Escaping the Hell of the Holy Land


JAFFA—It is no longer unmentionable, but people are still careful. Young mothers at the playground whisper about it so the kids won’t hear. People test their friends at dinner parties by casually mentioning the “worrying” trend. Many Israelis are “preoccupied with a subject no one likes to talk about . . . ways to get the hell out of here,” columnist Yoel Marcus wrote in Ha’Aretz the other day.

It’s true. Ask Tali.

Increasingly anxious about their children’s security, tired of paying exorbitant taxes to support what they consider “religious parasites,” and pessimistic about the future, a growing number of young Israeli professionals are looking at the possibility of leaving the country. For good.

And Israelis aren’t the only ones—more and more Palestinians want out, too. Some 20 percent of adult Israelis say they have recently considered living in a different country, according to a January poll conducted by Market Watch for Ma’ariv newspaper.

More surprising, the survey found that 12 percent of Israeli parents would like their children to grow up outside Israel.

An earlier poll by the Mutagim Agency for Ha’Aretz said only 37 percent of Israelis held negative feelings toward those who left, and 16 percent actually viewed them positively.

Those are startling statistics in a country where the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin once described emigrants as the “lowliest of parasites.”

The stigma attached to those who leave Israel is encoded in the language. Those who immigrate to Israel perform aliya or “going up.” Those who leave commit yerida or “going down.”

You’ve probably heard the joke about the Israeli in New York who walks into an elevator full of Israelis speaking Hebrew. “Yordim (Going down)?” he asks. “Of course not,” they quickly answer. “We’re here temporarily.”

The majority of those looking at alternatives are simply seeking a security blanket. They cite the escalation of horrifying terrorist attacks and worsening economic woes. Many have recently lost their jobs. They want the options that come with owning an apartment abroad, a second passport, or a green card.

Of those seriously talking about leaving the country, most are new immigrants from the former USSR or English-speaking countries, who already hold a second passport and have the support of friends and family abroad. But the numbers include many sabras, who were born in Israel, who served in the army, and who love the country.

One of those sabras is my friend Tali, a 40-year-old architect with a physicist husband and two young children. Tali is such a fervent Israeli and so passionate about the country that I was shocked when she let it drop that she was looking at “other options.”

“The main reason we are thinking about going is that we have no hope for the future for the kids,” she said. “We work very hard and pay so much income tax. The government’s priorities are not my priorities. They give my money to religious families with 10 kids. And we don’t see things getting better.

“Twenty years ago it was taboo, shameful, for Israelis to leave the country,” Tali said. “Today we hear that there are 300,000 Israelis just in New York City. No one is ashamed anymore. Even the older generation is not ashamed to tell their kids to go and to urge them not to come back.”

According to government statistics, 37 percent of the world’s Jews live in Israel. The rest are scattered across the globe, in that space with the magical-sounding name: the diaspora. No one knows how many Israelis are in the diaspora, but two years ago it was estimated that there were 500,000 of them, or 8.3 percent of the Israeli population. It has to be more now.

The daily Yedioth Aharonot recently ticked off a list of prominent Israeli families who have children or grandchildren living abroad. The list included the families of former Israeli prime ministers David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, and Yitzhak Rabin. Israelis were shocked.

“Once there was a sense of Zionism here. My grandparents came because this was the place Jews should be,” Tali said. “Now the mentality has changed, people have changed. Everyone is in it for himself. People have become very aggressive. This is no longer a nice place to live; there is no quality of life.

“Some of our friends have already left,” she said. “All were educated, middle-class professionals, the kind of people Israel needs. One friend, a doctor, moved to Boston. I doubt he will ever come back.”

“If we get a good offer someplace, we’ll leave, but we’re not looking too intensively,” Tali said. “We’re not under pressure; we both work. Also, there are so few nice places to go. New Zealand is a bit too far. The really nice parts of Europe or Scandinavia are not pro-Israeli.

“I heard lots of people want to go to Vanuatu [an island in the South Pacific],” Tali said. “But I would never go to a place where there were so many Israelis!

“I read that many middle-class Palestinians were leaving, too,” she said. “They don’t talk about it because it demoralizes those who stay. Their reasons are less economical and more the sense of hopelessness that we all feel. They are going to Canada, Scandinavia, and New Zealand.

“So if we want to run away from the Arabs, there’s only Easter Island left,” she laughed. “But seriously, it is not the Arabs we are running away from—it is the kind of people Israelis have become after living for 50 years with this pressure.”

Ha’Aretz correspondents Uriya Shavit and Jalal Bana investigated the “secret exodus” of Palestinians and found a profile similar to that of Israelis seeking to leave: “young, educated, and with no hope.”

A large number of Palestinians leaving were also “new immigrants” who had come back to the territories from America or Europe when peace appeared to be at hand, only to see their hope for a decent life blown apart by a renewed eruption of violence.

In an interview with Yedioth Aharonot last month, Yossi Beilin, a Knesset member from the Labor Party, said he is now hearing things that he never heard before. His old army pals and schoolmates, people in their fifties, are privately saying that they would not mind, or would even be glad, if their children moved someplace else.

Beilin wondered aloud at the hawkish policies of Defense Minister Benjamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer and Matan Vilnai, minister of science, culture, and sport, both of whom have children living outside the country.

He said it was hard for him to understand how Fuad and Vilnai could fail to see the price they are paying for policies which could result in their children never coming back to Israel.

He said he did not think Fuad made decisions that contribute to the cycle of violence and “endanger our children just because his children are not here.

“But I tell him: Don’t you understand that you will stay here alone? Look at your children. Is there anything harder than the fact that your children are leaving the country?”