To Move or Not To Move: A Monumental Decision


By Jeremi Suri

Published February 03, 2006, issue of February 03, 2006.
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Aliya: Three Generations

Of American-Jewish Immigration To Israel

By Liel Leibovitz

St. Martin’s Press, 288 pages, $24.95.

* * *

The past four centuries of American history are dominated by one overriding trend: immigration. People from every continent have, for very diverse reasons, moved in large numbers to a self-proclaimed “New World.” Although some immigrants eventually returned to their original home societies, the vast majority have established permanent residence and identity as Americans. Despite all the obvious inequalities and brutalities involved in this process, one must marvel at the power of this land to absorb so many migrants.

Liel Leibovitz’s thoughtful new book, “Aliya: Three Generations of American-Jewish Immigration to Israel,” explores one of the few countervailing trends toward immigration in recent American history. Since 1947, about 100,000 American Jews have made aliya, moving permanently from the United States to Israel. At first this movement of American Jews seems unsurprising, especially for those of us who have spent time within communities that included articulate and idealistic Zionists. On closer examination, however, Zionist commitments do not offer a sufficient explanation. Many, in fact most, American supporters of a Jewish homeland did not migrate to Israel. As Leibovitz observes, they did not want to “leave behind a nation which has arguably provided them with more assurance, acceptance, and affluence than any other nation in modern history.” Making aliya is a monumental decision for American Jews, a decision that often involves sacrifices in physical security and standard of living, at least by some measures. These are the very factors that have overwhelmingly discouraged recently arrived and long-standing Americans from leaving the United States. Why, then, have so many American Jews left the comforts of home for what Leibovitz, an Israeli native, calls “a distant land plagued by violence, poverty, and petulant politics”?

Leibovitz, culture editor of The Jewish Week, does not offer a single answer but instead narrates the lives of three families, each representing a different generation of American Jewish migrants to Israel. He begins with Marlin and Betty Levin, who sailed from New York City to Haifa during the summer of 1947, arriving in time for the tragedy and triumph of Israel’s founding moment. Leibovitz then turns his attention to Brooklyn-born Mike Ginsberg, who came of age in Israel after the astounding victory in the Six Day War, and to the accompanying transformation in Israeli society. The book closes with its most compelling portrait, focused on Sharon and Danny Kalker, who had long planned to make aliya but finally did so in the summer of 2001, amid the daily violence of the intifada. (Leibovitz avoids using this term to describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during this period.) For each of these representative figures, the choice to move to Israel

reflected a mix of personal factors, including commitment to Jewish causes, discomfort with the apparent superficiality of American society and a desire to find new meaning in life.

The last-mentioned factor is most noteworthy in Leibovitz’s retellings. Aliya brought disillusion and difficulty, but it also provided the Levins, Ginsberg and the Kalkers with purpose and fulfillment. After contending with occupational and marital problems in Israel, and the shock of a terrorist attack on the family of a close friend, Sharon Kalker eloquently encapsulated how and why American Jews became Israelis: “Israel is not a place for the frail and weak among us. Living here requires one to adjust to life-changing events in a second. It forces one to live to the max; to share in each other’s joys completely and to weep in their sorrow as one. It’s about being connected — to the past, the present and the future — to the land, the people and G-D. It’s about living a meaningful life, not just achieving benchmarks and setting new ones. It’s about making history, not just reading about it. It’s about coming home.”

One can find similar words spoken by white Christian settlers of the American West during the 19th century. As Frederick Jackson Turner most famously observed, Americans — despite ethnic and religious differences — have looked frequently to lands outside the comforts of their home communities as antidotes to dissatisfaction, alienation and boredom. In violent “frontier” settings, Americans have reaffirmed their strength, their idealism and their spirituality. This observation, of course, explains why President Kennedy made a point of announcing a “new frontier” during his time in office. The American spirit, in rhetoric and image, is attached to pioneering adventure.

Whether intended or not, Leibovitz’s book suggests a strong connection between traditional descriptions of American frontier thinking and immigration to Israel. First, those who settled in the frontier and in Israel acted in pursuit of both community and individual freedom. Leibovitz describes the sense of joint mission that Ginsberg and the Kalkers felt with their fellow kibbutz residents, as well as the enhanced personal freedom they experienced from likeminded people who surrounded them. One no longer had to live a “double life” that downplayed one’s religious and cultural identity. For American Jews who felt somewhat entrapped in a culture of “Judeo-Christian” conformity, Israel offered a dynamic alternative, an “antidote” to “malaise.”

Second, American Jews immigrating to Israel embraced a virtuous “warrior” self-image, in direct contrast to the more common depiction of Jews as weak victims. In Leibovitz’s descriptions, the reader sees the same kind of obsession with toughness and physical prowess that one associates with the intrepid frontiersman. Nearly every chapter includes enthusiastic references to Israeli Jews, such as “muscles bulging,” “bare-chested young men,” “tall and tanned,” “Jewish warriors” and “young and virile” paratroopers. The move to Israel, like the journey to the frontier, was almost a sexual act; it affirmed one’s power in a world of enemies and, particularly after the 1967 war, it instilled great pride in those who could claim direct connection to the muscular pioneers.

Third, and perhaps most significant, the Palestinians have become the Indians of the American Jewish immigrant narratives. They are voiceless terrorists, attacking children, threatening the safety of peace-loving settlers and imperiling the sanctity of Jewish holy sites. For all their introspection, none of the protagonists in Leibovitz’s book addresses the fact that his or her presence in Israel — for Ginsberg and the Kalkers, this included settlement beyond the pre-1967 borders — involved the possible denial of land and livelihood to Palestinians. Not a single paragraph in the book is devoted to the perspective of non-Jews in and around Israel. State-building, pioneering courage and personal discovery crowd out any serious attention to the complex relations between different peoples that frame the everyday activities described by Leibovitz. Like the Indians in traditional stories of the Wild West, the Palestinians are depicted only as savages who threaten civilization and eventually meet their deserved fate in death. One cannot blame Leibovitz for simply recounting the prejudices of the American Jewish immigrants he chronicles, but the implications of his narratives are, in some ways, horrifying.

“Aliya” is a book that deserves a wide general readership. It offers many important, if troubling, insights into why 100,000 American Jews have moved to Israel since 1947. The book is a remarkable cross-generational chronicle of how this exceptional pattern of migration has transformed the new Israelis and the society they now claim as their own. Leibovitz might go too far in justifying the attitudes and prejudices of his protagonists, but an attentive reader can sympathize with the immigrants while recognizing their shortcomings.

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