For left-wing Jews, Israel can seem a very unwelcome and daunting place these days. Indeed, the number of them being detained and interrogated at points of entry into the country is growing steadily. Pulled aside at the border, they are questioned about their political views, their participation in protest movements, their visits to the West Bank, and their contacts with organizations and individuals critical of the government. The message is clear: If you don’t support the current Israeli government, you are not wanted here.
And yet some of these left-wing Jews not only refuse to be deterred, but have resolved that now, of all times, they wish to take advantage of the Law of Return – which allows Jews anywhere around the world to immigrate to Israel and take up citizenship.
The best-known example is Julie Weinberg-Connors, a young American Jew planning to study in Israel, who made headlines two weeks ago when she was detained at Ben-Gurion International Airport and questioned about her political activities and views.
Who are these Jews driven to make Israel their home knowing that they are not exactly wanted? Based on conversations with close to a dozen of them – some preferred not to have their names published out of concern that it could jeopardize their chances of being approved for aliyah (literally “moving up,” the Hebrew word for immigration) – these are not your typical English-speaking immigrants of the 1960s and ’70s.
Rather than join a kibbutz or teach poor Jewish children in outlying towns, these newcomers are opting to work and volunteer with Palestinians evicted from their land, African asylum seekers and organizations committed to Jewish-Arab coexistence.
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Rather than commit themselves permanently to life in Israeli, these newcomers take each day as it comes. But perhaps the key difference from their counterparts of decades ago is that their decision often has nothing to do with Zionism. In fact, many of them cringe at the term.
For some of the latest arrivals, making aliyah and obtaining Israeli citizenship has become nothing more than a simple act of self-protection: It guarantees that they won’t be deported in the event that they engage in activities deemed unacceptable by the current government.
Daniel Roth, the co-founder and co-director of Achvat Amim (“Solidarity Among the Nations”), a program that focuses on social justice and attracts many left-wing activists, knows these newcomers well. While they may have different reasons for moving to Israel, he says, they share one common aspiration: “They have a vision that this can be a more just and more peaceful place, and they want to participate in making that happen.”
Here are their stories...
Originally from Boston, 23-year-old Weinberg-Connors had spent six weeks in Israel during high school. But aside from that, she says, she was pretty clueless about the region. During the 2014 war in Gaza, she relays, she reflexively defended Israel’s actions against its critics among her peers. “My reaction would be that we can’t talk about this, that the Jews are in danger, that I have friends in the army, and I’d just try to shut the conversation down,” she recalls. “I really knew very little about the Palestinians.”
While participating in a study abroad program at Tel Aviv University during her college years, Weinberg-Connors says she began visiting the West Bank and had her first exposure to the occupation. “It became something very, very important to me,” she says. So important, in fact, that it prompted her decision to move to Israel.
“I decided that if the Jewish state claims to speak for me as a Jew and to represent me, and it’s a place that my community has invested in and has a deep love for, then it’s a place I should be making into a home I believe in that can speak for me as a Jew,” she says.
Weinberg-Connors moved her belongings to Israel a year ago, and while in the country submitted her application for aliyah. After she began the process in the spring, she was called in for an interview with the Jewish Agency.
“They asked me whether I’d ever been to the West Bank and whether I’d taken part in protests against the government,” she relays. “Then they apparently did some research on me and asked about my involvement in All That’s Left [a Jewish anti-occupation group based in Jerusalem]. I didn’t hear anything from them for four months, and then I received an email notifying me that my application had been sent to the Interior Ministry because I had visited Area A [part of the West Bank under Palestinian control, from which Israelis are prohibited entry]. So I prepared myself to be stopped at the airport on my next trip back in.”
Although it came as no surprise when she was detained two weeks ago, Weinberg-Connors says she still found the experience “jarring and scary.” Her immigration application is still pending approval, but she says she has “wonderful people in different organizations trying to move it along.”
Weinberg-Connors, who describes herself as “neither Zionist nor anti-Zionist,” says her experience at the airport strengthened her decision to make aliyah. “Part of my decision was based on concerns about my ability to stay here without deportation, and that exact fear was confirmed so I feel it’s even more important now. It also reinvigorated my commitment to pursuing a life of justice and understanding.”
Her original plan, she says, was to spend only two years in the country. “But the longer I live here, the more I love being here, and at the same time the more it breaks my heart. Right now, I plan to be here indefinitely, have a family here – if I have a family – and build a life here.”
This 21-year-old from Davis, California, moved to Israel in August and is now based in Jerusalem, where she works as an outreach coordinator for This is Not an Ulpan, a self-described “alternative language school” that offers courses in Hebrew and Arabic. She also works with Palestinians in the Hebron Hills, teaching them how to share their stories with wider audiences in English. She now receives a small stipend for this work, which she had originally undertaken on a voluntary basis.
