December 10, 2018

The Aliyah Exchange, Part 3: Do young American Zionists have an accurate picture of Israel?

Jessica Fishman moved to Israel after graduating from Indiana University with a degree in Journalism and Business. She spent her first few years in the country serving in the Israel Defense Forces, learning the Hebrew language, and getting acclimated to the country. Fishman was the author of the popular Aliyah Survival Blog and the story of her struggles with the Israeli rabbinate has been featured in leading Israeli and Jewish media.

This exchange will focus on Fishman’s upcoming memoir, Chutzpah and High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land. Parts one and two can be found here and here.

***

Dear Jessica,

In your last answer you asked why more people aren’t outraged by the Chief Rabbinate’s religious coercion and by Israel’s dismissive attitude toward alternative forms of Judaism and to many of the country’s citizens.

The answer to your question might be simple: people are not outraged because what you see as a great interruption is barely a nuisance for most Israelis. They dislike rabbinic rulings and ways, but they rarely meet them and hardly feel their impact. It might be even convenient for many of them to leave these matters of little importance (for them) in the hands of the Orthodox rabbis.

But then there are wonderfully motivated young olim such as yourself, who come to Israel for all the right reasons and are almost bound to be disappointed by the state’s attitude.

My question: do you feel that young Zionists abroad are given an excessively rosy picture of life in Israel? Is there a need for recalibrating expectations (what we call תיאום ציפיות)? What would you tell your pre-Aliyah self about the country she was about to move to?

Thanks again for doing this exchange.

Shmuel

***

Dear Shmuel,

Your question brings up a lot of interesting points. I cannot speak to what each and every person thinks, and I would never be so presumptuous to do so. Outside of citing some of Hiddush’s research findings, all I can do is speak to my experience. A Hiddush survey on tensions between religion & state found that 71% of Israeli Jews consider the controversial issue of marriage & divorce and the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over these matters to be either the most important or second most important such conflict; far more than any other dispute in the religion & state arena. This is most likely because marriage is an issue that impacts an overwhelming majority of Israelis. Despite this sentiment by the public, we do not see the government taking any action towards change.

In my experience, there are two issues that are impeding change. The first is awareness. I have found that many Israeli and American Jews are not familiar with, or even aware of, these discriminatory laws. I have had to explain to many Israelis and American Jews alike that the Jewish homeland actually has two legal and contradictory definitions for the question “who is a Jew.” Once learning this, many people are shocked. However, they are not moved to action. I don’t know if this is because, as you say, they see it as just a nuisance or if they feel as if being critical of Israel is anti-Zionist or if they feel that the issue is too big for them and give up. Or perhaps since they don’t believe it directly impacts them, they don’t think this is a priority. Whatever the reason is, leaving these matters in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate will create a deeper divide between secular and religious Israelis and between the Jewish diaspora and Israel. Because when the Israeli government rejects the converts and their descendants of a stream of Judaism, it is also a rejection of that entire belief system and community.

Now, to answer your question. Besides focusing on the issues of Jewish pluralism and religious coercion in Israel, my book, I hope, also gives insight into what it is really like to make aliyah. I try to highlight the humorous juxtapositions between expectations and reality and joke about both the challenges and even disappointments. Such as when I expected that I would be changing Israel’s image in the media when I served in the IDF Spokesperson Department, but in reality, the first year I spent more time in kitchen duty or counting down the hours of my guard duty.

I think that you are right that many young Zionists do have an excessively rosy picture of Israel. This reminds me of a poster that I saw in the Absorption Office (משרד הקליטה) when I made aliyah. The poster was a photo of a cactus in the desert and written on it was: “We didn’t promise you a rose garden.” I always found it ironic that this was not a message in any of the pre-aliyah offices. Perhaps part of the reason that many new immigrants are overly optimistic may be due to the Jewish programs in which we are raised. But another part of this, in my experience, is that young people are looking for a challenge – to conquer the world and find their place in it. In this respect, I wasn’t different from anyone else. I was young, and a Zionist; I wasn’t thinking about marriage, but about making a contribution. And I think if someone would have warned me that it was going to be so much harder than I expected, it would not have made a difference. I don’t think there is anything that I could have told my pre-aliyah self to change my mind or better prepare me. I was (am) stubborn like that. I, like many young people, thought that I was invincible or that I was the exception. But it is exactly that kind of thinking that gives many of us the ability and desire to move to Israel. It is also the key to our success in Israel. That being said, I believe that we owe it to our next generation of Zionist youth to create an Israel that lives up to its name and potential.

In the end, I did move back to Israel after spending a few years in the U.S. My move back was much easier than my original aliyah process. This might have been because I knew Hebrew, had a better understanding of how to work the bureaucracy, and already had a network of friends and acquaintances. However, I think the real reason, is that, as you stated it, I had recalibrated my expectations (what Israelis call תיאום ציפיות).