My friend David Lasday has been living in Israel for seven years, around twice as long as I have, and has been doing amazing things.
He founded a group called Bring It In, which pairs sports volunteering with professional development to train young men and women to be cultural ambassadors for Israel. He’s also the Netanya director of Hoops for Kids, which uses sports as a development tool, and he’s one of the leaders of the movement to bring lacrosse to Israel.
He’s well-situated, established and has a serious a girlfriend.
Yet despite all these signs of permanence, David has not yet decided to immigrate to Israel.
“I’m not sure why I haven’t made aliya. In part, it’s because I think I like being American. I find that unique and special, and it gives me the chutzpa to do what I do here in Israel,” Lasday says.
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Living in Israel without being a citizen entails a plethora of minor hardships.
“For several years I was on a tourist visa, and on a tourist visa you have to leave every three months. A lot of those trips were back to America, so that became a bit of a financial burden, and it would also interrupt my work,” he explains. “I would always enter the country with a little bit of trepidation, with some story about why I was here, whether visiting a girlfriend or going to a wedding or bar mitzva, and every time it would be a little different.”
His early work in Israel involved a lot of travel to parts of the West Bank, where it is illegal for Israeli citizens to visit, but that period has passed.
Not only that, but many parts of day-to-day functioning in Israel rely on the use of a teudat zehut, or ID card. Opening a bank account? TZ number. Getting a phone? TZ number. Registering for Tel Aviv’s bikeshare program? Paying your water bill? Getting a discount code at your supermarket? They all use the TZ number, which Lasday won’t get until he decides to make aliya.
On the flipside, Lasday is forgoing myriad benefits from the government. Each year, the Immigration and Absorption Ministry sets aside some NIS 1.4 billion to pay out benefits to olim, who are entitled to a free flight to Israel, free ulpan Hebrew language course, medical insurance, tax breaks on anything from income to buying a car, and even cash-in-hand. For some people, it even covers the cost of an academic degree. The whole idea is to make the transition easier for Jews who want to move to Israel.
“We want to give them the tools to have a successful aliya,” affirms Neil Gillman, who is in charge of English- speaking aliya at the Jewish Agency.
To a classical economist, who might see the world in purely rationalist and monetary terms, Lasday’s decision seems impossible. With a few simple steps, he could have made his life in Israel significantly easier and received a serious payoff instead of having to abscond to the US every few months. Not only that, but there are no strings attached to the benefits, no clawback provisions, no way of undoing the benefits if he ever decides he wants to leave Israel.
For someone in Lasday’s situation, the decision, economically speaking, is a no-brainer.
But we are human beings, not economic automatons, and our minds don’t work the way classical economists would like to think. We foster beliefs and ideologies and unexpectedly non-utilitarian preferences, and make decisions in ways that would baffle Milton Friedman types.
Indeed, Lasday is just one of a slew of people who come to live in Israel but opt not to make aliya, despite the clear benefits.
In economic terms, he and people like him are paying a premium in order to avoid officially becoming Israeli: The aliya premium.
THERE ARE plenty of good reasons why someone coming to live in Israel might not want to make aliya.
“Sometimes, it’s very practical. Sometimes people are studying in a university, yeshiva or seminary, and they know they’re actually headed back to the US or UK after their studies, perhaps for a finite period with a view toward making aliya at a later date. For them, it doesn’t make sense to make aliya at this stage,” details Gillman.
“If we go back to the yeshivot, there are a lot of boys studying there who, if they were to make aliya, would need to start dealing with the IDF – which I happen to believe is wonderful for absorbing into Israeli society, but when it comes to aliya sort of pushes people away because they’re frightened of having to go into the army,” he continues.
DZ is one such case. He moved to Israel from Canada a decade ago to study, and was advised to take it on a yearby- year basis. Now, despite wanting to make aliya, he doesn’t want to put his life on hold at the age of 27 and go to the army for two-and-a-half years.
“I’ve been told by the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh and other organizations that are in close contact with the army that-even though I’m 27, and were I to come from Canada now it wouldn’t be an issue – I’d be able to make aliya and, of course, not get drafted for the army – my situation is different.
Since I got here when I was 18, I’m still viewed as an 18-year-old and would have to do two-and-a-half years of full service,” he says.
Several fellow journalists told me they don’t want to obtain Israeli citizenship because, like Lasday when he first arrived, their work sometimes requires them to travel to places where Israeli citizens are banned from visiting – either by Israel or the host country.
But setting aside the examples of those who face military service or professional impediments, which even an economist could understand in a cost-benefit analysis, what is the main factor stopping these other olim from going the Full Israeli Monty? For many, it is a fear of commitment.