Mann had her first introduction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when she participated in the Achvat Amim program. “While I was on the program I built a lot of relationships, and I think that what brought me here are all those relationships,” she says.
Asked why she decided to apply for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, Mann says it was so she could feel less at risk of deportation because of the type of work she does, and also so she could vote. “The financial aid doesn’t hurt either and makes it possible to do this,” she adds, referring to the package of benefits to which all immigrants to Israel are entitled.
Although she doesn’t like to label herself, Mann says she is “more leaning toward non-Zionist.” Asked if she sees herself staying in the country for the long haul, she responds: “That’s a good question. I’m here now, and it’s my passion now, but I don’t love living here. It’s a tough place, and life is very intense.”
A computer programmer at a high-tech company in Tel Aviv, Alper grew up in a fairly religious home in Palo Alto, California. He made aliyah the summer before last after graduating from MIT. As a gay man with a strong Jewish identity, he says, he thought either New York or Tel Aviv would be a good fit for him and ultimately opted for the latter. “I thought it’d be cool to live in Israel,” he says.
A year ago, Alper says, he would have defined himself as a “liberal Zionist.” But that is no longer the case. “Over time, I’ve become more left wing and less sympathetic to Zionism,” he says. “This shift has been very much influenced by my experiences here.”
By way of example, he cites his volunteer work with African asylum seekers living in south Tel Aviv. “Because of this idea that Israel is a Jewish state for the Jewish people, the fact that these asylum seekers are not Jewish has made their lives so difficult here,” he says. “It’s made me feel I can’t justify calling myself a Zionist anymore and has called into question many of my beliefs.”
He says he has also discovered since making the move that Tel Aviv is not the gay paradise it’s often reputed to be. “When I first arrived, I wasn’t aware of the fact that I wouldn’t be able to adopt a child here,” he explains. “And it’s frustrating because we’re constantly being told that we should move to Israel, that it’s great if you’re Jewish and it’s great if you’re gay here. But when push comes to shove, there’s not really this two-way relationship. Israel wants us provided we have the right political positions and serve the interests of those in power.”
However, he says he has no regrets about his decision to relocate. “I will say, though, that it can be really frustrating to live here as a leftist when you’re constantly being denigrated and the term ‘leftist’ has become almost a slur. You really need to have a tough skin.”
As a teen growing up in Australia, Tamara Newman was active in Habonim Dror, the socialist-Zionist youth movement. In 2005, while spending a year in Israel on one of its programs, her desire to make aliyah was kindled. “Years after finishing the movement,” she says, “the idea still had not rubbed off.”
Newman, 31, moved to Israel five years ago, after completing her master’s degree, and lives in Tel Aviv, where she works for the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants as director of international relations and development. When she first arrived, she says, she would have described herself politically as “being from the liberal-Zionist camp.” But she no longer feels comfortable with that definition. “There have been dramatic changes in these five years in terms of the extent of nationalism on display and the extent of Jewish supremacy,” she says, “so Zionism is not the term I like to lead with these days. I prefer to describe myself as a left-wing Israeli.”
She believes many Jews who describe themselves as liberal Zionists today, especially those living outside the country, are “somehow in denial” about where Israel is headed under its current government.
“I think for a long time liberal Jews in the Diaspora have not wanted to see it, and I understand why,” says Newman. “Modern Jewish secular identity is so deeply entrenched in Zionism that when Israel becomes a place that you can’t identify with any longer, your entire identity gets called into question.”
But she says all this has strengthened, rather than weakened, her resolve to stay in the country. “It makes me feel like I’m exactly where I need to be, that people committed to liberal ideas cannot step away now. If anything, they need to be more engaged than ever.”
He was born in Israel and lived in a small community in the Galilee until he was 9 years old. By then, his parents had experienced their fill of Israel and moved the family to New Hampshire.
After graduating from college three years ago, Erez Bleicher returned on his own to participate in Achvat Amim and stayed on. Today, based in Jerusalem, he works as a coordinator and facilitator for the program.
“I found an incredible community of people here dedicated to building movements for peace, justice and equality that I believed could help create the conditions for the futures I wanted for myself and others,” says the 28-year-old.
Because Bleicher was born in Israel, he already had Israeli citizenship. But when he moved back, he was re-naturalized as a “returning minor.” His parents, he says, weren’t thrilled with his decision. “They were upset to see me move so far away,” he says. “As people who grew up in the United States and then moved back again, they have different feelings about the prospects for happiness here given the difficulties that exist. I think they had a complicated relationship with this place by the time they left.”
But for him, it’s an exciting time to be in Jerusalem “building relationships with Jewish communities abroad also invested in creating change here,” he says.
That doesn’t mean he’s ready to commit himself for the long term. “I have no plans to leave right now, but neither am I intensely committed to being here for the rest of my life,” he says.
