While Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu insists that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, his policies are encouraging a mass exodus of Jews from the country.
Today, the notion of a Jewish refuge in the Land of Israel is greatly at risk. Much has been made of what former prime minister Ehud Olmert once called a “demographic time bomb,” with the Palestinian birthrate soon to boost the number of Palestinians over the number of Israelis between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
Yet Palestinian demographics aside, more Israelis are living abroad than ever, and many are eager to join them.
The lack of visionary leadership in Israel today has served to entrench the notion that the future of the state is at risk, and that opportunities for a prosperous, secure livelihood are better sought elsewhere. Netanyahu’s Israel is increasingly beholden to extremist religious and intolerant voices. As a result, Israel is looking more like its avowed enemy, Iran, than an ally of the United States, with whom it claims to have shared values. In effect, life in Netanyahu’s “Jewish state” amounts to a new kind of Jewish ghetto, which many Israelis are opting to escape.
To be sure, calling Israel a “ghetto” may seem like hyperbole, and of
course in some ways it is. However, Israel is now in control of its own
fate; it has the tools and resources to defend itself, and the means to
establish a nation-state with a bright future shaped by the vision of
bold leaders, empowered by a diverse, vibrant democracy. This is the
vision of Israel that captured the imagination not only of world Jewry,
but also of the country’s friends and allies across the world.
The problem is that the vision that characterized Israel when it was created in 1948 is rapidly disappearing.
Israel today is more isolated than ever in the international arena, with
friends and allies dwindling amid rising anti-Semitism. The idea of
creative and bold leadership that enhances diversity even within the
Jewish community has become, sadly, laughable. Rather than uphold
democratic values in shaping a bright future for all its citizens,
Israeli leaders are more apt to promote ideologically charged
legislation like the recently passed anti-boycott law and pending
legislation to investigate the funding of left-wing NGOs. Meanwhile,
despite the repeated criticism of the prime minister by over a dozen
ex-chiefs of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Mossad, Netanyahu
has failed to advance a compelling peace initiative. He and his
coalition partners remain obstinate, and alarmingly clueless.
As a result, many Israelis feel caged in a small, increasingly isolated
country, surrounded by enemies and led by people more interested in
advancing warped ideologies than a secure and prosperous future. The
economic conditions today may be bright, but the future looks uncertain
and even bleak. It should be no surprise that many Israelis want out.
THE STATISTICS are plentiful, and worrying. Some already estimate the
number of Israelis living abroad at nearly one million. A study by the
Menachem Begin Heritage Center in 2008 indicated more than 30 percent of
Israelis had applied for a second passport or intended to do so, but
some have put the number as high as 60%.
A 2007 study by Tel Hai Academic College showed that nearly half of
teens aged 14-18 want to live elsewhere, with 68% citing Israel’s
condition as “not good.” Seventy- eight percent of Israelis recently
indicated that they would like the country to become part of the
European Union, with 11% saying that with EU citizenship they would move
immediately. Already, over 100,000 Israelis have German citizenship,
and as many as 7,000 are given new passports each year.
Yet even more troubling is who is leaving. Recently researchers Joseph
Chamie and Barry Mirkin wrote in Foreign Policy that “the Israeli
emigrants are deemed to be disproportionately secular, liberal and
Nearly half of Israeli emigrants have university degrees. Meanwhile, the
haredi population in Israel, highly dependent on government assistance,
has more than tripled in just 20 years.
This is a recipe for economic disaster and democratic atrophy, and
secular Israelis know it. Combine these ingredients with the ongoing
conflict, and the Netanyahu government’s propensity to ratchet up
tensions with Israel’s neighbors rather than defuse them, and it becomes
understandable why moderate and educated Israelis can’t bear to
continue raising children in such a state.
Whereas the IDF used to serve as a national symbol of solidarity,
defending the Jewish homeland from terrorists and enemy states, today it
is increasingly viewed with apprehension as an occupying force. At
present, fewer educated and secular Israelis are enlisting. Nearly half
of military-age Israelis no longer serve in the military.
A 2010 study by Tel Aviv University professor Camille Fuchs showed that 59% of teens do not want to serve in combat units.
IDF statistics show that by 2015, 30% of recruits will be haredi,
despite the fact that nearly 15% of militaryage haredi men receive a
waiver for IDF service – a testament to the substantial growth of the
religious community in Israel. Research last year by the military
journal Ma’arachot showed that in 1990 the percentage of combat officers
who were religious was just 2.5%. Twenty years later, nearly one-third
Historically in Israel, the one institution that brought the citizenry together as a cohesive unit was the military.
Sadly, today it is seen by the outside world and a growing number of Israelis as a tool of suppression.
MANY ISRAELIS witnessing these trends rightfully foresee the following:
an Israel facing considerable economic challenges caused by brain drain,
an exponential rise in religious families receiving government
assistance, and continually increasing military expenditures to protect
settlers while maintaining a state of military readiness.
Politically the picture is equally bleak: Israel’s future looks more right-wing, less democratic and more isolated.
So what is Netanyahu doing about this? Although this dangerous trend
began with his predecessors, he is making the situation considerably
worse. On the one hand, he demands that Palestinians recognize Israel as
a Jewish state, while on the other he is adding fuel to the fire of the
Jewish exodus by advancing the politics of the ideological and
religious Right. As a result, he is actually undermining the country’s
In effect, his demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish
state is nothing but a ploy to make up for his own bankrupt policies,
which are jeopardizing the country’s future as a safe and secure heaven
for all Jewish people. Indeed, the Jewish identity of the state cannot
be maintained by Palestinian recognition, but only through a sustainable
Jewish majority. As his fellow citizens despair of perpetual conflict
and look for any possible way to escape it, Netanyahu is using Israel’s
legitimate national security concerns to advance an ideological land
grab in the West Bank.
NETANYAHU’S POLICIES are reinforcing the notion of the modern State of
Israel as a ghetto. Israel is no longer about serving as the only secure
refuge for the Jewish people. After all, as noted above, Israelis today
are clamoring to return to Germany and other free countries. Of course,
the notion of a refuge was a leading argument for establishing a Jewish
state, one that would be a “light unto the nations” and promote a
Yet today, that notion of a Jewish state is unfortunately one of
exclusion, not inclusion. More than half of Jewish Israelis polled by
the Israel Democracy Institute last year stated that the government
should be encouraging Israeli Arabs to emigrate, with even more saying
that Arab communities should receive fewer resources than Jewish ones.
No longer is the Jewish state about a safe, secure and prosperous future
for the Jewish people living in a diverse democracy. Gone is the notion
of Israel as a nation with a pioneering, democratic spirit.
However, Israel should not be – and is not – resigned to this fate. A
new leadership can still change the country’s direction. The current
government has already discredited itself. Netanyahu is unlikely to
change course and initiate efforts to usher in a future based on a
vibrant, educated democracy utilizing the opportunities that would arise
from genuine, lasting peace treaties with its neighbors. Under this
misguided leadership, Israel is becoming a garrison state, locking
itself into religious and ideological extremism, international isolation
and a future of perpetual conflict.
Israel could harness the spirit of the evolving region to create a
vision for what President Shimon Peres used to call “a new Middle East.”
Such policies would offer the kind of future Israeli emigrants are
seeking, enabling them to expand their horizons and seek unlimited
opportunities throughout the region while anchored in Israel instead of
leaving it behind.The writer is adjunct professor of
international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He
teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.