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by Mitchell Abidor Zionism is the expression of our being fed up with being ruled by goyim. -Yeshayahu Leibowitz WHILE RESEARCHING MY POST ON THE FLIGHT OF JEWS FROM FRANCE Jewish Currents editor Lawrence Bush asked me to research comparative numbers for Jewish emigration from the U.S. and France. This turned out not to be easy: every article, every table consulted gave a different figure for the same periods. But no matter where I looked, the numbers themselves were something of a shock. However small I had thought the number of Jews making aliyah was, the number was far smaller. According to the figures on the website Jewish Virtual Library, since 1948 a total of 138,074 Jews have left the U.S. and Canada for Israel, 79,891 from France, 34,761 from Great Britain, 66,916 from Argentina, and 20,038 from South Africa, for a total of 339,680. I’ve chosen these countries and not the former Soviet Union, the countries of the Arab world, or Ethiopia, because this number — for the most part — represents people who have made a choice of their own free will to move to the ancestral homeland. They were not driven by official anti-Semitism or widespread popular Jew-hatred. The number, 339,680, is roughly the attendance at eight St. Louis Cardinal baseball games. Examining the numbers more closely, certain patterns do stand out: Emigration from the U.S., which is typically in the 2,000 range annually, spiked wildly between 1969-1976, averaging 4,675 (reaching a high of 8,122 in 1971). This could be attributed to the enthusiasm generated by Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, and also Israel’s final spasm as a representative, via the kibbutz movement, of an alternative form of socialism. Argentine numbers rose slightly during the height of the Dirty War of 1976-1983, when Jews were especial victims of the uniformed murderers responsible for the tortures and disappearances. There was also a huge spike in 2002, with 5,931 Argentines leaving, this on the heels of the previous year’s collapse of the Argentine economy. South African numbers more than doubled, in fact nearly tripled (to still-low figures of 437 and 595) in 1993 and 1994, at the end of the apartheid era and with the election of the first ANC government. Finally, as I previously reported, French immigration has risen with the rise of the new anti-Semitism in France, though the role of the economy should not be discounted. THIS EXAMINATION LEADS TO THE CONCLUSION that whatever the circumstances, Israel as an option remains the choice of an infinitesimal number of people, and becomes a more likely choice only when the situation in a given country is immediately worrisome. Once the worry has passed, immigration disappears from the screen. As we see in the cases of the spikes in Argentina and South Africa, the problems had nothing to do with Jews qua Jews: society had become unsettled and Israel was taken as an option to escape those wider problems. This all might seem evident, but it reflects poorly on the fundamental basis for Zionism, as expressed in “Hatikvah”: “We’ve not yet lost our hope of two thousand years/To be a free people in our own land.” Few Jews choose to move there, and when they do, it’s not because they’ve chosen to be a free people in their own land, but rather because they are pushed by external circumstances. These external circumstances should not be discounted. When no one else would take in those fleeing and later the survivors of the Holocaust, or those displaced with the rise of Arab nationalism, or by Soviet anti-Semitism, Israel played a vital role in providing them a home, and though there is a paradox involved here, since some of the hatred of the Jews was generated by the existence of Israel, once the events were set in motion, only Israel was there to take them in. There also is a delicious irony in the fact that Jews who have historically been booted from country to country, when suffering in their native lands, now have an option not available to their non-Jewish fellow-citizens. But that is not the Zionist dream. The Zionist dream was that of a people being brought together in its ancestral homeland, one it had never forgotten and always longed for. But Jewish history doesn’t bear that out: Although migration to Palestine became a problem with the British Mandate, in the Ottoman centuries prior to that Jews could have moved there at will (as the khalutzim did), yet the Jewish population at the time of the arrival of the British was somewhere around 60,000. For Jews in the early 20th century, the Promised Land was New York, was Paris, was London, was Buenos Aires. The aspiration sung of in “Hatikvah” was, well, aspirational. In a sense we can say that there were 25,000-30,000 true Zionists, those of the First and Second Aliyahs, the khalutzim who moved to Palestine in the first years of the 20th century, cleared the land, built the kibbutzim and the infrastructure for the yishuv, all this at a time when millions upon millions of their peers were moving to the Americas and Western Europe. They were Zionists in the truest sense of the word. Although also fleeing oppression, in their minds they were returning to Zion to build a Jewish land, to build a new Jewish soul, a new Jew. Their drive was entirely positive. After them would come those who went to Palestine despite themselves who, all things being equal, would have stayed just where they were, or immigrations quota being lifted, would have settled elsewhere. Jonathan Freedland, in the August 14, 2014 issue of the New York Review of Books addresses this matter in an article on Liberal Zionists. “Jews came to believe with such urgency and fervor that a state, a haven, was a necessity,” he writes.
As it happens, both hawkish Zionists and anti-Zionists tend to dislike this line of reasoning. The former fear it weakens the Jewish claim to Palestine if that claim is deemed to have arisen not out of a millennia-old attachment to the Land of Israel, but simply the need for a postwar sanctuary. The latter see it as a kind of moral trump card, designed to close down all argument.But it is clear that that is precisely what Israel is. It is not now, nor has it ever been the land to which Jews were drawn to move: it was one they didn’t move to when it was possible, and one they have only moved to when all other choices are blocked. Algerian Jews, thanks to the Cremieux Decree of 1870, were French citizens. With Algerian independence in 1962 they were thus able, like the other pieds noirs, to move to France, and few moved to Israel. Moroccan Jews were not French citizens, and so, having no other choice, they went to Israel. And when Soviet Jews were first allowed to leave the USSR, the U.S. was their destination of choice. They were only re-routed to Israel when we shut our doors. We got Gary Shteyngart; Israel got Avigdor Lieberman. And so the story of Zionism is one full of ironies: as a land to be moved to when freely motivated by the Zionist spirit Israel has been an utter failure; as a refuge it has been a success. As a refuge it’s a land to which Jews move in order to be safe and secure. But it’s also the land where in wars and terrorist attacks, more Jews have been killed than in any other nation. None of this at all resembles what Theodor Herzl or Bernard Lazare or Ber Borochov hoped it would be. But history has a way of playing hell with hopes, dreams, and theories. Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the translator and editor of the forthcoming anthology of writings by Victor Serge, Anarchists Never Surrender, as well as the first English translation of Jean Jaurès’ Socialist History of the French Revolution, which will be published by Pluto Press in 2015.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.
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