Modern Aliyah

Economic, political, and religious trends shape the cultural makeup of the State of Israel.

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Jews who decided to leave France for Israel since 2000 had a different motivation: the eruption of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hostilities, including violent attacks on members of the community.

Like many Soviet and Ethiopian olim, the French and Argentinean Jews who left their homes for Israel tended to display one other important characteristic: a high level of communal affiliation and a strong Jewish identity. This trait is nowhere more dominant than among olim from the English speaking world--primarily the US, Canada and Britain--countries which have better economic prospects and have no recent history of significant anti-Semitism. These olim hope to find religious fulfillment, plan to immerse themselves in a majority Jewish culture, or aspire to play a role in strengthening the Jewish state. It's no coincidence that Western aliyah peaked during Israel's brief, euphoric period of pride and self-confidence in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War.

But even in the West, economics has a role to play. The mission of the Nefesh b'Nefesh organization, founded in 2002, is to "substantially increase the number of future [north American] olim by removing the financial, professional and logistical obstacles that prevent many individuals from actualizing their dreams." Nefesh b'Nefesh propels new immigrants through the maze of government bureaucracy and provides significant financial support to tide olim through their initial period in Israel. In its first five years, the organization brought over 6,500 Jews to Israel, and by 2011, the organization had brought over 26,000 olim. The "Great Recession" beginning in the US in 2007 also led to a dramatic increase in North American aliyah. The implication is clear: however strong the ideological commitment to aliyah, money is necessary to catalyze the process.

Idealism or Pragmatism?

This insight runs counter to idea of aliyah in much classical Zionist thought. Early twentieth century thinkers such as Ahad Ha'am and A. D. Gordon believed that Diaspora life had a fossilizing, corrupting effect on the Jewish people's psyche. Aliyah meant shaking off the dust of Exile and returning to the Land as upright, independent Jews, to participate in the creation of a modern, dynamic Hebrew culture. As recently as 2005, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon surprised no one when he addressed Jewish visitors from all over the world at the opening of the Maccabiah Games: "I hope that by the next Maccabiah, you will have immigrated here and be part of the Israeli delegation."

Yet Theodor Herzl's predictions of mass immigration to the Jewish state as a result of economic distress and anti-Semitism--and not ideology--have proved more accurate. Throughout Zionist history, waves of immigration have stemmed from Russian pogroms in the 1880s, Polish and Nazi antisemitism in the 1930s, hostility in the Middle-East and North Africa in the 1940s and '50s, and economic and political strife in 21st century Russia, Ethiopia and Argentina.

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.