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Will American Jews Flee to Israel?

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avatar by Ira Stoll


Pro-Israel activists face down disruptive protesters at a University of California Irvine event with Reservists on Duty, May 3, 2018. Photo: YouTube screenshot.

JERUSALEM — The blood was barely dry from the attack by a machete-wielding assailant who wounded five Jews at a Monsey, New York Hanukkah party before an Israeli politician, Avigdor Lieberman, declared that the “main solution” to rising violent antisemitism in the US is for American Jews to emigrate to Israel.

Such declarations by Israeli politicians in the wake of antisemitic attacks outside of Israel are frequent. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a similar call in 2015 after deadly attacks on a kosher supermarket in Paris and a synagogue in Copenhagen.

Such declarations are frequently met with eye-rolling, frustration, or even anger, by non-Israeli Jews. Already feeling uneasy following a violent attack, these Jews must now contend with prominent Israelis, in essence, agreeing with the antisemites that it would be better if the Jews didn’t live in Paris or Copenhagen or America but instead fled to somewhere else. It’s not helpful, the complaint about such statements goes, to reinforce the idea that American Jews or French Jews or Denmark’s Jews are somehow a foreign presence, just a bunch of Israeli Jews in waiting.

Lieberman, a former Israeli defense minister who heads his own political party, is no fringe figure; he’s emerged as a kingmaker in Israel’s fractious coalition politics. He himself is an immigrant to Israel from Moldova; he is popular among those who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union.

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As antisemitic violence in America becomes increasingly common — the Monsey assault followed deadly attacks on Jewish targets in Jersey City, Pittsburgh, and Poway, California — expect such calls from Israeli politicians to become increasingly frequent. At a certain point, American Jews may stop dismissing the calls to flee as unhelpful. Instead these Jews may start thinking about leaving.

Such a mass “aliya,” or “going up,” as the Hebrew word for immigration to Israel puts it, would be good for Israel. Immigration from America would help Israel maintain a Jewish majority over the Arab population. It also would help infuse Israel with some American values and policy preferences — pluralism, rule of law, separation of religion and state, freer markets, lower taxes, competition, and choice. Many of these values and policies are already present, or even strong, in Israel in some ways. They have gained traction in recent years in part because of American-educated Israeli leaders such as Benjamin Netanyahu. But other such values could use reinforcement.

And such immigration could also be pretty good for American Jews. Israel is a gorgeous country, with warm weather, a strikingly beautiful landscape, delicious food, and a vibrant high-tech economy. There are security concerns and mandatory army service, but Israelis now say they feel safer than their American cousins. Even if American Jews don’t decide to move, it’s nice to have the option. It’s better to have a choice of countries competing to attract you than to have nowhere to go, which was a situation that Jews faced when being persecuted in the 20th century.

It would not, however, be good for America if Jews in large numbers decided to take Avigdor Lieberman’s advice and get out while the getting is still good. This is true even if it means you could get rid of your personally least favorite Jew — Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, or Stephen Miller for the Trump-haters; Rep. Adam Schiff or Senator Bernie Sanders for the Trump fans. Spain got rid of its Jews in 1492 and it’s been basically downhill for the Spaniards ever since — so much so that Spain recently begged any Jews who were willing to come back. The Soviet Union used to be a superpower; since most of its Jews left, Russia has declined to a status of being newsworthy primarily as a source of American political scandals, real or imagined.

Will such a mass flight happen? The idea that the US Jewish population of somewhere between five to seven million, depending on how you count, is going to pick itself up and relocate to the Middle East may seem far-fetched. But so was the idea of a series of deadly attacks on American Jewish targets. Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, Monsey… How many more similar assaults will it take before American Jews start taking Lieberman seriously and begin browsing online real estate listings in Israeli suburbs?

As I finish this column during a brief family vacation to Israel, I’m looking forward to heading home to Boston. But during my next volunteer security guard shift outside our synagogue, the cold morning will be made warmer by the knowledge that there is another home on offer if the situation in the US further deteriorates.

Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of his media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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