Moving To Israel In a Time Of Crisis

Yossi Silver, from Miami Beach, holds son Shayadov.
Yossi Silver, from Miami Beach, holds son Shayadov. "I'm not apprehensive, not scared one bit," Silver said. Taped onto the boy's forehead is a sign with the Hebrew word for "those who go up," as Israelis refer to Jewish newcomers. (By John Ward Anderson -- The Washington Post)
By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 21, 2006

BEN GURION AIRPORT, Israel, July 20 -- Jonathan Klein did something unusual Thursday. After quitting his job as a lung specialist at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, he, his wife and their four boys moved to Israel -- nine days into a two-front war that has claimed 29 Israeli lives and seen about a thousand rockets fired at the Jewish state by Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.

On Thursday night, the family expects to sleep in their new home in Mitzpe Netofa, a small community in the lower Galilee about eight miles north of Nazareth, where two brothers, ages 3 and 8, died Wednesday in a Hezbollah rocket attack.

"Israel is by nature surrounded by people who don't want us here, and if it wasn't attacked last night, it will be next week or two years from now," Klein said during an airport welcome ceremony for 203 new immigrants from the United States and Canada. "This is the lot of Israel, and until our neighbors learn that we are here to stay and want to make peace with them, and they can make peace with us, it will continue to happen."

While the newcomers decided months ago to come to Israel, many said they could have skipped Thursday's flight but, in an act of solidarity, refused to be daunted. Their arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, named after Israel's founding father, at a moment of high crisis underscores the intense connection many Jews have with their biblical homeland and the modern state created 58 years ago.

There is a message here for Israel's enemies, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party said: "You lose."

"This is the best ultimate answer to the murderous desire to wipe out our state," he said after addressing the new arrivals. "We're here, and you're not going to push us out."

"It's a triumph of history over headlines," said Charley Levine, a spokesman for Nefesh B'Nefesh, the organization that helped arrange the mass immigration, together with the Jewish Agency for Israel. "Whatever the headlines of the week, these people see themselves as part of a historical process."

"Israel was created to ensure the ingathering of the Jewish people, not just as a sanctuary" for the persecuted, he said. Unlike the wave of Soviet Jews who came to Israel starting in the 1970s, he said, "American Jews are not fleeing from anything. They are moving here to make a positive contribution to the renaissance of the Jewish people."

The new arrivals disembarked after a 10 1/2-hour flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to discover a colorful, flag-waving, boisterous crowd of 500 people in an open-air hangar who welcomed them like rock stars. And while descending from the plane, some newcomers behaved like rock stars, smiling broadly, waving happily, blowing kisses and stopping halfway down the steps to savor the moment, unwilling to give it up.

The first person to walk off the plane Thursday was greeted with uproarious cheers from Israelis waving flags and placards reading: "Welcome home!" The newcomers came in suits and T-shirts, carrying briefcases and backpacks, dolls and strollers. One woman unfurled a blue-and- white Israeli flag as she descended; at the bottom of the steps, a man fell to his knees and kissed the tarmac.

Appearing bewildered, Avner Baruch, an 11-year-old from Queens, N.Y., stopped halfway down the stairs and soaked it in. "This is a Jewish place to live, and I'm Jewish," he said. "I'm excited to be here."

About 240 people were to arrive Thursday, but 37 delayed their plans -- perhaps because of the ongoing violence, perhaps because of personal complications, organizers of the mass immigration said. None of those who missed Thursday's flight have canceled their plans to immigrate, organizers added.

In fact, according to Michael Jankelowitz, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency for Israel, three more planeloads of Americans are planning to move to Israel this summer, and 650 Jews from France plan to resettle next Tuesday. In all, Jankelowitz expects about 3,400 people to arrive from both North America and France this year, the highest total since 1983 from North America and the most from France since 1970.

"I want to make Israel a better place, by giving my son, Shayadov, to the land of Israel," said Yossi Silver, a chef from Miami Beach, holding aloft his 3-month old son, who had a sign taped to his forehead reading " Olim ," the Hebrew word for "those who go up," as Israelis refer to Jewish immigrants to the country. "I'm not apprehensive, not scared one bit," he added.

"If Israel for Jews is Disneyland, then you only come if it is sun and fun," said Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, a large Jewish settlement in the West Bank between Bethlehem and Hebron that will be home to about 20 of the families that arrived Thursday. "But if it is the motherland, then when mother is not feeling so good, that is when you come."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company