Monday, December 08, 2003

The lure of the fleshpot

In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.”

Exodus 16, 2 – 3. Tanakh, The Holy Scriptures, the new translation according to the traditional Hebrew text.

Maybe the Hebrews didn't have it so bad in Egypt, after all? I've read interpretations that suggest that the bondage the Hebrews were subjected to was not necessarily a physical enslavement, but a spiritual one, in the form of a life of spiritual desolation and poverty. I know this is not what the Bible says, but it's an interesting point of view: Moses, a spiritual teacher, takes his followers out of a land of plenty for a life of physical hardship that is at the same time incredibly spiritually uplifting and rewarding. Can you imagine what a powerful spiritual experience receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai must have been?

Egypt was the great international power of that era, not just from a military aspect but also from a cultural one, not unlike the United States today. The standard of living must have been so very much higher than anywhere else, even for those with no rights, even for slaves. Living anywhere else must have seemed unbearable. The same could probably be said about Ancient Rome, another great world power a couple of thousand years ago. People who love to hate the United States enjoy bringing the example of Ancient Rome as proof of the impermanent nature of all great world powers. Of course, they always neglect to mention that the Roman Empire was around for quite a while. Rome wasn't built in a day, as they say, but it didn't fall in a day, either.

When I was growing up I had five good friends. We were a close knit little group, the envy of those not included. We came complete with a cute, unusual name we invented for ourselves, made up of our initials. As such little teenage groups are wont, we had our little rituals. One of them was making unusual and creative presents for each other’s birthdays.

We were closest in middle school. The first major change came when one of us moved to another town. In high school, I gradually started drifting away as well, although I remained in the same school as the rest of them. I was never very social, as I've told you before.

One day I woke up to discover that my five friends and I were all grown up.

And I was the only one living in Israel.

It wasn't that my friends didn't love Israel, and didn't see it as home. It was just that life had drawn them away for various reasons. It's not as if I was in regular contact with them either. You know, a phone call here, a little get-together there.

What really bothered me was the thought that out of six intelligent, creative girls, Israel’s finest (even if I say so myself), only one had at no point attempted to live anywhere else. And it wasn’t because any of them had serious ideological or financial difficulties living in Israel. So what was wrong?

Bish said I was taking it the wrong way. Israel being such a small country, people needed to enrich their professional and personal experiences elsewhere. They needed to be in contact with like-minded professional colleagues and to find markets for what they had to offer, not an easy task in a country the size of Israel. My friends' drifting off was a natural occurrence, he said, akin to people moving from state to state and from city to city in the States. And besides, weren't my friends, all of them nice, educated and moderately left-leaning Zionist women, the best ambassadors Israel could have abroad?

Since then, three of them have wandered back*. During the very years that a great exodus of Israelis was meant to have been occurring, according to recent newspaper articles, three of my five friends packed up their families and belongings and came home. They did this without any big dramas or fanfares. They just came.

A few of the articles and blog posts that were floating round the Net, with regard to the numbers of Israelis living outside Israel were decidedly smug, as if to say: There you are! Proof that the Zionist experience is a failure (even if they didn’t actually spell it out). And I say: Oh, yeah? People like to have neat little explanations for things, preferably explanations that fit in nicely with their belief systems. But in actual fact there was always a large percentage of Israelis living abroad.

So 750,000 Israelis are not living in Israel. That’s their business, not mine. This isn’t the Soviet Union, you know. People are free to leave. Some people are not suited to the kind of life Israel has to offer. For most people, it’s no fleshpot, at least not by Northern American standards. But six million of us are right here, just trying to do our best, like everyone else.

* To be fair, I must point out that one of my friends only left for a relatively short period, and then commuted to and fro for a few more months.