When asked how he defines himself politically, he responds: “I generally operate in spaces that are welcoming to people who are Zionists, non-Zionists, anti-Zionist and all of the above, as long as we can come together to create vibrant Jewish futures here and around the world that enhance the value of human life.”
Active in All That’s Left, Carly Rosenthal immigrated to Israel from Australia just a few weeks ago. Next month, she will begin working full-time for an organization that coordinates trips to the West Bank for foreigners interested in viewing the occupation up close.
“I feel very passionate about speaking out against injustice when I see it happening in my name,” she says.
Rosenthal had been concerned that her application for Israeli citizenship might be held up because of her views – and so she was naturally relieved when it was approved with no problems.
A graduate of the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair Zionist youth movement, the 24-year-old says she still believes in Zionism. “I view Zionism through a socialist lens where the term describes not only the Jewish right to self–determination in the land of Israel but the same right for all peoples, particularly the Palestinian people,” she elaborates.
The daughter of a Jewish father and Irish-Catholic mother, Rourke grew up in Montclair, New Jersey. The first “Jewish community” – as she describes it – that she joined was Hashomer Hatzair, and that was at a relatively later stage of her life. “What I liked about Hashomer Hatzair,” she says, “was that it was OK to be critical there.”
Rourke, 25, began college in the United States but then transferred to Tel Aviv University. Three years ago, her Israeli citizenship request was approved. Currently based in Jerusalem, she works as an outreach coordinator and facilitator for Achvat Amim.
“The work I am doing in Israel to end the occupation feels much more fulfilling and empowering,” she says, explaining her decision to immigrate.
Because she did not grow up in a proper Jewish community, says Rourke, she never felt any “emotional attachment” to the term Zionism. “I don’t care if people see me as a Zionist or not,” she says, when asked whether she identifies as such. She says her family was “a bit shocked and confused” by her decision to move to Israel, especially her mother. “We’ve gone through a process, and now she’s proud of me,” she says.
Does she see herself living in Israel permanently? “Who knows?” responds Rourke. “I have no plans to go back right now. For now, it’s my home.”
An Australian educator and journalist, Ittay Flescher moved with his wife and two children to Israel in January. Because he was born in Israel, he did not need to apply for citizenship, but his wife and children did. A self-described “liberal Zionist,” Flescher says their original plan was to “try out” Israel for two years. But now he believes they’ll stay longer.
Both teachers at a Jewish day school in Melbourne, Flescher and his wife spent a year in Israel in 2007, at the conclusion of which, he says, they wanted to stay on but could not because of previous obligations. They jumped at the first opportunity they had to return, which came more than 10 years later.
Flescher, who works as a freelance journalist for +61J, a left-wing Jewish publication based in Australia, teaches at various gap year programs in Jerusalem. He was recently appointed youth action program director at Kids4Peace, an organization dedicated to interfaith dialogue.
One of his key motivations for coming back to Israel, says Flescher, was to be able to express his political views freely. “In Australia, there’s a strong rule that if you don’t live in Israel, you have no right to share your opinions about the country – especially if you’re from the left,” he says. “So while working in education, I was always very careful not to express my views and to try to be as neutral as possible. But there was always stuff I wanted to say and write, and moving to Israel has definitely given me that right.”
He likens the situation of Jews in Australia observing events in Israel to spectators at a sports match. “You can yell things from the crowd, but that’s it,” he says. “I like the idea of being a player in this project the Jewish people are undertaking.”
At the same time, he doesn’t ignore the role Zionism has played in his decision.
“It may sound cheesy, but my dad was born here and he fought in the ’67 war,” relays Flescher, 39. “My grandfather fought in the ’48 war, and my grandmother came on the first aliyah from Germany. I’m very aware of Zionist history and very aware that if my grandmother had not left Germany at 19 as a crazy socialist, she would have been dead like the rest of her family, and that we are very lucky to live in a very narrow window of Jewish history in which there is a Jewish state.
“Most of Jewish history, there wasn’t a Jewish state and, for better or for worse, I know what happened to the Jewish people when there wasn’t a Jewish state. I didn’t want to live my whole life thinking that I was alive while there was this Jewish state but I never lived there. In a way, I feel like I sort of won a lottery. As I see it, this is the greatest experiment undertaken by Jewish people in modern history, and I want to be part of it.”
Since moving to Israel, Flescher has allowed himself to indulge his political leanings. An active member of the left-wing-Zionist Meretz party, in April he participated in the alternative Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day service. His new job, he says, is yet another example of his commitment to walking the walk here in Israel. “I had lots of job offers in the field of Jewish education, but I chose this job specifically,” he says, “because it’s part of the reason I’m here – to try to make a difference.
“For me, it makes being here more OK, because I’m doing something that’s contributing to making this place hopefully more equal for everyone and to ending the conflict.”
This article was amended on October 2 to reflect that Julie Weinberg-Connors' dealings were with the Jewish Agency, not Nefesh B'Nefesh