In July of 2004, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a gathering of North American Jewish federation leaders: “If I have to advocate to our brothers in France, I will tell them one thing: Move to Israel as early as possible… I say that to Jews all around the world, but there I think it’s a must and they have to move immediately.”
After the horrific Islamic terrorist events that struck France last week, and the Jewish community in particular, current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu once again articulated the call for French Jews to move to Israel: “This week, a special team of ministers will convene to advance steps to increase immigration from France and other countries in Europe that are suffering from terrible anti-Semitism. All Jews who want to immigrate to Israel will be welcomed here warmly and with open arms.”
With hostility towards Jews growing in many parts of Europe, the blessing and miracle of the existence of the modern State of Israel as a place of refuge and a safe haven for all Jews is perhaps more pronounced than ever. The Jew experiencing anti-Semitism no longer has to rely on the protection of his or her host country alone. They need not live gripped by the fear of being expelled with no place to go. Today, for the first time in two thousand years, our homeland is back in our hands, under our sovereignty, and serving as a source of protection and security not only for those that inhabit its borders, but also for Jews around the world.
As the Jews of France, England and elsewhere are unfortunately learning the hard way, Israel is indeed a safe haven and place of refuge, not just in theory, but also in practice. However, it would be a terrible mistake to reduce Israel to that alone.
In 1903, at the sixth Zionist Congress, Theodor Herzl dropped a bombshell. While the British refused to allow a Jewish state in Palestine, they were offering another territory in East Africa where Jews could enjoy home rule as a British protectorate. A mere six years after the founding of political Zionism, the Uganda Plan was considered a major breakthrough. Herzl expected the proposal to pass easily, but instead a bitter debate ensued.
In his wonderful book, “Jabotinsky: A Life,” Hillel Halkin describes what took place and I was shocked to learn who voted in favor of setting up a Jewish state in Africa.
The Mizrachi voted with Herzl; under attack by the anti-Zionist Orthodox establishment for supporting a Jewish return to the Land of Israel without divine sanction, it sought to demonstrate that it was motivated solely by a desire to relieve Jewish suffering that was untainted by messianic fantasies. Nearly all of the secular Zionists of the “democratic faction,” on the other hand, were fiercely opposed; products of the shtetl and its value even after having revolted against them, they could not imagine a Jewish homeland that was not the land Jews always had longed for.
The vote was tallied. 295 delegates voted in favor, 176 were against, and 143 abstained. Without a true majority, the plan was abandoned and focus was returned to achieving a Jewish state in the Jewish homeland, the Land of Israel.
Israel cannot be in Uganda or Teaneck, the Five Towns, LA Los Angeles, or Boca Raton. Perhaps a Jewish state solely to provide refuge and a safe haven could take root in any of those places. But Israel is so much more than a place to find sanctuary. Only that land possesses unique spiritual qualities, what Rabbi Soloveitchik called “singular.” In “Reflections of the Rav” (volume 1), Rabbi Soloveitchik writes:
The word “singular” means “being one,” “exceptional,” “extraordinary” and “separate.” The word segulah in Hebrew similarly connotes singularity. In Exodus (19:5), the Torah enunciates the doctrine of the election of Israel as a cardinal tenet of our faith. “And you shall be to Me a segulah from all other peoples.”
A segulah people inhabits a segulah land. It is “a land which the Eternal your God looks after; on which the Lord your God always keeps His eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end” (Deut. 11:12). Rashi adds that, although God cares for other lands too, His relationship with Eretz Yisrael is special… Jewish destiny is linked with this land; we have no other. Only in this land, our Sages say, does the Shekhinah dwell and only therein does prophecy flourish. This segulah attribute of the land is no more rationally explicable than the segulah of the people. These are qualities certified by our faith, and history has corroborated the singularity of both people and land.
The reaction to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for French Aliyah has been mixed. Many Zionists are thrilled to see more Jews coming home, regardless of whether their motivation is running towards, or just running away. However, others have shared grave concern for the implications of an Aliyah inspired by anti-Semitism and hatred. Fleeing the diaspora, they argue, only incentivizes and rewards Islamic terror, anti-Semitism, and thereby inadvertently promotes more extremism.
