- For all of Zion’s centrality in Jewish history, religion, and culture, Jews living outside of it in reasonable circumstances rarely want to live in it.
We know this because, in the modern era, from the beginnings of practical Zionism in the early 1880s to Israel’s establishment in 1948 to the present, the numbers of Jews who have made aliyah – moved from the Diaspora to Zion – for ideological reasons have always been small.
When, from the 1920s to the 1990s, large numbers of olim came to Israel –from Poland, Germany, Austria, DP camps after the Holocaust, Arab countries, Russia, and other places – these were Jews coming from situations of distress. Although many of them had feelings about Zion, those feelings in themselves would not have brought most of them to emigrate to it. Meanwhile, aliyah from comfortable countries where Jews are mostly well treated has always been, and remains, scant.
Zionism succeeded because small vanguards of Jews who were ideologically committed to Zion created a foothold in it, eventually enabling large numbers of desperate Jews to find a refuge.
- Without a strong religious or national basis (or both), Jewish communities wither.
The latest Pew surveys have made this glaringly clear with regard to the last remaining large Diaspora community in the world, the American Jewish community. A strong religious basis is generally Orthodoxy; in America, the only Jewish sector that is growing, not marked by dramatically high intermarriage rates and low birthrates, is the Orthodox sector.
A strong national basis is Israel; it’s the only country where even very non-observant Jews (not that there are many in Israel) remain part of Jewish life. Each new survey of the state of American Jewry is accompanied by hand-wringing and a spate of articles about what can be done to solve the problem; then comes the next survey, which is even worse. It’s claimed that the Birthright program gets good results in inspiring young American (and other Diaspora) Jews to give more weight to the Jewish dimension. But, if so, such results are not reflected in the wider surveys.
- Israeli reality fosters attachment to Zion.
Part of the story of Israel is that people whose parents, grandparents, or earlier forebears may have come to Zion out of desperation, without much Zionist feeling, are themselves attached to Zion. Of course, not all Israelis are so attached to it; a significant minority leave the country, and some of those who stay are blasé or ambivalent about living in it. (Emigration rates, however, are at an all-time low and among the lowest in the developed world.) Most Israelis, though, are positive and patriotic about living in Israel. This is, in part, a natural process; people usually have strong feelings about, strong attachment to, a native land. And it is, in part, still an ideological phenomenon; Israel’s civil religion, holidays, schools, youth movements, and army generally instill an ethos of the homeland. Zionism grows in Zion.
- Seventy years after Israel’s establishment, the Jewish people are, for better or worse, more “normal” in an important respect.
Like many other peoples, Jews now live either in a sovereign homeland or in ethnic communities abroad. In the homeland, where Jews constitute a distinct people with its own land, language, culture, and ethos, the national life flourishes.
In the Diaspora, the dominant trend is assimilation into the host countries. For those to whom the continuation of Jewish life is important, persistent survey findings – and observable reality – suggest that there are two main alternatives. One is to live in an Orthodox Jewish enclave in a tolerant non-Jewish country – hoping that it remains tolerant. The other alternative is Zion. Although other alternatives may “work” in individual cases, in the aggregate they do not.