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An Urgent, Misguided Call to Come 'Home'

August 29, 2004|Jo-Ann Mort | Jo-Ann Mort is co-author of "Our Hearts Invented a Place: Can Kibbutzim Survive in Today's Israel?"

NEW YORK — Amid the mix of languages -- Hebrew, English, Arabic -- commonly heard on the streets of Israel, a new one stood out this summer: French.

French Jews, worried about a rise in anti-Semitism in France and encouraged by Israeli leaders, are coming -- even moving -- to Israel in droves.

The signs of the French presence are everywhere. Tel Aviv restaurants now highlight Tunisian tuna (many French Jews have roots in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco). Hotels have added French translations to shopping and entertainment guides. French TV is now found beside CNN on hotel TVs. French Jews are even buying up property, especially in the resort town of Eilat, the port city of Ashdod, and Netanya, a city near Tel Aviv.

The flood of French Jews to Israel has clearly been good for the tourism industry, which has taken a beating since the start of the latest intifada. The uptick in travel to Israel has grown out of French Jews' feelings of insecurity in their own homeland, where acts of anti-Semitism have increased in number and where many leaders have expressed support for the Palestinian cause and criticized Israel's actions. Israeli leaders, eager for a new round of immigration to Israel and seeing France's 600,000 Jews as ripe for plucking, have fanned those feelings of insecurity. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stepped back after criticism, but the point was already made.

Earlier this summer, Sharon addressed French Jews directly, saying he'd been tracking "the spread of the wildest anti-Semitism" in France. "If I have to advise our brothers in France," he added, "I'll tell them one thing -- move to Israel, as early as possible. I say that to Jews all around the world, but [in France] I think it's a must, and they have to move immediately."

It is, of course, a vital tenet of Zionism that a Jewish state should provide a haven for persecuted Jews. All Jews, no matter where they are born, have the right to move to Israel and gain citizenship, and there's no doubt that the safety-valve feature of Israel is still vital for Jews the world over. But the emphasis on this aspect of Israel and its role in Diaspora life has forced Israel into an aura of negativity that doesn't accurately reflect the present-day reality for Jews around the globe, nor does it reflect well on Israel's own self-image.

Though it's true that anti-Semitism still flourishes in the world, it's not true that Jewish lives are endangered today as they were in the last century with pogroms, the Holocaust and Stalinism. Vigilance is certainly called for, and the guarantee of a haven for Jews remains crucial. But to react simply from paranoia, to be in a defensive posture always and to falsely intimate that the world is out to get the Jews, when in fact it's not, does a grave disservice to Israel and to Diaspora Jewry.

In Tel Aviv, just a block away from the hotels and beaches where the French tourists hang out, is a place more tourists -- and potential immigrants -- should visit: the tiny, squat, Bauhaus-style former home of David Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister. On Ben Gurion's desk sits a bust of Albert Einstein, whom Ben Gurion tried to lure to be the second president of the fledgling state in the early 1950s. Einstein, a secular Jew and a leftist, believed deeply in coexistence between Jews and Arabs. He regretfully refused the offer, but it was no accident that Ben Gurion kept Einstein's image at hand. Both men knew that the tragic fate of the Jewish people in the 20th century pointed to an urgent need for a Jewish state, but their shared dream was for an Israel that could offer hope not only to the Jewish people but to all people. Unfortunately, it's not the Israel of Ben Gurion or Einstein that exists today.

There are three ways that Jews outside Israel come to live there. The first is need, the second is religious attachment and the third is desire for secular Jewish fulfillment. It's this last notion that inspired early Zionist leaders like Ben Gurion. Although many came to Israel partly out of need, they also came with the goal of building a nation that would become a moral beacon, one where culture and equality thrived. This is not a notion that figures into the appeal Israel is making to French Jews today.

On the wall of Ben Gurion's house is this excerpt from his writings: "The attachment of Israel to the Jewish people is not one of necessity and benefit, but one of mission and fate. The state of Israel will not be tried by its riches, army, or techniques, but by its moral image and human values."

Let that be the beacon Israel sends to the world's Jews.

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