The tradition of an Israeli prime minister calling on diaspora communities to leave their native lands and “come home” to Israel — and being criticized for the effort — is not new with Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent pleas to European Jewry. It’s as old as the state itself.
David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, upset many American Jews when he insisted that Israel is the only true homeland for Jews, and that the diaspora was doomed.
Virtually every Israeli leader has made the pitch for aliyah ever since, in part because it is central to the Zionist mandate to bring as many Jews as possible to the Jewish state, and in part because of the belief that the more Jews there are living in Israel, the stronger the state and the Jewish people.
One can debate whether or not that is true. One of the remarkable ironies of the current, deeply worrying situation in Europe is that many Jews, feeling unsafe at home, are opting to move to Israel, one of the most threatened countries in the world. The difference, though, is that Israel’s citizens believe that the Jerusalem government is committed to their security.
There has been a great deal of criticism of Netanyahu’s style, perhaps, more than his message to the Jews of France, and now Denmark, after fatal terror attacks that targeted Jews.
“We are preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe,” Netanyahu said after this weekend’s tragedy at the central synagogue in Copenhagen. “I would like to tell all European Jews and all Jews wherever they are: Israel is the home of every Jew.” He made a similar plea in a Paris synagogue just after the killings there last month, offending some Jews, though others were already planning their aliyah.
These days the Israeli leader would be called out for almost any statement he makes, most notably appearing to have gone tone deaf on how to strengthen Jerusalem’s ties with Washington. (Clearly, it’s not by dissing the president and making Democrats in Congress feel they have to choose between Israeli and American interests on the Iran issue.)
Netanyahu would offend fewer European heads of state if he talked about an Israel that was welcoming and available rather than the inevitable place to land when your own government cannot protect you.
But at this point the Israeli prime minister could endorse Motherhood and Apple Pie and manage to offend both feminists and health food advocates.
Shimon Peres, the silver-tongued former Israeli president who is his country’s most popular statesman internationally, has taken a different approach in his message to European Jews. “Come because you want to live in Israel,” he said this weekend in New York. “Jews can live all over the world. Just keep your children Jewish.”
Great sound bite, but in fact the great majority of Israel’s aliyah over the last six decades has been the result of Jews escaping persecution and fleeing to Israel, taking advantage of the safe haven offered to them. Moreover, the Israeli government’s rescue of Jews from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and Arab lands is one of the Jewish state’s proudest achievements.
It was Ezer Weizman, when he was president of Israel in the 1990s, who noted that 21st-century Israel would be judged on how many diaspora Jews settle in Israel voluntarily, not out of fear.
The challenge remains, but in the meantime, we are grateful that the gates of Zion are open to each of us.