Here we go again, on emigration

Every once in a while, certain themes return to Israel''s headlines. One of them appears in Ehud Barak''s recent call to withdraw settlements from the West Bank, which was the subject of my last couple of notes. Another is the hand-wringing cry against Jews who leave Israel.
Yom Kippur is a season of deep thoughts about one''s conscience, and on the eye of Yom Kippur Israel Hayom''s magazine supplement included an article by its most distinguished columnist, Dan Margalit, about Israelis who abandon the Zionist dream. Curiously, the English version is less harsh than the Hebrew version. The former features "Zionist dream" in its headline, while the latter features the nasty phrase that Yitzhak Rabin coined for those leaving, נפולת של נצושות. The term is not easy to translate, even while it clearly connotes some kind of low life. The weakest of the weaklings, or miserable wimps is the best I can do, even after consulting several dictionaries and my favorite native Hebrew speaker.
When Rabin spoke out about the phenomenon of departing Israelis, he was part of a wave of similar efforts that led me to arguments with a doctoral student who became my good friend and co-author, and who--against my advice--created an organization meant to discourage Israelis from departing. I was also moved to write, "Should the Israeli Government Combat Jewish Emigration?" (Jerusalem Quarterly, Winter 1987). That, in turn, produced an argument with the Minister of Immigrant Absorption, who came to my unit of the IDF lecture corps to promote lectures against the emigration of Israel''s young men.
Since that wave of concern about emigration, Israel has been strengthened by a million Russians and more than a hundred thousand Ethiopians. There are now more than enough people in this small country, as well as the addition of beautiful faces with Slavic features and coloring and those of darker hue but no less attractive with the distinctive features shared by Ethiopians and Somalis. The new populations also add to what veteran Israelis had already done by way of congestion on the roads, crowding in the nature reserves and shopping malls, and a chronic increase in the price of housing. Israel''s population has gone beyond 8 million. Its 6 million Jews account for more than half of those in the world. Israel is one of the most densely populated of countries, and even more crowded than shown by official figures of overall population per square mile insofar as about half of the country is empty desert.
Prominent reasons for opposing emigration are not so much economic or demographic as emotional. Margalit''s recent article claims a national disaster, dilution of hope, destruction of the Biblical image of the return to Zion, abandonment of Jews'' concern to take their fate in their own hands and the surrender of Jews'' fate into the hands of others. He wrote about his disappointment in seeing the children and grandchildren of prominent individuals who contributed to the creation of modern Israel abandoning the country, and notes that the negative word used in the past for Jews who depart Israel, יורד, a person who "goes down," has been replaced with the neutral term "migrant."
There is at least a bit of irony in Margalit''s writing his piece against the cross-national character of the Jewish population for his present employer, Israel Hayom. That is the paper of Sheldon Adelson, described by critics as Israel''s Pravda or Bibipress, and representing an overseas billionaire''s effort to influence Israel via a giveaway paper with the largest circulation of any Israeli daily. The latest on Adelson is a headline in Ha''aretz, "I will donate what is necessary to defeat Obama." If Grandma Tillie were alive, she would say something about the sin of immodest Jews.
Margalit recognizes that migration is ingrained in Jewish history. Substantial numbers of Jews departed the Land of Israel for opportunities in ancient times. Then, too, it was a small country with limited opportunities. Perhaps half or more of the Jewish population during the time of the Second Temple lived in communities from Persian, Babylon, Arabia, India and China in the east to Spain, North Africa, the Rhineland, Rome, Greece, and Britain in the west. Emigration also marked every generation of those who earlier migrated to Palestine and Israel from the late 19th century onward. Jews were prominent in the massive wave of migration from central and eastern Europe westward in the 19th century, and again after World War II. Those waves came from the push factors of poverty, persecution, and war-time destruction. Post-1948 departures from Israel come more from the pull factors of greater personal opportunities elsewhere.
Outmigration is not an easy phenomenon to measure. Legal immigrants have to register upon entering a country, and the numbers add up. Those leaving a country generally do not register their intentions in the way out. According to figures assembled by a US government source, Israel is among the countries with a substantial net in-migration, in a cluster that includes the United States, New Zealand, Netherlands, and Denmark. A number of Israeli sources--official and unofficial--produce different numbers for those living permanently or temporarily abroad. If they agree on anything, it is that the numbers of those emigrating, immigrating, and emigrants returning home fluctuate with economic conditions here and elsewhere.
Globalization being what it is, the phenomena of Jews and others moving away from and into Israel is something the country shares with others. Modern communication also makes it difficult to identify a person''s place. We''ve met personnel in high-tech industries who live in one country and communicate electronically across national borders with their company and colleagues. Frequently travel, daily electronic commuting, and company mergers make it difficult to know if someone is working in Israel or elsewhere, for a company that is Israeli or something else. At least a few Israelis work in Europe four or five days a week and fly back for long weekends with the spouse and kids. Many Israelis with origins elsewhere have dual citizenship, and pass on their rights to Israeli-born children. Among the reasons are the ease of travel with a major country passport that provides entry elsewhere without a visa, the ease of working in the large markets of the United States or the European Community, and a concern that tensions in Israel may become intolerable.
Insofar as oy gevalt competes in Jewish traditions with dispassionate analysis, we should express no wonder at Dan Margalit''s moaning about Israelis who leave for greener pastures, or what they perceive as environments that are safer, or less tense. Yet the bottom line of dispassionate analysis is that Israelis live longer than most other populations. Perhaps that is only the result of decent medical care widely available. There may be something healthy about Jewish genes. Or the stimuli associated with congestion and tension may help to postpone the bad sides of aging.