In the annals of modern Jewish history, few stories are as epic or as inspiring as that of the in gathering of the exiles from the four corners of the earth.
Since the rebirth of the State of Israel in 1948, more than 3.2 million immigrants have made their way to the shores of the Holy Land from more than 100 countries worldwide. Some have come here fleeing persecution. Others were motivated by the Zionist dream or religious conviction or animated by the hope of creating a better life for themselves and their families.
And yet, even though Israel was built by aliyah, and will continue to be built by it, we have nonetheless failed to adequately preserve and relate the remarkable story of the ongoing return to our ancestral land.
And that is why I believe it is time for the Jewish state to erect a museum of Aliyah, one that will encapsulate the drama and heroism, the fulfillment and pride, that have accompanied the historic homecoming to Zion.
Indeed, if one looks back over the past 70 years, it becomes readily apparent that some of our nation’s most stirring moments have been those that involved the rescue of Diaspora Jewish communities. Yet, how much does the younger generation know or fully appreciate these extraordinary tales?
Take, for example, Operation Magic Carpet, when the bulk of Yemenite Jewry, nearly 50,000 people, were airlifted to Israel between June 1949 and September 1950.
This mass aliyah of an ancient Jewish community commenced even before the signing of the first armistice agreement concluding the War of Independence. But despite the conflict, and the existential threat that the Jewish state faced from its neighbors, Israel nonetheless salvaged this precious remnant of our people and brought it in.
And then there was Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, when more than 120,000 Iraqi Jews immigrated to Israel from 1951 to 1952, leaving behind Babylon, where the Jews were first exiled more than 2,500 years ago by the wicked Nebuchadnezzar.
Each of these journeys embodies powerful elements of Jewish history and longing, undertaken at times of peril out of an unbreakable sense of Jewish solidarity and mutual responsibility. Aren’t those values worth promoting?
The same holds true for the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry in operations Moses and Solomon in 1984 and 1991, respectively. Who can forget the tension that filled the air on May 24, 1991, as Ethiopian rebels were poised to attack Addis Ababa with the aim of toppling the brutal dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, and fears mounted for the thousands of Ethiopian Jews trapped in the city?
Some 36 hours later, the world was stunned to learn that Israel had succeeded in rescuing the Jews, transporting more than 14,000 to the Jewish state using C-130 military transport planes and Boeing 747s. It was the first time in recent memory that a Western country had brought in thousands of Africans, not with chains of slavery, but with bonds of brotherhood.
There have been other valiant operations, too, which have been all but forgotten, such as Operation Goshen, in which 10,000 Egyptian Jews were smuggled out of Egypt from 1948 to 1953, and Operation Yachin, when the Mossad brought nearly 100,000 Moroccan Jews on aliyah from 1961 to 1964.
And then there was Operation Cigar, in the 1990s, when hundreds of Cuban Jews made their way to Israel. And Operation Menashe, in which Shavei Israel, the organization I chair, has brought some 4,000 members of the lost tribe of Bnei Menashe on aliyah from India over the past 15 years.
These stories and others like them, such as the Prisoners of Zion who stood up to the Soviet Union and demanded freedom, deserve more than just being commemorated in books, stamps or newspaper articles. A national museum of aliyah, rich in videos, personal stories and artifacts, could serve as an invaluable tool for strengthening the nation’s commitment to encouraging and absorbing future immigrants.
It would serve as a portal to the past, opening the eyes of many Israelis and reminding them of the sacrifices and determination of those who came to settle the land.
After all, museums are not merely a repository of a nation’s collective memory but a vehicle for shaping its future. We need to continue celebrating aliyah, but we must also educate regarding its vital importance to the survival of Israel and the Jewish people.
Doing so will not only strengthen the Zionist commitment of young Israelis, but it will also send a compelling message to the many Jews from abroad who visit here each year: We welcome you as tourists, but ultimately we want you to come home.
The writer is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to Israel and the Jewish people.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Jerusalem Post