To them, aliya is not just a process of getting benefits and a shiny new passport, but a sign they are prepared to stay in Israel forever. In an age when people frequently move from place to place, when a great opportunity might surface abroad, when permanence has become a rare feature, people worry that making aliya is akin to making a promise they cannot keep.
In a sense, making aliya is like getting married, and people are loath to rush in for fear that Israel isn’t the right one for them. If someday they move away, it would feel like a divorce.
“I’m a big fan of the marriage metaphor.
You make the commitment hoping it will work out, but statistically we know that 50 percent of marriages don’t,” Gillman asserts. “I think the more time somebody spends in Israel, the greater the likelihood they’re going to commit themselves to living here, that they’re going to be here for the long haul.”
Take Yossi, a 26-year-old from Miami who has been living in Israel for a year-and-a-half, but still runs his social media business out of the US. Yossi’s parents are Israeli and he has been a citizen since he was young, but he doesn’t have a teudat zehut and hasn’t cashed in his aliya benefits as an ezrach oleh (a form of immigration for non-resident citizens), which are almost identical to those on offer to new olim.
“Once you make aliya it’s like, ‘OK I did it, I’m committed, I’m here, it’s official,’” he says. “I’m not tied down. I can do whatever, I can get up and leave, I can go and travel back to the States, I can come back here – there’s no commitment that’s tying me down anywhere right now, and I kind of like that.
I like the freedom.”
Melissa Zeloof, a London native who works at the PR firm Headline Media (and happens to be Lasday’s girlfriend), made aliya after years of indecision.
“I remember having a conversation with a friend who said, ‘Well, why don’t you stay,’ and I responded, ‘I don’t know, I feel like it’s a really big decision! I should think about it and I’m not sure if I’m ready for that,’” she recalls. “But the truth is it wasn’t that big a decision when I finally made it.
“And I think perhaps the reason why some people don’t make aliya or take longer is because they feel like it’s a bigger deal than it is. Or maybe actually, it should be a bigger deal than it is.”
When asked, cheekily, if she thinks her boyfriend Lasday has a fear of commitment, she replies just as cheekily, “Is David a man? It’s the same question.”
Lasday is more straightforward about the issue (as it pertains to aliya, anyway).
“I hesitated to take the benefits because of what kind of commitment that meant to the country; I think that was one of the main reasons. I always liked to think I was living on the bridge, still living in America, connected with my family and friends there,” he reveals.
How strong is that feeling? An economist would argue that it is quantifiable in monetary terms. Add up the value of all the benefits of aliya, plus the difference between the bureaucratic hassle of making aliya and the bureaucratic hassle of living in Israel as a foreigner, subtract whatever costs are associated with getting Israeli citizenship, and voila! You can put a number value on the decision.
You can quantify the aliya premium.
Although there are no exact figures for how it all adds up, and every oleh’s benefits package differs depending on a range of factors ranging from family status to country of origin to how many years they’ve spent in Israel, a back-ofthe- envelope calculation shows that the Immigration and Absorption Ministry spends an average of NIS 58,000 per new oleh each year. Though that is hardly a comprehensive study, it gives an idea of how high of an aliya premium people are willing to pay.
But there is another element at play as well. Many of the people interviewed for this article noted the importance of fairness in their decision- making process; if they were going to accept monetary benefits designed to help them establish themselves in Israel, they wanted to be sure they intended to stay in order to ensure they weren’t taking advantage of the country. The need for reciprocity makes accepting benefits tough.
“When it comes to the question about the benefits and the degree to which they prevent someone from being willing to make that commitment, I think it’s a lot more than quantifying what the actual benefits are,” contends Zeloof. “Mentally, that feeling of having taken something from an entity or from someone and feeling the need to give back” plays a role as well.
Yossi agrees, “I also think that if I’m not committed and I’m not going to stay here forever, it’s kind of taking advantage of the country. And I don’t think the country can allow itself to be taken advantage of, so I’m holding off on that for now.”
For the Jewish Agency, that approach seems like a bit of a catch-22.
The benefits, after all, are designed to make it easier for people to stay. If people refuse to accept the benefits until they have decided to stay, they may be foregoing the very thing that helps them decide to stay.
“There are really no guarantees in the world. We recognize the difficulties someone faces when they’re making aliya; we want them to try,” Gillman maintains. “I don’t see that there is any problem with someone saying ‘I want to make a go of it, I’m going to take the benefits because those will make the difference, maybe, to my making a successful aliya.’” For Lasday, the time may have finally come to take the plunge, go all in and officially become an Israeli. Though his lengthy stay in the country precludes him from the majority of the benefits a fresh oleh would get, he is planning to make aliya in August.
Well, he thinks so, anyway. This story first appeared in the Jerusalem Post Magazine.