One op-ed in Israel put it this way: “Patriotic Israelis will welcome French immigrants to Israel, but that does not contradict the fact that Israel has no interest in promoting the eradication of over two millennia of Jewish presence in Europe. ‘France without its Jews would not be France,’ the country’s prime minister has said, but Israel without its Diaspora might not be the Israel that many of us are still hoping for either.”
Which begs the question: What would Israel look like without its Diaspora? Is there a role in Zionism for the continued existence of the Diaspora Jew? How would the French policies towards Israel be different if the French people and leadership had never met a Jew, known a Jewish colleague or friend, or felt the contribution of Jewish people to France? To be clear, I am certainly not advocating for French Jews to remain in France or for that matter for American Jews to remain in America, but I do believe these questions don’t have simple answers.
If Jews are going to remain in the Diaspora, there is no doubt that there is much important work to be done on behalf of Israel from there. Would America’s three billion dollars of aid, the funding for Iron Dome, military cooperation, and the willingness to utilize the veto at the UN all be givens if there were no Zionist Jews living in America lobbying, advocating and seeking to influence the U.S. policies towards Israel? Would the religious Zionist community be better served if every rabbi and community leader that cares passionately about Israel stopped leading missions, gave up preaching and teaching Aliyah, ceased organizing pro-Israel rallies, no longer promoted greater participation in AIPAC, ZOA, EMET, etc. because they all picked up and made Aliyah? So long as there are Diaspora Jews, there is a need for passionate Zionist Diaspora leadership.
While every Jew should be considering and struggling with Aliyah, to be fair, Aliyah is not a simple matter. Each individual must struggle with it in his or her own way. What is simple is that if one chooses to remain in the Diaspora, they must feel a connection to Israel emotionally, financially and spiritually as a part of their daily lives.
Hungarian born R’ Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal Hy”d was staunchly anti-Zionist. When running and hiding from the Nazis, everything changed for him and he saw a return to Israel as Hashem’s true plan for us. In his incredible book Eim Ha’Banim Semeicha, written by memory and while in hiding, he shares these prescient words:
Now, even though all of Israel will not return right away, it seems to me that the Land will become a universal center for the entire Jewish nation, by the very fact that there will be an assembly of Jews in Jerusalem and Eretz Yisrael. Even those who remain in the Diaspora will keep their eyes and hearts on the Land. They will be bound and connected with all their souls to the universal center, which will be established in Eretz Yisrael. It will unite them even in the Diaspora, and they will not be considered dispersed at all…
Diaspora Jews should make as many trips and spend as much time in Israel as possible. If you can afford it, don’t go to exotic locations for Pesach, go to Israel. Don’t go on summer excursions and tours around the world, go to Israel. But it is in between those trips that Diaspora Jews make their unique contribution to Israel, by using their presence in the Diaspora to advance Israel’s interests and well-being.
Israel certainly does not need Diaspora Jews disengaged from Israel. If Zionistic Jews have a role in the Diaspora we must be devoted and dedicated daily to serving Israel through financial support, lobbying, and advocating on social media, traditional media, and among coworkers and friends.
There is something practical every religious Zionist Jew in the Diaspora can do right now. The Uganda Plan is a distant memory, but the World Zionist Congress continues to meet and will hold its next assembly this year. The Congress’ 525 delegates from all over the world will include 145 delegates from the United States, elected from competing slates with different interests towards Israel’s policies and how funding should be allocated.
The Religious Zionist Slate is a party in the World Zionist Congress comprised of delegates from America’s foundational religious Zionist organizations who provide a religious voice for world Jewry by championing programming and policies that promote Jewish unity and continuity, as well as the preservation and enrichment of Torah values and Jewish life in Israel and around the world.
With every national election, Israeli citizens cast their votes to seat a new Knesset, the men and women who will chart a new path for the State of Israel. By voting in the upcoming elections for the World Zionist Congress, we in the Diaspora also have a voice in deciding Israel’s future as well as the future of Jewish life globally.
You can register and vote simultaneously by visiting www.voteTorah.org. As we are witnessing the rise of Islamic terror and anti-Semitism worldwide, we are amazingly fortunate and blessed to have the miraculous modern State of Israel as a place of refuge and safe haven for all Jews.
However, as Torah Jews and religious Zionists we must remember that Israel is much more than just a place to run to when the heat is turned up in the Diaspora. It is the singular Land for a singular people to bring the singular Torah to life.
Do your part for Israel, even from the Diaspora, by taking a moment to register and vote today.