In his recent speech on the war in Israel, President Biden recounted meeting Golda Meir, who said to the then-senator that Israel’s secret weapon was that “we have nowhere else to go.”
I’ve been turning this story over in my mind over the past 24 hours as I grapple with the fact that unlike Golda, I do have somewhere else to go. My particular community — American rabbinical students living in Israel — is also having this discussion. So are many other olim, immigrants, to Israel — especially those from countries in Europe and America.
“Ein li eretz acheret,” “I have no other country,” is a popular saying in Israel, derived from the title of a 1982 song written by Ehud Manor and sung by Gali Atari. Increasingly, however, many Israelis do indeed have another country. Leaving aside immigrants, there is a growing population of native-born Israelis living abroad and a trend of Israelis applying for EU passports from the very countries their grandparents and great-grandparents once left — by choice or in flight from persecution.
In conversations I’ve had and will continue to have about the question of whether to stay or go, a number of factors are at play. There is concern for safety, fear of uncertainty, the strain this war has already put on our mental and physical health. In addition to this, there are parents at home whose worries we try in vain to quell. They want us home. They want us not to be proud, or foolhardy, or to wait too late to decide. Just to come home. Now.
Opposing all of this is the need to be close and the sense of anguish that arises with the thought of being anywhere else. I have been in the United States when Israel was facing a crisis, and the feeling of helplessness that one feels from afar was difficult for me to bear.
Israel is not where I grew up — I first came here when I was 20 — but it is where I became a grown-up. It is a place that has profound religious and political significance for me, but ultimately my connection to Israel is not rooted in any “ism,” whether it be Zionism or Judaism. Rather, this connection is rooted in something far more primal and far less rational than that. It is a matter of love.
Each time I have had to leave Israel — first to finish my undergraduate degree and then to start my rabbinical program — I was filled with dread. What if I don’t make it back?
Each time I have had to leave Israel — first to finish my undergraduate degree and then to start my rabbinical program — I was filled with dread. What if I don’t make it back? What if I meet someone, or get a job? What if life grabs me and drags me in another direction?
Each time when I return, I vow that this time, it’s for good. I always hoped I would find an Israeli partner who would help me solidify this commitment, and last year, I finally did. Alas, the matter is not yet settled, for he is Israeli-American, and his family lives in New Jersey. Like me, and unlike Ms. Meir, we have somewhere else to go.
For those who are not Jewish, the decision would appear to be a simple one. If it is not safe in Israel, come home. For Jews, however, this decision is complicated and deepened by centuries of history with the very matters — homeland, exile, vulnerability — that characterize this dilemma.
The first Jew to feel this dread at leaving the promised land was Jacob. When the land of Israel was in the grips of a wretched famine, Jacob and his family ventured south into Egypt to dwell in Goshen with Joseph. Wracked with anxiety at leaving, Jacob turned to God for guidance, Who told him not to fear. “I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back” (Genesis 46:4).
Other images from Jewish text and history speak to this moment. There is the story of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai escaping a besieged Jerusalem in a coffin to go to Yavne. Judaism as we know it survived because of this choice. In fleeing, he chose life, and ensured his own future and the future of Judaism. Less compromising Jews, like the fighters at Masada, chose death. There is also the memory of the Jews of Germany who failed to intuit that Nazi persecution would get worse. By the time they understood, it was too late.
This last image steers us in two directions. No, we don’t want to “wait too long” like the Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis, but neither do we want to be forced to live like we did in those days before the existence of Israel. Things are different now, are they not? We have a state. An army. None of that, apparently, spares us from the possibility of slaughter. But shouldn’t it mean — at the very least — that we don’t have to flee?
At this point, I can’t fathom leaving. Perhaps this will change. Indeed, if the state department’s travel advisory for Israel changes, my school may push me to choose between taking a leave of absence and coming home. But for now, I’m not ready to consider being anywhere else.
Freud described the psyche as a battlefield of dueling impulses — the life instinct, which is concerned with propagation, creativity, and survival, and the death instinct, obsessed with self-destruction and the pursuit of oblivion.
Perhaps my stubborn insistence on staying will be construed as an instance of the death instinct, but I see it differently. For me, this is the life instinct: A rejection of alienation and isolation, and an assertion of value rooted in the decision to stay close to the land and people I love.
Matthew Schultz is a Jewish Journal columnist and rabbinical student at Hebrew College. He is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (Tupelo, 2020) and lives in Boston and Jerusalem.