Q. Why is immigrating to Israel known as Aliyah?
A. Biblical texts speak of Aliyah – “coming up” to the Holy Land, e.g. Shir HaShirim 3:6, Mi zot olah min ha-midbar – “Who is this that comes up from the wilderness?” There are 15 Shirei HaMa’alot, “Songs of Ascents” (Psalms 120-134), for the pilgrims coming up to Jerusalem. “Coming up” is also used of the exiles who returned from Babylon (Ezra 7:9).
The going up may originally have been suggested by the hilly location of Jerusalem, but it was interpreted in a metaphorical way in view of the spiritual ascendancy of the Land. Countless immigrants from the Diaspora have experienced the n’shamah yeterah, the “extra soul” that becomes grafted onto one’s life in Israel.
Zionist leaders all preached about this in either secularist terms (Israel as the place where a Jew finds a home, feels at home and becomes part of a dynamic Jewish culture) or religious (Israel is the place God has chosen, the place where one sees prophecy fulfilled and destiny unfold).
With the advocacy of Aliyah sometimes came denigration of the Diaspora. David Ben Gurion used to say that Judaism in the Diaspora faced the kiss of death, though many Diaspora leaders resented his criticisms. They agreed that there was a danger of drop-out and drift from Jewish identity, but they pointed out that there are parts of Israel itself where people are what Ahad HaAm called “Hebrew-speaking gentiles” and parts of the Diaspora where Jewish identity and commitment are intense and unflagging.
The events of the last few decades have brought both sides a more realistic way of thinking. Both realise that they need each other and are part of one people and one history. In Israel there are responsible sectors that know they must work harder to bridge the gaps between Israelis and Jewish heritage; in the Diaspora there is hardly a thinker or leader who does not work towards intensifying Jewish identity, education and observance.