In 2016, Israel passed into law the commemoration of Aliyah Day (Aliyah in Hebrew mean “going up”). This law recognizes the importance of immigration of Jews to their biblical home and dignifies those who left everything to start anew in the Land of their forefathers.
We celebrate Aliyah annually on the 7th of Cheshvan, but new olim make their way to Israel year-round. The day the Israelites set foot in the Land for the first time is traditionally the 10th of Nisan (the crossing of the Jordan River), yet because of the proximity to Passover, the law proposed to commemorate this holiday on the seventh day of Cheshvan, near the weekly Torah portion of Lech Lecha, in which we are told about the giving of the divine command to Abraham to go to Canaan.
The State of Israel was born thanks to and by olim. Israel is dubbed an immigrant country, like the US or Canada, yet such citizenship cannot be bought; not just anyone can become a part of this unique enterprise. The country itself is young, but its people are ages old and have a right to a self-determined home. It is well expressed in a song written by Amir Gilboa: “Suddenly a person gets up in the morning and feels that he is a people and starts walking.” In like manner, these remarkable people rose from the ashes of World War II and built a prosperous nation amid hostile surrounding countries. And what is Israel without its olim?!
On the day itself, ceremonies are held in educational institutions, government ministries, the IDF, and Israel’s Knesset. Thousands of personal stories of overcoming persecution, arduous voyages, language barriers, and the hardships of integration are being weaved into a unified story of a courageous act that continues to shape the nation and help it grow stronger.
In some countries, immigrants can be considered a burden, but Israel looks at its olim as a strategic asset and works to integrate them into society, and does so with varying degrees of success. The coronavirus outbreak is a perfect testimony; when all nations closed their borders, Israel opened theirs to receive the newcomers. Tens of thousands of new immigrants have made their way to Israel from all over the world, despite the cancellations of flights and lockdowns. See: Coronavirus Driving More US Jews Home to Israel
There are yet still many challenges new olim have to face. Alex Reef, CEO of The Million Lobby Association, said on a panel of Yedioth Ahronoth dedicated to discussing issues concerning Aliyah, “There are still many young people who are unable to reach senior positions in the centers of influence according to their percentage of the population, and perhaps the most difficult area is religion and state. According to Halacha, about 400,000 Russian-speaking Israelis are not recognized as Jews, cannot marry in Israel, and have no equal rights.” She went on to say, “The real travesty, however, is when someone Jewish, who has been recognized as a Jew, lives as a Jew and wants to get married in Israel, and then he reaches the Rabbinate and has to undergo the humiliating and hard process of proving his Judaism. This is something that happens almost exclusively to Russian speakers.”
The privilege to be recognized as fellow Jews by the state seems to be a common thread in many of the resulting struggles of new immigrants in Israel. Ziva Mekonen Dego, social activist and former director of the Ethiopian Jewish Association, stated in the same panel discussion, “The challenge in absorbing Ethiopians begins with the fact that the State of Israel did not want to recognize our Judaism or apply the Law of Return.” She then added, “If we look at all the protests since the 1980s – the right to Aliyah, the cancelation of strict (full) giyur, the protests about the disposing of blood donations and police violence – all our struggles are not about gaps or economic hardship, but about basic rights of citizens in Israel. By the way, the Ethiopian community has among the highest IDF enlistment percentages.”
Despite apparent gaps in representation and religious recognition, the immigrants are doing well and are unified by a biblical hope of ancient longing for Zion. It is codified in the Bible, and it is codified in the DNA of Abraham’s descendants. The uniqueness of this great unifier is unparalleled anywhere else in the world, and it is God’s promise and providence that will strengthen the new arrivals and continue to bring more Jews back home.