Before the establishment of the State of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, the nation’s first president and one of the greatest Zionist leaders, reportedly traveled to London, where he was asked by a Lord in the British Parliament: “Mr. Weizmann, why Palestine? Why not try elsewhere, somewhere with less enemies, less struggle, less difficulty, somewhere closer?”
Weizmann replied: “My dear Lord, why is it that you insist on driving two-and-half hours every weekend to visit your elderly mother, when there is a perfectly decent nice old lady living just across the street?”
So why did I travel all the way from Australia, about as far away from Israel as possible? That’s what I reflect on as I celebrate six years since my aliyah.
Six years, four apartments, three elections, two wars, one wife, a child and a puppy later, with each passing day I feel only a sense of reaffirmation that this was unequivocally the best decision of my life.
I was born in Odessa, then still in the Soviet Union, and not far from where the great Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky lived, as did many other iconic Jewish figures. Although I made aliyah on a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight from New York, where I had been working in international law and Israel advocacy, I grew up in Sydney, Australia.
In many ways, Australia was an oasis compared to Israel. But Australia, for all its boundless opportunity and ease of life, and for all my eternal gratitude for giving our family a sanctuary to flee Soviet persecution, was not Israel, and I was missing one crucial element: an emotional attachment to the land of Israel that, for me, could only be fulfilled in the Jewish state itself.
It’s not that I ever felt out of place in Australia. It’s just that in Israel, I have at last found a place where I truly belong.
Having been so deeply involved in the Diaspora as a pro-Israel activist, which I continue to be professionally today, I truly believe in the principle of kol Yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh — that all Jews are responsible for one another, that we are one people whose future is so inextricably intertwined. Just as we grieve and fight together, so to do we rejoice and celebrate as one.
But at the same time, looking at Israel from a distance, I made the choice to no longer be a bystander in this incredible, inspiring and still unfolding Zionist story. This is not in any way meant to diminish the indelible contribution of Jews in the Diaspora, which we in Israel so greatly appreciate. Rather, I wanted to be part of the change and shape the future of the Jewish state — something that for me could only be done as a citizen of this state.
Since making aliyah, I have been tremendously fortunate to continue my work as an international human rights lawyer and serve as the executive director of a terrific organization, the Israeli Jewish Congress. This has allowed me to continue my Israel advocacy, and has led me to represent Israel at the United Nations, and throughout Europe and the United States, while working to help bridge and strengthen the special bond between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.
It is, I suspect, largely due to this effort that I was deeply privileged this year, as we celebrated 70 years since the establishment of the modern State of Israel, to be awarded the prestigious Sylvan Adams Nefesh B’Nefesh Bonei Zion Prize in the field of Israel advocacy during a ceremony at the Knesset on Oct. 28, when I will be joined by six other outstanding immigrants to Israel who are being honored by Nefesh B’Nefesh in their respective fields.
While I am honored to receive an award for doing something so inherently right and moral, I became an advocate primarily because Zionism goes to the very core of who I am. When I see the State of Israel singled out and delegitimized, and the Jewish people denied equal rights, I feel a need to stand up, to act and be heard.
My desire and ambition upon receiving the Bonei Zion award from this special organization helping to realize the dreams of so many new immigrants like myself is to motivate and help unite other Israel advocates worldwide, in order to amplify the power of their unique contributions and our collective message of support for the Jewish state.
Reflecting upon my six years of living in Israel, there is no shortage of defining moments — from rushing to bomb shelters, to voting in elections, to celebrating the Jewish holidays and the birth of my daughter, the first “sabra” in our family. But this summer, in the space of 24 hours, one moment stands out in particular.
I joined a group of pro-Israel advocates on a trip to southern Israel, where we inspected firsthand the enormous damage done from the Gaza kite fires, saw a Hamas terror tunnel and spoke with residents, including small children who live on the Gaza periphery, about how they are coping with the ongoing threat of terror.
The very next day, I had the tremendous privilege to witness 232 new olim arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport on a Nefesh B’Nefesh charter flight, just like I did, realizing their dream to make their home in Israel.
In 24 hours, I felt this jarring dichotomy that so perfectly embodies life here. Notwithstanding the challenges and threats we face, Israel will always be the homeland and nation-state of all the Jewish people.
Arsen Ostrovsky is executive director of the Israeli Jewish Congress.