After Pittsburgh and Poway, is it time to make aliyah?

by Brian on May 11, 2019

in In the News,Living Through Terror,Politics

“Enough. Just enough. Get on the damn planes.” 

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein of Chabad of Poway speaking at the White House

That was the unequivocal response from local Facebook pundit Paula Stern, who posted just minutes after news broke about the shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, north of San Diego. 

The planes Paula is referring to, of course, should be heading to Israel.

“It isn’t about money,” Paula implored her American Jewish readers. “It isn’t about the homes or cars you may have now or may or may not be able to afford at the beginning. It’s about your very lives and those of your children.”

Is Paula right? Have the twin shul attacks in Poway and six months before that in Pittsburgh laid bare the existential danger of living as a Jew outside of Israel in a time of resurgent anti-Semitism? 

On the face of it, the argument – “move to Israel where it’s safer” – hardly seems valid. Far more Jews have been murdered by terrorists in our tiny slice of the Middle East than in the Diaspora. 

So, unless you include the Holocaust in your calculations, or you have a crystal ball accurately predicting the time and place of a new wave of international pogroms, how can you claim that Jews are somehow safer today in Israel? 

On the contrary: the existential threat is here, with hundreds of thousands of missiles aimed our way from Lebanon and the potential of nuclear annihilation from Iran always lurking just around the JCPOA corner. 

Of course, there’s more to living with meaning and purpose than staying safe at all costs. But that didn’t stop our family from fantasizing about escape one Friday night.

Our daughter, Merav and her husband, Gabe, are no strangers to danger. Merav has written eloquently about her life dodging missiles in Sderot, where she is a student at Sapir College. After a particularly brutal few days earlier this year, the couple sought refuge in Jerusalem. They invited friends to drop by after dinner. 

“If you could live anywhere, where is the safest place?” one person asked. The young people, world-weary before they’d even finished their degrees, began listing off regions and countries.

Europe was out – the jihadists had made sure of that. Post Pittsburgh, so was the U.S.

Southeast Asia had seen enough attacks to cross the region off the register even before the Easter massacres in Sri Lanka.

“New Zealand!” one person said triumphantly. “We traveled there after the army. It’s a paradise. The police don’t even carry weapons.”

Then Christchurch happened. 

Although that shooter targeted Muslims, the ideology to which he subscribes makes clear that, there’s no love lost between white nationalists and the Jews either. 

The friends around our dining room table became quiet. In a world where no place is safe, the question becomes less about outright prevention than of who do you want around you when tragedy strikes?

Are you more comfortable if the first responders are Israeli? Does it give you solace to know that some of your fellow citizens will be armed and well-trained to take down a shooter (while in a country that maintains strict gun control laws)? Are you reassured that there is a Jewish army to protect you (even if that force sometimes falls afoul of its own high moral standards)?

Moreover, does the shared trauma and experience of living in a “dangerous neighborhood” actually better prepare Israelis to deal with the violence that will inevitably come, no matter where in the world we may be?

That seemed to be one of the messages from the San Diego shooting. Among those in attendance at the Chabad of Poway synagogue were members of a family who had moved to California from Sderot. (That irony has not been lost on anyone: “We left Sderot because of the rocket fire,” the father of eight-year-old Noya Dahan, who was wounded in the attack, told Israeli radio. “We left fire for fire.”)

Almog Peretz, Noya’s uncle who was also injured, commented to Israel’s Channel 12 that, “this is sad,” but given that he’d lived not far from the Gaza border, “we know a bit about running from Qassam rockets.” 

Peretz credited his experience rushing to bomb shelters for honing his instincts, adding that he “took a little girl who was our neighbor and three nieces of mine and ran.” He hid the children in a building out back, then returned to rescue another family member who was stuck in the bathroom. 

Israeli Shimon Abitbol, who was visiting Poway for a family simcha, said “without thinking twice I lay down on my grandson and protected him.” Abitbol is a deputy director for the Magen David Adom ambulance service and was the organization’s station chief in Kiryat Shmona during the Second Lebanon War.

So, is Paula right – but for the wrong reasons? “Get on the damn planes” – not necessarily for your physical safety but to know you’ll be in good hands when needed?

I don’t share Paula’s reproach that Diaspora Jewish tragedies like Pittsburgh and Poway should necessarily compel Jews to emigrate en masse. Aliyah is a nuanced and highly personal decision that isn’t right for everyone. Ideally, it shouldn’t be made as a defensive reaction to horrific events but as a carefully considered choice coming from a proactive desire to belong to a people and a place. 

Still, if current events contribute to such reasoning, as we celebrate 71 years of independence, those of us in Israel will be more than happy to welcome you.

I first commented on Pittsburgh and Poway at The Jerusalem Post.

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