Israel's Changing Relationship with Those Who Leave It

As tracked through the waxing and waning value of the Hebrew words for “departees” and “descenders.”

An ISRAIR flight taking off from Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on March 24, 2018. Moshe Shai/FLASH90.

An ISRAIR flight taking off from Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on March 24, 2018. Moshe Shai/FLASH90.

Jan. 6 2021
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Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

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Mosaic reader Dov Cymbalista writes about my last column:

Thank you for your interesting observations about contemporary use of the Hebrew word aliyah. I believe you’ve overlooked something, though. An additional factor in Haaretz and its left-wing readers using the word hagirah rather than aliyah to describe a Jew’s moving to Israel lies in their similar unwillingness to use the word y’ridah in reference to a Jew’s leaving Israel. You might have included this in your column.

Mr. Cymbalista is right. Just as aliyah literally (and when used in most contexts) means “ascent,” so y’ridah means “descent,” and just as the former denotes travel or immigration to the Land of Israel, so the latter refers to travel or emigration from it. Its verbal equivalent of la-redet, “to descend” occurs in this sense in many places in the Bible—the first of which is in the book of Genesis, where we read that Abraham “went down” [va-yered] to Egypt to live there because famine was harsh in the land.”

Like the verb alah, from which comes aliyah, the verb yarad when applied to the Land of Israel was originally a geographical term, referring in Abraham’s case to the descent from the highlands of Palestine to the lowlands of the Nile Valley. And like the concept of ascent to the Land, which in rabbinic literature took on an approbatory connotation, that of descent from it took on a pejorative one. Such is the sense it has in the talmudic tractate of K’tubot, in which occurs the following half-Hebrew, half-Aramaic passage (the bracketed glosses on the text are mine):

There was a man [living in the Land of Israel] who had to decide whether to take for a wife [in fulfillment of the biblical commandment of levirate marriage] his deceased brother’s widow in Bei-Hoza’a [a town in Babylonia]. He went and asked Rabbi Ḥanina, ‘Should I leave the Land of Israel [Aramaic, mahu l’meiḥat, literally, “What about descending?”] to marry her?’ He [Rabbi Ḥanina] answered: “Your brother married a woman no better than a heathen [because she enticed him to leave the Land of Israel for Babylonia] and died. Thank God for that—and now someone like you is descending [Hebrew, yeyreyd], too?

Rabbi Hanina’s vindictiveness toward the dead brother must be seen against the background of a struggle in the early centuries of the Common Era between the rabbis of Palestine, whose Jewish population was shrinking, and those of Babylonia, to which many Palestinian Jews were emigrating. If the geographical “ascent” to the Land of Israel was also conceived of as a spiritual one, so was the “descent” from it.

And yet as opposed to the verb yarad, the nouns y’ridah and yored, in the sense of emigration and an emigrant from the Land of Israel, are strictly modern. They do not predate the advent of Zionism and were not even common in the pre-state-of-Israel period. Although some of the waves of Zionist immigration to Palestine in this period suffered from the re-emigration of a high percentage of immigrants, such people were generally referred to as ozvim, “departees,” rather than as yordim, “descenders.” And while calling someone an ozev, a departee, may have reflected a sense of disappointment on the part of those who remained, it did not have quite the condemnatory connotation that yored, a “descender,” was to have.

The nouns yored and y’ridah only came into widespread use after the establishment of Israel, and were a product of several things: the atmosphere of patriotic nationalism that characterized the new state in its first years; its need to expand its population in the face of the Arab masses surrounding it; the hardships experienced by many of its immigrants and the fear that they might want to leave; and the ability of a state apparatus and the cultural establishment it supported to influence and control the language of public discourse. Y’ridah was painted as an act of desertion, even betrayal; “for many years,” in the words of the Israeli historian Mordecai Naor in an essay on the poet Natan Alterman, “it was one of the worst crimes in the Israeli lexicon.” In one of his many poems of semi-light verse, written in 1954 and called “A Tale of Y’ridah,” Alterman described with sympathy a yored from Romania named Moshko as he waits on a pier with his family to board the ship that will take them back to Europe

He stood among bundles tied with rope,
A red cushion, and a beat-up valise
While all Israel bent to lift the stone
That it would cast at him beneath the sky’s sealed lips.

Moshko changes his mind at the last minute, but yordim who did leave Israel in those years did so with a sense of shame, guilt, and often denial. Typical in this respect were acquaintances of mine, an Israeli-born couple who moved to the United States in the late 1950s or early 60s and lived there for the next 50 years without ever admitting that they had emigrated. “We’re just here for a while,” was their stock answer when asked about their status.

By the 1970s, as emigration began to mount, especially in the economically difficult and demoralized years following the Yom Kippur War, its stigma began to wear off. More and more one heard the refrain, “No one is going to tell me where to live,” and more and more Israelis acted on the basis of it. The debate over the conflict between personal freedom and national duty, which was in large measure a debate between the Israeli left and the center and right, sharpened and came to a head in 1975 when then-Prime Minister Yitzḥak Rabin, asked in an interview about y’ridah, replied by derisively calling it n’folet shel n’moshot, “a fallout of feebs.” The remark occasioned an outcry on the part of liberal Israel, joined by many expatriate Israelis living abroad who still felt a strong connection to their native country and were deeply hurt by Rabin’s characterization of them.

Rabin’s words became a rallying cry at a time when post-Zionist discourse was making its first serious inroads in Israeli intellectual life and there was a call for discarding Zionist slogans and buzz words, of which y’ridah came to be considered one. Although one would have to thumb patiently through old newspaper archives from those pre-digitalized days to establish an exact date, it was then, I believe, that liberal media like Haaretz began to prefer the word hagirah, which was applicable to emigration from any country, over y’ridah, which applied to emigration from Israel alone. And by the same token, the word yordim was progressively discarded in such circles for m’hagrim.

This took place, to the best of my memory, a decade or two before a similar thing occurred with aliyah and olim and set the stage for it, which bears out Mr. Cymbalista’s comment. It happened this way because it was socially and psychologically easier to attack a negative than a positive—easier to demand the removal of the stigma of being a yored than the cancellation of the honor of being an oleh. No immigrant to Israel minded being called an oleh, whereas hundreds of thousands of Israelis living abroad resented being called yordim.

And yet the battle over both sets of words is far from over. Most Israelis, even though they have grown more cynical about aliyah and more accepting of y’ridah, still use these terms despite their political incorrectness in the eyes of some. They have become a minor fault line alongside the many major ones currently running through Israeli society.

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More about: Aliyah, Hebrew, History & Ideas, Israel & Zionism, Modern Hebrew