Wandering Israelis?

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By Eve Mykytyn*

One of Israel’s founding myths was that it would provide a homeland to a “people without a home.”  Before and especially after World War II, Zionists claimed that the countries in which Jews lived and were citizens were not a homeland.  Jews, like others, the argument went, were entitled to a homeland populated by Jews. Even at its peak, this argument never convinced a majority of Jews to move to Israel, although especially after 1967, many supported Israel from afar. It seems that some Israelis are also not convinced that they need to live in their ‘homeland.’

A PhD thesis by Omri Shafer Raviv, reported on recently by 972, documents the ‘professors committee’  formed by the Israeli government in 1967 in response to Israel’s sovereignty over the ousted Palestinians in conquered territories.  The committee explored how to limit resistance from and encourage the out migration of Palestinians. The professors were surprised by their findings that the Palestinians, the indigenous people of the land, did not want to leave even if promised a better life in, for instance, Kuwait.  The professors, who were among the first generation of Jews to live in their newly declared ‘homeland,’ seemed not to understand what it meant to be tied to a homeland. How else could they have failed to predict that what Palestinians wanted most was to return to their homes, their land, their villages? Over fifty years on, and despite the horrendous living conditions many of them suffer, the Palestinians refuse to disappear. 

Emigration has been a continuing issue in Israel, and one that undermines the notion of Israel as a homeland. Initially scorned by Israelis, outward migration was dismissed, as by former Israeli Prime Minister Rabin, as “a fallout of cowards.” But, from its inception, some immigrants chose to leave Israel, in 1942 of the 4,000 Jews who settled in mandatory Palestine, 450 left.  And even in the 1950s, when Israel had one of its greatest increases in population from immigration, outward migration was recognized as a problem. In 1953 the governor of the central bank of Israel, David Horowitz, argued that economic conditions would have to improve for the trend [of emigration] to change, implicitly recognizing that the pull of the homeland was weaker than the prospect of economic success. The discussion of emigration was and is perhaps a sign of Zionist insecurity. If Israel is truly the Jewish homeland, why do so many Jews and Israelis fail to see it that way? The Jerusalem Post notes a more practical concern, “Israelis are acutely aware that the future of Israel as both a Jewish and democratic country depends on maintaining a solid Jewish majority.”

How significant is the issue of outward migration? Despite a plethora of articles (see for ex.) trumpeting a decline in emigration, the number of Israelis who leave exceeds new immigration. The statistics  are opaque,  Israel doesn’t record or perhaps doesn’t  know the intent of those leaving. Recent analysis suggests that Israeli immigration to the UK surpassed British immigration to Israel by a ratio of three to two. Israel’s US Embassy estimates that between 750,000 and one million Israelis live in the United States.

But what is more important is that almost 40% of young  Israelis have expressed an interest in moving their lives elsewhere. They live in a Jewish homeland, and yet they want to wander.

The primary reason young Israelis give for leaving is their inability to earn a decent living. Some cite Israel’s cronyism and shady business deals, they either can’t or don’t choose to participate in a job market that is ‘fixed.’  One can hope that these young ex Israelis, having seen the corrosive effects of tribal rule, will be less inclined to treat the rules of their adopted countries with contempt.

One mother whose sons emigrated opined that it is the ‘finest’ who are leaving. “They are good, high-quality people who can contribute….who are leaving... They stand out abroad. They are considered smart and successful compared to the Canadians.” (Apparently supremacism is present in Israel.) Available statistics support her claim that more educated Israelis leave in greater numbers and this may be because they are the most able to find good jobs elsewhere. In 2017, 5.8% of Israelis with undergraduate degrees had been living abroad for at least three consecutive years. For Israelis with PhDs, it was 11%, a loss of one in nine PhDs. See for more details on the disproportionate Israeli brain drain phenomenon. 

To counteract this trend, in 2011 Israel launched "The Israel Brain Gain Program" to help overseas Israelis find jobs at home. Apparently the targeted Israelis were not amenable to returning to their ‘homeland’ and the program was abandoned as a failure.

Does the lack of a Jewish identity cause young Israelis to make decisions based on economics?  Tomer Treves writes that people are leaving  “because of what became of the Zionist idea. The moment the tie with Israel is weakened, the point of remaining is measured by the quality of life, and Israel is not in a good place from that point of view…” Treves posits that the most important factor in loyalty to Israel is  “where on our scale of identity we place Jewish identity. [When the] decision to live in Israel is no longer based on values,” by which he means ‘identifying as Jewish’ “economic parameters enter the equation.” But this argument assumes that loyalty to Israel and a Jewish identity are the same. Those who leave are not renouncing their identity as Jewish, instead they are rejecting the notion that to be Jewish means living in Israel.

Do these recently departed Israelis retain their ties to Israel?  There was an interesting attempt to answer this question by the right wing organization, American Israel Council. AIC sent a questionnaire to Israeli immigrants in the United States that asked who they would support in the event of an Israeli/American rift, whether American Jews (even if they disagreed with Israel’s policies) had an obligation to defend Israel publicly and the extent to which they believed American Jews influenced America’s policies.  

Haaretz noted that “two sensitive and potentially explosive” issues have “plagued” American Jews and their relationship to Israel. “The first relates to claims of  dual allegiance” to both Israel and the United States; the other “concerns the pro-Israel, American Jewish lobby.” The now widely utilized IHRA definition of anti Semitism provides that accusations of dual loyalty are anti Semitic. Yet a pro Zionist body asked about these issues  in a manner designed to elicit responses showing loyalty to Israel. Perhaps insecurity about the extent to which present day emigrants support Israel was the impetus for the AIC survey.  

Israeli Professor Tamar Hermann worries that the children of Israeli emigrants will not be Israeli, instead they “become Americans, Canadians or Europeans... Israeliness is generally not sustained in the second generation.”  It is not only ‘Israeliness’ that is not sustained in the second generation. This is a hallmark of immigration in general, and in Israel itself. See, for ex. Is there something about Israel that makes it troublesome that the children of those who leave will likely identify with their new land?

Initially, Israel as a homeland was an attractive concept for Jews who felt victimized by widespread anti Semitism. Now it seems that emigrating Israelis are following in the steps of their ancestors, and not the mythical ones to whom God supposedly gave title to land. In the past, and despite the efforts of some to assimilate that were ultimately unsuccessful, the Jews maintained tribal rather than national ties. Young Israelis who move in search of better opportunities may have similarly limited loyalty to their ‘homeland’  and are simply behaving as wanderers.


* - https://www.evemykytyn.com/writing/wandering-israelis