JERUSALEM (May. 26)
It was in June 1967, during the Six-Day War, that Mildred Devor and her husband decided to make aliyah.
“We were here for a sabbatical year in ’66-’67, but weren’t seriously considering aliyah,” says the Toronto native.
“Then the war broke out and everything changed,” she says. “My husband was the meshuganah Zionist in the family and was caught up in the optimism, the euphoria of Israel’s victory.”
After six days of fighting, Israel vanquished the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian air forces and armies, and captured the Sinai, West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and eastern Jerusalem, including the Western Wall in the Old City.
“It was a hopeful time, an optimistic time. I was the realist, but even I was caught up with dreams of living here.”
Two years after the war, the Devors sold their house and moved to Jerusalem.
Her husband died only a year into their aliyah, but Mildred Devor decided to remain in Israel with her three children.
Everyone in Toronto “expected me to go back, but I didn’t,” says Devor, who is now a grandmother. “We moved here because we believed Israel is the heart of the Jewish people, and I still believe that.
“The years have only strengthened this conviction.”
Devor and nearly 60,000 other North Americans immigrated to Israel between the Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War in what was the largest wave of North American immigration in the history of the Jewish state.
Now, 30 years after the Six-Day War, those who settled here appear to have few, if any regrets.
“Without a doubt, the Six-Day War changed the way North American Jews perceived Israel,” says David Clayman, director of the American Jewish Congress’ Israel office.
“This was probably the first time American Jews realized Israel wasn’t just a dumping ground, a refuge for the remnants of our people.
“The war gave us a peek at a strong, vibrant Israel that had a future.”
From both a demographic and ideological perspective, those North Americans who made aliyah between the two wars were very different from the 2,000 to 3,000 mostly Orthodox Jews who now immigrate every year.
“The percentage of Orthodox Jews was probably the lowest during that period, while conversely the percentage of politically and culturally progressive types was probably at its highest,” says Steven Cohen, an American-born sociologist at the Hebrew University’s Melton Center.
Cohen maintains that because immigrants from North America are not refugees, they usually have been motivated by idealistic considerations.
“This was true after 1967 and it’s still true today. They had to come with some dreams and visions in mind.”
This explains why a disproportionately large percentage of the 100,000 North American immigrants are “involved in all kinds of political, social and cultural endeavors, on both the left and the right” of the political spectrum, says Cohen.
They tend to be professors, lawyers, editors, political activists on the grass- roots level, he says. Most volunteer and advocacy groups have North Americans in key positions.
Looking back on the period after the Six-Day War, Cohen says that other factors, in addition to Zionist feelings, were at work in propelling the large wave of immigration from the United States.
“A lot of people were running away from the Vietnam War, from the civil rights battles, from Richard Nixon. At the time young people were saying that Richard Nixon should have been awarded the Zionist of the Year Award for inspiring aliyah.”
Although he could not provide statistics, Cohen also said that many of the North Americans who came during this time ultimately packed their bags and returned.
“The ones who are here are happy they came,” he says. “The ones who were disillusioned left. Anyone who has been here 30 years has an investment in seeing their lives as successful.”
Despite the country’s uncertain political and security situation, the rift between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, and the relatively lower wages in Israel, Cohen believes that the immigrants have a positive view of their lives.
“They really pity their poor American cousins who never made aliyah,” Cohen says.
Rabbi Benjamin Segal, president of the Conservative/Masorti movement’s Seminary of Judaic Studies, is a case in point.
“My wife and I came to Israel for a year of study right after the Six-Day War, and we were caught up in the euphoria, the near-Messianic feeling that prevailed in the country then, the feeling that we had been saved from near destruction,” Segal says.
“We felt we had simply devastated our enemies with the snap of a finger.”
After returning to the United States in 1968, and making aliyah in 1973, Segal says he and his family have never looked back.
“I do believe that the destiny of the Jewish people is basically determined here. I’m overwhelmingly happy with my children’s Jewish identity, their knowledge of and involvement in Jewish issues.
“I see incredible opportunities here to contribute to the building of a better Jewish world.”
While he acknowledges that in the Diaspora Jews can do much, Segal believes that “there, a significant amount of energy must be invested in individual Jewish survival. Here that energy is invested into one’s Jewish growth.”
Which is not to say that Segal is completely content with Israel’s culture or values.
“I moved here to ensure that my surroundings would be more Jewish, and I still get a thrill every time the bank machine wishes me a `Happy Holiday.’
“At the same time, I’ve become more aware of how Judaism can be bastardized and misapplied. I bemoan the use of political power to force Jews to act in certain ways or to gain privilege or money. For the sake of Judaism, we must get religion out of politics.”
Segal says he has “some strong personal reservations about political developments, and the present government in particular. But do I have any regrets? Not a single one.”
Looking back at the 27 years he and his family have spent in Israel, Clayman of the AJCongress says, “It’s true that the face of Israel is changing, that it’s much more materialistic. There’s a lack of tolerance, a lack of religious pluralism, and there’s certainly more corruption.
“Yet the good absolutely outweighs the bad,” he says.
“Here in Israel, we’re fashioning our own future. You feel this every time you do your reserve duty, every time you vote. In the U.S., if 50 percent of the population votes, that’s a lot. Here, the norm is 80 percent.
“In Israel,” Clayman adds, “I have the sense that if I disappeared from the face of the earth, it would matter.”