Forty years ago today I made Aliyah to Israel
30 September, 2020
I immigrated to Israel ("made Aliyah", is the phrase we use), at age 21, exactly on this day, 40 years ago, from a country that Israelis are so fond of emigrating to- the United States. I was not part of any historical "immigration wave", had never openly experienced any Anti-Semitism, was not escaping any crisis, and felt all around that the world was wide open for me to do nearly anything my heart was calling me to do. And what I want to do was make Aliyah.
My friends were busy forging career paths: one was on the way to being a doctor, another a lawyer, a third a Conservative Rabbi, and me? I did not have any "career path", I was "making Aliyah". I was not part of those Jews who were moving to Israel out of a feeling that it was the "Holy Land", I did not wear a kipa on my head, I shunned going to live on any settlement in the "Territories". I was part and parcel of those Jews, whose number even then was dwindling quickly, those "Zionists" who believed that in Israel we were establishing a country that would be "different"- a place with a deep sense of morality and ethics, a commitment to equality and to unity- as the Biblical phrase goes, also adopted by secular Zionists- "A light unto the Gentiles." I visualized leaving the "pot of meat" of obsessive materialism in the US for something passionately beautiful and creative, exciting, unprecedented in its power of renewal of the Jewish People, 35 years after the Holocaust, nearly 2000 years after the exile from the Land of Israel.
I had deeply absorbed the amazingly idealistic stories told in my home, at my school, at summer camps and in my visits to Israel- now, now the time had come to make the leap, make it all come true for me.
Thus, when I "came to stay" in Israel, and kept getting asked this question, especially during my 2 year military service, I was immensely disappointed and frustrated: "Why did you come here, Ronnie? And you came from New York! Wow, I LOVE New York!!" I thought to myself: how can they not understand? I have to explain it to THEM, those who were born and raised here?
My disappointments mounted, one after the next. I worked out intensively to raise my medical profile so I could qualify for a combat unit, what I perceived as the only way to make a meaningful contribution as soldier in the Israel military. Military service was compulsory in Israel, but to me it was not the "compulsory" that engaged me psychologically , but as a new immigrant, this was "my chance" to fully establish my identity and place in Israeli society. To my deep chagrin, 24 hours into my service my medical profile was lowered, and with it, my motivation plummeted, hitting rock bottom. The dream of "meaningful and redemptive military service", ended up being more of a struggle with meaninglessness, shame and frustration.
What's more, I began to interact with Israeli society at large, which for me was as far from the dreams, descriptions and inspiration of my youth as one can get. As a soldier during the First Lebanese War in 1982, I started to see the darker sides of the conflicts here in this part of the world, things I could not see from afar growing up, things I did not want to see from afar. My dream had been shattered. I did not see any "light unto the Gentiles", just a lot of darkness unto the Jews…
In the words of a popular song to the voice of the famed singer Arik Einstein: "They say everything was wonderful here before I was born… but when I got here I did not find anything of the sort. Maybe it's already over." I left Israel to travel and live in the East, and study in the West. During the next 7 years I spent only 7 months in Israel.
Looking back 40 years
When I look back on myself 40 years ago, at that kid whose name then- and today- is "Ronnie Dunetz", I can't help but ask myself the question: If I felt then as I do today, would I have made Aliyah to Israel? The answer hits me immediately: No! I would not come here, I am convinced of that, there would be nothing to draw me here. Even back then there was much less than I thought, it was only 7 years after the traumatic Yom Kippur War, which caused a huge rift and lack of confidence in Israeli leadership for so, so many. Back then I was just deep on my "Zionist trip", not wanting to open my eyes and look directly at what I was seeing.
But, on the other hand…
There is always that "other hand", isn't there? In fact, I think we also need a third and forth "hand" to really understand such things.
On the other hand, what have I really said here anyway? It's easy to be "wise in retrospect", we are all geniuses in "retrospect". I used to be very angry in that boy of 21, that idealistic kid, who was blinded and naïve. Instead of forging a profession what was this "making Aliyah" business- is making Aliyah some kind of career? Get serious, man…Today, I can see the innocence in him with a lot of empathy and a fair bit of compassion. I would not go so far as to say that it was the right decision to come live in Israel, this I won't say…but, you know what? I spent a lot of time over the mountains and across the seas, north, south, east and west, and to be honest, I don't recall seeing that much "light" amongst the "Gentiles" either.
We are all familiar how the "grass looks greener on the other side", how do I know that this is not just a similar kind of fantasy, just reversed?
Many times over the years I wondered to myself- how would my life had turned out if I had not "made Aliyah" in all respects? Where would I have lived, with whom, doing what, for what purpose and vision exactly?
What surprises me the most these days, much more than in the past, (and maybe this is the sign of my moving on to the "next phase" of life?), is that I am beginning to think that so much of what once seemed to "really make a difference" does not… really make a difference. In the end, a man finds that he has learned from everybody and his greatest wisdom is from what he has learned from his own experience.
And on the other hand…I see lots of paradoxes within me, once I would try and correct the conflicting points to make them "one", today I simply observe them and wonder how I can think, believe and act in such seemingly "opposite ways" and still feel fine about my life and getting up in the morning.
And I wonder, after saying all that I have said above:
That when I hear of another Israeli family, with so much talent, value and treasures to give, that went on "relocation" and never came back- it hurts me as we have lost their wisdom and gifts forever. It hurts me to think of the million or so Israelis who have left the country over the years, resources that will never blossom and contribute to our society here in a real way.
That every Yom Kippur, Yom Hashoah(Holocaust Remembrance Day), Memorial Day, I want to be here, only here and nowhere else. And I can hardly explain why this is so strong within me.
That I feel so proud and content that my children grew up here, grew roots here, my daughter an officer and my son a combat soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, that they were able to contribute to the nation a way which I was not successful in doing.
That now that my parents are gone and buried, something feels just right that it should be in the Land of Israel and not in one of those communities that my family wandered in and out of for over 2 decades in the US.
I have always tried to stay away from the hordes of Israelis who travel the world, going back to "pre-Coronavirus" times- they never interested me. But if I were abroad and happen to have the misfortune of finding myself amidst a natural, political, health or personal crisis, who would I reach out to and feel that I could trust and rely upon before everybody else, if not those same Israeli travelers whom I was so intent at avoiding?
Today, more than ever before, I feel how painfully adept the people of Israel are in "consuming one another", in generating animosity, anger and even hateful division. It is not the land that is doing it to the people, the land will live on forever, the people are doing it to each other. What kind of society will develop here in the future I really do not know. In fact, it is hard to be optimistic.
Today, 40 years later, I can't say that I made the right decision. One thing I can say, however, without any hesitation: that what is important is to make the best and make "authentic" that which is given to you, to go with who you are "deep inside", as it is only from there that people grow. Ideals, philosophies, movements and even values will come and go, and even very conflicting ideas can live somehow together in harmony.
If I could tell that young man of 21 a few of these things, I am sure he would not really want to listen very much. Maybe the only thing I could do would be to give him a hug, maybe a good kick in the butt, not much more. Perhaps I would insist on his calling his parents more often, despite the fact that they don't seem to "get" what really concerns him, they actually understand a lot more than he thinks. And one more thing-they love him very much. Talking about what is really important…