Zionism Today: Not What You Think It Is

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Jewish immigrants from Yemen arrive at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport.
Jewish immigrants from Yemen arrive at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport, 2009.Credit: Limor Edri

You probably saw the breathless headlines two weeks ago heralding the arrival in Israel of the “Last Jews from Yemen” and read about how a group of 17 men and women were saved from the war-torn country where the Shi’ite Houthis movement has the words “Damn the Jews” as part of its official slogan.

Well of course we should be happy that 17 Jews are out of danger now. But the truth behind the “rescue operation” is that it could have taken place months or even years ago if those same families had chosen to come to Israel sooner, instead of attempting to sell their homes before emigrating.

And by the way, they’re not the last Jews of Yemen — some 40 remain behind, attached to their family and communal property. Not that I blame them. Moving to a new and strange land, leaving behind assets held by their families for centuries, and without any firm promise of financial security, is a daunting prospect. True, life isn’t safe right now in Yemen, but when was it ever safe for the Jews?

They had every right to choose the moment of their emigration and none of us — who have never been in that situation — should blame them.

Meanwhile, another community would like to be on the move. Thousands of Ethiopian citizens claiming to be of Jewish descent are demanding to emigrate to Israel. While all the resources and efforts of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency were devoted to bringing a handful of stubborn Yemenites to Zion, the Falashmura are in the opposite position: They want to come but Israel is much less eager to have them. After all, the Yemenites were members of an ancient Jewish community who steadfastly clung to their faith through millennia, whereas the Falashmura’s ties to Judaism are much more tenuous. Descendants of the Beta Yisrael community, who converted to Christianity over a century ago and since intermarried with locals, they have been trying to reach Israel since the early 1990s. While many of them succeeded, there are always more relatives in Ethiopia eager for a life in a Westernized society.

Most Israeli politicians and media, either out of ignorance or a fear of appearing racist, pay lip-service to the Falashmura and call them “Ethiopian Jews” while many in the Ethiopian-Israeli community and experts in Jewish organizations quietly insist they are freeloaders who have nothing to do with Judaism. Some of their supporters sincerely believe they are long-lost brothers. Others are cynical lobbyists making money out of the emigration and conversion industries (because they all have to undergo conversion upon arrival).

The government claims that a lack of funds prevents Israel from bringing the next group of 9,000 Falashmura this year. The real reason is that the government has realized the truth behind a warning once sounded by an Ethiopian minister: If Israel allows the Falashmura to emigrate, “invite me to the ceremony for the millionth emigrant,” he said. But the Falashmura are patient. As happened over and over in the past, their champions will continue to apply pressure until this government, or the next relents, the 9,000 will be allowed in and then, once they’re here, there will be another group waiting. And once again who can blame them? Life in Israel, even at the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder, is immeasurably more comfortable than in Ethiopia. If you somehow have some claim to Jewish roots and there are politicians and journalists interested in pressing your case, you’ll get here eventually.

Meanwhile in Europe, Jews are packing their bags — just not in the places where everyone thought they would be. For all the talk of a massive exodus of Jews fleeing terror and anti-Semitism in France, the aliyah figures for 2015 were up by only a few percent over 2014 and in the first two months of 2016 the numbers are actually down by 40 percent, compared to the same months last year.

The two countries from which emigration to Israel is surging are Russia and Ukraine, where a prolonged economic slump and political instability is causing thousands to rediscover their Jewish ancestry as a path to a more secure future.

For all the talk of rising Islamism and anti-Semitism in Western Europe and particularly France, the overwhelming majority of Jews who emigrated from there over the last decade did so first and foremost for economic and family reasons. And while there’s no statistics available yet, every bit of anecdotal evidence I’ve seen suggests that quite a few of them decided to return to their native countries after trying life in Israel.

That’s Zionism in 2016 a decision based largely on economic assessments of whether life in Israel is easier and more comfortable than the alternatives. That doesn’t mean that Zionism’s original raison d’etre of providing a haven for persecuted Jews is no longer valid, only that thankfully it just isn’t relevant right now.

History has proven that periods such as the one we are in now in which Jews are not under major threat in the countries of their birth are usually brief. Zionism is about ensuring that a safe haven is there when that period ends.

There’s a lot of empty talk right now in the United States about Zionism being in crisis and a younger generation of Jews turning away from Zionism. It’s ironic that such talk is taking place in a country where Zionism is the least relevant. Not only because in proportion to its size, the Jewish community in the United States is the one with the lowest rate of emigration to Israel in the world, but because American Jews are the least likely in the foreseeable future to be in need of a haven.

Whether they are feeling disaffected with Israel because of its disastrous policies towards the Palestinians or the continuing stranglehold of the ultra-Orthodox rabbis over religious affairs and personal status issues, their problem isn’t with Zionism — it’s with Israel.

Anti-Zionism is just a fashionable buzzword which doesn’t mean what most Jews who toy with the idea really think it is. Israel may be in crisis, but not Zionism. And while of course the two of them are connected, they are not the same.

This isn’t just pedantry. Israel could still become a lot less democratic and liberal than it already is and would remain that haven for Jews in need. Some actually believe it will be a stronger and better-protected haven if it is less democratic and liberal. But that isn’t an argument over the justification of Zionism, but over Israeli policy.

The only way for an American Jew to be an anti-Zionist is to either not care about the plight of Jews in other places or to sincerely believe that if at any point in which Jews are in mortal danger, the United States will give all of them sanctuary, no matter how many of them need it.

Detesting the way Israel treats Palestinians or disenfranchises Reform Jews isn’t anti-Zionism. It’s just detesting Israel’s government, its policies and the current state of much of Israeli society. You may very well feel the same way about the situation in the United States under a Republican president, especially if it’s Donald Trump – does that make you anti-American? Inveighing against Zionism may make you popular in some circles on campus or get you a gig with some fringe website, but you probably don’t know what Zionism is anyway.

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