.

Israel now has the largest Jewish population in the world. Its numbers keep increasing as the Diaspora keeps shrinking. The implication: you’re either in the in house or the outhouse.

At this rate of an increase of 100,000 Jews annually, Israel’s Jewish population should reach 6,000,001 by the country’s 65th Independence Day in 2013. It is a moment which I eagerly await, when I will say the blessing “Schechechiyanu”, just as I did when a clerk at the Ministry of the Interior asked me to sign a document conferring Israeli citizenship. In a moment indelibly etched in my memory, the clerk responded “Amen.”.

Just as four years ago, the blue-and-white Israeli flag has sprouted everywhere – on car windows, balconies and light poles throughout the country. Only this year downtown Jerusalem has been transformed into a beautiful pedestrian-only zone. From my balcony I look out over a brand new granite-paved piazza.

Just as four years ago, this afternoon was marked by a mangal. The ubiquitous charcoal BBQ is a perverse outcome of the fact that most Israelis dwell in matchbox apartments and, notwithstanding the country’s great Mediterranean weather compared to frigid Canada, don’t have a garden or even balcony on which to set up a grill.

Which reminds me of the sardonic joke: What’s the best thing about Israel? The weather – it’s the only thing the government can’t mess up.

Yes, Israel is a strange and exotic place, familiar and foreign at the same time, a place where the public’s happiness quotient exists despite rather than because of the government.

On Independence Day, it is traditional to review what has been accomplished.

The country which was a bankrupt economic backwater in 1948 known only for exporting Jaffa oranges – and which was wracked by 454 per cent a year hyperinflation when I first lived here in the early 1980s – is now a high-tech superpower, albeit with enormous disparities of wealth. Prices are stable if expensive, and the sheqel has become a hard currency. Futures in Israeli money now trade on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. A sure sign of Israel’s fiscal success is the country’s coming acceptance in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Paris-based forum of the world’s 30 most prosperous countries. Having appreciated sharply against the U.S. and Canadian dollars, and other major currencies, the sheqel has joined the CLS (continuous linked settlement) system, which is used to clear some 500,000 transactions worldwide daily, at a combined value of about $4 trillion. The shekel is now freely converted to any of 16 major currencies – including the euro, U.S. dollar, pound sterling and Swiss franc.

Four years ago I wrote I wished I could report there is ease in Zion. Tel Aviv-based journalist Robert Rosenberg comments: “It is indeed symbolic of this society’s non-stop swaying between existential worries – nowadays embodied in the person of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with his vows to acquire nuclear technology, and his promises that Israel will be erased from the map – and overwhelming strength, as embodied, ironically, in the very impressive democratic process that it has preserved over those 58 years even if sometimes, as this year, it results in an unimpressive government such as the one Ehud Olmert finalized.”

Having evolved from Zionist collectivism to post-Zionist, post-modern individualism, Israel’s strength, he suggests, now lies in its normalcy, its rejection of ideology in favor of a middle class resilience that stands up to terror not so much with war as with daring to get on with living.

But without ideology, secular Israel can be a daunting, graceless place.

An Australian immigrant writing on (Jerusalem Anglo – the virtual billboard that connects many English-speaking olim), cries from the heart:

“Hi. I am an olah who has been here now for almost 1.5 years. I am 29. Not religious. I have found the aliya experience to be devastatingly disappointing. The financial disincentive pains me. My daily contact with people be it when driving on the roads, or making appointments, at shops, in the workplace at the supermarket – has been disappointing. I find everyone to be so rude… I have made only a handful of friends and am very isolated…

“I could call it a severe case of culture shock. On the other hand, maybe it’s coming to term with the fact that countries like the USA, Australia, UK have a higher standard of living. And that in spite of being Jewish, as an Anglo, Israel isn’t really my home. If it weren’t for my fiancé, I would have left already.

“Does anyone have any advice on how to meet new people and feel more at home in Israel? How did you come to terms with working twice as hard, for half the pay? Any advice…?!”

How does one respond? Psychologists note aliya is a three-stage process: the first is euphoria, the second frustration and anger, and the third successful adjustment. This process can take years. One just has to put in the time and effort.

But judging by the many notices on Janglo for content sales of people leaving the country, many English-speaking olim never complete the transition.

Even more disturbing four years ago were the feelings of many alienated, observant Israelis, still sporting the orange ribbons protesting the disengagement in August 2005 from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria which marked the end of the post-1967 dream of Greater Israel.

