What Amira Hass Doesn't Understand About Jewish Immigration to Israel

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A new immigrant arriving in Israel.Credit: Sasson Tiram

After the Romans conquered the last independent Jewish state, Jews yearned to return to their land of origin for nearly 2,000 years. As they survived Crusades, expulsions, Inquisitions, pogroms, and the Holocaust, exiled Jews continued to pray daily, always facing Jerusalem, for the opportunity to go back to the land of Israel. In 1948, their dreams were realized upon the establishment of the modern state of Israel, and millions of Diaspora Jews have since seized the opportunity to return to their ancestral homeland – to make aliyah. This week, Haaretz journalist Amira Hass called such Jews "criminals" and warned others not to follow their lead.

Hass argues in her column (“My Message to Diaspora Jews: Don’t Become Accomplices to Israel’s Crimes,” Haaretz, December 21) that until Palestinians have equal rights, it is a crime for Diaspora Jews to take advantage of the rights the State of Israel offers them, including the privilege of making aliyah. This harsh allegation against Diaspora Jews stems from Hass' deep concern for Palestinian political and civil rights. Yet, her argument is nonsensical at best, discriminatory at worst, and – importantly – counterproductive to the goal of a more just State of Israel.

The goal of rights movements is to promote the fair treatment of the oppressed; not to decrease the rights of the privileged. Political and civil rights are not a zero-sum game. Criminalizing the privileges of Jews does nothing to increase the rights of Palestinians. Would Hass argue that it is "criminal" for heterosexuals to exercise their sexual freedom in countries that prohibit homosexuality? Of course not; this would do nothing to promote the rights of the oppressed population.

Thus, Hass' argument is not actually about promoting Palestinian rights, but rather about unleashing anger toward Diaspora Jews who choose to move to Israel, exercising a privilege that Palestinians do not have. But Hass, too, has privileges that are unavailable to Palestinians – as does every other Israeli citizen, Jew and Arab alike.

She tries to distinguish Israelis from Diaspora Jews by suggesting, “We who were born in this country are collaborators against our will” and that “Israel, by default, is our home.” Yet, this distinction is also absurd. Nobody is preventing Hass or any other Israeli from emigrating or renouncing their citizenship. The decision to stay in Israel is thus no less a choice than choosing to move there. Her use of such arbitrary, unfounded differentiations to treat one group – Diaspora Jews who make aliyah – more harshly than another – Israelis by birth – is by definition discriminatory, whether intentional or not.

Most importantly, Hass’ argument is counterproductive to the goal of increasing Palestinian political and civil rights. The biggest impediment to more just treatment of Palestinians is the shrinking percentage of the left in the Israeli electorate. One of the best ways to counter this trend is for more liberal Jews to immigrate to Israel.

At present, the world’s largest population of liberal Jews lives in the United States. According to polls, over 60 percent of American Jews are Democrats, and they are the most liberal and secular voting bloc in America. As Israel turns toward the right, it needs more citizens with these values, not less.

Calling Diaspora Jews who are considering making aliyah “criminals” alienates them from the possibility of immigrating to Israel and pushing for the integration of their liberal values into Israeli society. This, in turn, all but ensures that the status quo for Palestinians stays the same – or gets worse.  

After 2,000 years, there is once again an independent Jewish state. In addition to its many successes, it has also made mistakes. Many of these have been at the expense of Palestinians.  But these mistakes are not reason to keep Diaspora Jews out. On the contrary, they should serve as an impetus for more liberal Jews to make aliyah to help make Israel a more just society.

In a single paragraph of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, the founders of the Jewish state linked “Jewish immigration and the Ingathering of the Exiles” with the goals of freedom, justice, peace, and equality for all its inhabitants. The intimate connection between Jewish immigration to Israel and the state’s drive for betterment remains as true today as it was in 1948. Then, as now, aliyah was no crime. It is a privilege and an opportunity.

Ayalon Eliach is a lawyer and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College. He holds a BA in Religious Studies from Yale University and a JD from Harvard Law School. He is passionate about using religion as a source of connection rather than separation in the world. He tweets at @ayaloneliach.