Leaving Israel

Perhaps the time has come to stop being so defensive and uptight about the allure of the Diaspora and focus more on appreciating what we have, with all its imperfections.

October 16, 2014 21:33
3 minute read.

Dozens file into Rabin Square October 14 to learn about how to emigrate to Berlin. (photo credit: Lahav Harkov)

The national preoccupation with emigration – also known in its pejorative formulation as yerida or descent in Hebrew – is an integral part of Israeli culture.

In an interview for Independence Day, 1976, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin referred to emigration as “the falling off of the weaklings.” In 1980, when a record 30,000 more Israelis left than returned, then-MK Geula Cohen declared during a Knesset debate that “the Diaspora is a disease and we should have nothing to do with Israelis who join it.”

Author and Israel Prize Laureate A.B. Yehoshua has over the years used the most derogatory terms to describe Jews who choose to remain in the Diaspora. In 2003, in a meeting with editors and reporters of The Jerusalem Post, he referred to Diaspora Judaism as “masturbation” while saying life in Israel was “the real thing.” In a 2006 speech in the US at the centennial symposium of the American Jewish Committee, Yehoshua said: “Judaism outside Israel has no future. If you do not live in Israel… your Jewish identity has no meaning at all.”

Last year, after the airing of the first segment of “The New Emigrants,” a news series that underlined Berlin’s low cost of living and higher average salaries compared to Tel Aviv’s, Channel 10’s Matan Chodorov, who hosted the show, apologized on air if the impression was made that Channel 10 was encouraging Israelis to emigrate.

“In no way do we intend to argue in favor of leaving Israel,” Chodorov stressed.

The recent “Milky” protest over the significantly cheaper price of the popular dairy product launched by expats living in Berlin has received extensive media coverage precisely because the very notion that Israelis actually choose to live in Berlin still manages to infuriate many of us.

As Israelis, we are hypersensitive to the emigration.

However, recently published data from the Central Bureau of Statistics reveal that there is little cause for concern. Emigration rates have dropped to a nadir of four decades. In 2012, the number of citizens who left the country for at least a year was down to 15,900, lower than 2011 and part of a broader trend that has been going on for quite some time.

Despite repeated claims to the contrary, Israel is not facing a mass exodus that threatens to undermine Jewish demographics. In fact, the Jewish state’s emigration rates are lower than the OECD average and not any higher than most Western countries.

In addition, a larger percentage of Israelis who emigrated during these years were among the 1.2 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union who entered Israel since January 1989. Between 1990 and 2005, nearly half (48 percent) of the 230,000 emigrants were post-1989 immigrants (Central Bureau of Statistics, 2007), while their share of the population in 2005 was less than 20%. In all, almost 10% of these “ascenders” had descended by 2005, according to the CBS.

This might sound like a lot, but in reality Israel’s 90% “rate of retention” is quite astounding. As demographer Sergio DellaPergola noted in a 2011 paper for the Jewish People Policy Institute, Israel has a “remarkably low rate of attrition.”

DellaPergola compared the figure to Germany’s, where the percentage of ethnic Germans who immigrated to Germany between 1954 and 1999 and later left the country was only above 60%. In the UK, where nearly four million immigrants arrived during 1997–2006, only 60% ended up staying. In the US, between 60% and 75% of immigrants remain in America. If our emigration rate is actually relatively low and our rate of retention is high, why are we so uptight about a few thousand Israelis living in Berlin? Part of it might have to do with demography vis-à-vis the Palestinians. There is also the constant Jewish worry about assimilation. And of course there is our ingrained Zionist ideology that sees Diaspora Jewish life as somehow unauthentic or artificial. But Jews have always had an ambivalent relationship with the Land of Israel. According to the Bible, the Israelites were a people before they ever entered the land. After the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, many Jews, from the two tribes who weren’t previously exiled, chose to remain in Babylonia and elsewhere – even after the Second Temple was built. And Jews managed to survive in the Diaspora during nearly two millennia of exile leading up to the creation of the State of Israel.= Perhaps the time has come to stop being so defensive and uptight about the allure of the Diaspora and focus more on appreciating what we have, with all its imperfections. According to the CBS figures, that is what most Israelis are doing anyway.

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