Moshe Feiglin, the founder of Manhigut Yehudit, the dissident faction of the Likud party, asked: “How do Israelis feel on their Independence Day? For the past number of years, the most apt comparison would be to the feeling of a birthday party celebrated at the bedside of a terminally ill patient. You can’t not attend, you can’t not express your good wishes and you can’t not celebrate – at least for outward appearances.”

Today, four years after Feiglin’s gripe, the national mood is far more positive. Despite the global financial crisis that has stalled Israel’s once red-hot economy, and the looming nuclear threat from Iran, the War and Peace Index, published on Israel’s 61st Independence Day, found that the majority of the Israeli public is positive, optimistic and satisfied with the state of the nation.

That index, conducted by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research and published monthly since 1994, is run by Prof. Ephraim Yaar and Prof. Tamar Hermann. Compiled from a monthly telephone survey of 600 Israeli citizens representing the various sectors in Israeli society, the survey found that 80 percent of the Jews polled defined their personal status as “very good” or “good,” 90 percent said they think Israel is doing “very well” as a nation; and 81 percent said they were “very optimistic” or “optimistic” as to the nation’s future.

Tellingly 81 percent also said that given their choice of countries to live in, they would prefer to stay in Israel – to which I heartily add my agreement.

The most disconcerting data revealed that the Israeli public’s faith in state systems is dwindling: While 91 percent said they had every faith in the Israeli Defense Forces, only 57 percent said they trusted the Supreme Court, only 43 percent lent credibility to the media, 39 percent said they trusted the police, only a third of the public has faith in the government and the Knesset (34 percent and 30 percent respectively), and only 21 percent believe in the political parties.

I could add my petty gripes; among them a postal system that barely functions so that my mail is routinely returned to sender – even though the house I purchased four years ago has been standing since 1889.

But all of the above would be to ignore the supreme Jewish value of hakarat ha-tov (grateful recognition). Chapter One of the Book of Exodus (the one by God, not Leon Uris) shows that nothing has changed on this score over the millennia. As the Torah notes, we are a stiff-necked people who love to kvetch.

A country of immigrants with sky-high expectations, we are – for this very reason – vulnerable to abysmal despair. While garbage-strewn, rude and expensive Israel may not fulfill those expectations, let’s not forget why we’re here.

Notwithstanding official ineptitude; a system of government bereft of a constitution that is on the thin edge of democracy; my share of disappointments, hassles and troubles; the spectre of terror – in which people I know have been killed; the environmental degradation; and the individual Israelis who have been obnoxious and condescending to me; here, today in Israel, we are still living lives of meaning, beauty and adventure at the tail end of the most momentous century in the history of the Jewish people since the destruction of the Second Temple nearly 2,000 years ago.

My love of Israel is neither naive nor near-sighted. I understand and regret the mistakes, corruption and arrogance that taint our accomplishments, and rue our poisoned relations with our Palestinian neighbours. For them Yom ha-Atzmaut is synonymous with the Naqba (catastrophe) – the expulsion and flight in 1948-1949 of some 700,000 Arabs from their homes, and the start of a life of exile.

I’m not the only writer to take a long-term perspective on contemporary Israel.

Novelist Naomi Ragen writes: “There has never been, in the history of the Jewish people, a more courageous and admirable generation of young people. There has never been, in the history of the Jewish people, a more amazing variety of Jewish life in the land that God gave us. The two of these things combined make me glad to be alive; glad to be a Jew; glad to be privileged to live in the land of the Jews, the land of Israel.”

It is my heartfelt wish that more of my friends and family will act on the inchoate yearning for Zion, the very tickle in the heart that has kept you reading to the end of this essay. And next year in Jerusalem may it be your turn to wish me “Happy Israeli Independence Day”.

Four years after first writing about Independence Day, my core message remains the same: Israel for all its problems is a great society – student immigrants under the age of 30 can study for free, and pensioners from the affluent West with a little money stashed away can retire in the sunshine.

What’s Israel really like? My advice? If you missed the 40th anniversary of the re-unification of Jerusalem in 2007, and the 60th Independence Day last year, come now for Tel Aviv’s 100th birthday bash. Pack your bags. I invite you to come and see for yourself.

Gil Kezwer and his wife Randi Turkienicz moved to Israel in October 2005. They have since Hebraized their surname to Zohar, and purchased a renovated century-old stone building in downtown Jerusalem’s Nahalat Shiva neighborhood. Gil is a freelance writer, and Randi is a jewelry designer.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.