Exile has inherent significance beyond the reality of being unable to live in one’s desired geographic location – in our case, the Land of Israel.
When we say that the Jewish people is in exile, this is more than a determination of place, for exile is a state that is intrinsically problematic, not just because of its geographic location.
The problem of exile as it has been described as follows: “Your descendants will be strangers in a land not theirs” (Gen. 15:13) is tolerable – it is just a stay in another country.
Does the true exile begin when “they will be enslaved and oppressed”?
Perhaps, in determining whether a certain country is considered “exile,” one need only check whether he is subjected to oppression.
If he is oppressed, this is indeed exile; if he is not oppressed, then it is merely another country outside the Land of Israel.
Hence, people might argue today that while life in Syria was certainly exile, life in America does not qualify as exile, because in America neither “and they will be enslaved” nor “and oppressed” apply.
In truth, it appears that exilic existence involves a more fundamental problem.
The essential point of exile is that something is not where it should be, in its appropriate place.
In the normal course of things, it may be that a person temporarily resides outside his homeland.
The new place may be uncomfortable for him, but that is not yet considered an exilic existence.
Nowadays, when a Frenchman moves to Canada, he may feel like a “stranger,” but this is not an essential problem that creates a life of exile for him.
If a carp is transferred from a pool near Atlit to a pool near Nahariya, it may have difficulty adapting, but being in one pool or the other is not an essential difference for it.
Regardless of the pool in which it ends up, it is in an appropriate place for a fish.
But when a fish is taken out of water altogether, whether this occurs near Atlit or Nahariya, or whether it was treated properly or not is irrelevant; it is in a place that is fundamentally inappropriate and, for a fish, life threatening as well.
–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz