On to Zion … (UPDATED)


In Bentonville, Arkansas two weeks ago, nearly everyone I spoke to told me I had to read Charles London, a Brooklyn journalist who had passed through town, much as I had, as part of a wider tour of Jewish communities. London’s journey yielded a book, a chapter of which concerned the Jews of Bentonville — "Wal-Mart Jews," he had called them, to some chagrin — and they urged me to get a copy. I finally did (thanks Wandering Jewess) and cracked it open Tuesday afternoon as El Al flight 3022 pushed back from the gate at JFK shortly before 2:00.

I was en route to Kibbutz Hannaton, winner of TWJ’s iPod contest, and I had hitched a ride with a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight bringing more than 200 North American Jews to their new lives as Israelis. Surrounded by all these idealists zooming towards the Jewish state at 600 m.p.h, it was odd to consider the title of London’s book glaring out at them from the cover: "Far From Zion." My flightmates, it seems fair to conclude, are anything but.

A lifetime ago, neither was I. The summer after college, I staffed a summer teen tour to Israel — Tuesday’s flight, with its 81 single Jews crammed into the middle compartment, hit me with an acute case of deja vu — and I stayed on to live the Zionist dream. For myriad reasons that I’ll spare you, it didn’t turn out as I’d hoped. In subsequent years, Zionist disillusion flourished like a cedar in Lebanon. More than a decade later, picking up and moving to Israel like these folks seems like the farthest thing from my mind.

But Israel has a way of working its magic on you. And as the plane made its final descent over Tel Aviv, and the energy on board grew so intense you could almost see it, I felt myself soften (Can’t you see how emotionally overwrought I am in that photo? Credits for both to Isaac Galena). Then the plane doors open, and the new Israelis descend to the tarmac, several of them dropping to their knees for the ceremonial kissing of the earth — actually an oil-streaked runway, but who cares. And that was just the beginning. Busses shuttled them over to the old arrivals hall at Ben Gurion — now abandoned for a slick new terminal, it has the retro feel of the Entebbe airport as imagined in "The Last King of Scotland" — where a live band and a crowd of flag-waving Israeli soldiers greeted them with megawatt smiles.

Natan Sharansky was there, green cap perched askew on his shiny pate, to shake their hands. I joked to one of the staffers that I was beginning to feel emotionally manipulated. "Then I’m doing my job," she smiled at me.

Despite my best efforts, the scene moved me. Then Silvan Shalom, the deputy prime minister, started talking about Iran, and all motion ceased.

It was barely 8 in the morning. We were exhausted, and what little energy most of the arrivals had left was given over to celebration. It was an odd moment, I thought, for Shalom to lecture Barack Obama about the need for sanctions, especially considering he was addressing a group of people who had just chosen Israel over America.

It was only slightly more tone deaf than Sharansky’s urging that the North Americans bring not only their Zionist zeal to Israel, but their love of small government and deregulation. As new immigrants love to say, only in Israel.

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