Some 37 years ago, when I formally made aliyah, I remember telling some surly bureaucrat at the Interior Ministry who gave me the run-around that if the red tape I was encountering at the time were not straightened out, I’d go back to the US.
“Then go,” he said, unfazed by that threat made in utter frustration.
His response was a reality check.
The year was 1986, the worst year on record for immigration to Israel. Brimming with Zionist zeal and dedication, I had left behind family, friends, and the familiar to move here. I thought this entitled me to better treatment from the bureaucracy – especially since so few others were coming at the time, and especially since I was coming from a country, the United States, where the Jews were thriving, not a place from which they had to flee.
Couched in my reply to the Interior Ministry clerk was a sense that I was doing the country a favor by coming here.
His response – “if you don’t like it, leave” – told me that I wasn’t, that the State of Israel could manage just fine without me.
Israel's doctors threaten to leave due to judicial reform
That experience came to mind recently amid growing reports that numerous doctors are considering moving abroad because of the judicial reform plan.
On Monday evening, Channel 11 interviewed one doctor who had already done so: former Sheba Medical Center neurosurgeon Zion Zilbi. A Whatsapp chat group for doctors interested in moving has reportedly attracted 3,000 people.
The media interest in this story – on Wednesday morning, one of the items on the hourly radio news bulletin was that two leading doctors moved out of the country over the last month – is part of a new/old media trend: focusing on Israelis fed up with the country and eager to leave.
Why people often want to leave Israel and why they won't actually do it
One thing that has been a given since I made aliyah in the 1980s is that every few months there would be a spate of stories about people who want to leave and are clamoring for foreign passports. Once branded as “yerida,” an unflattering term, this emigration has now taken on a more positive and even “hip” label: “relocation.”
In the 1980s the widely reported itch to exit was attributed to hyperinflation, the First Lebanon War, and the first intifada. In the 1990s, it was a result of the Rabin assassination. In the early 2000s, the reason given was the Second Intifada. In the mid-2010s, it was because the national pudding – the “Milky” – was cheaper in Berlin than in Jerusalem.
When I was a freshly-minted new immigrant, these stories chipped away at my morale. Here I was, having made sacrifices to come here, while tens of thousands of native-born Israelis were apparently just dying to leave. But with time I matured and realized that, like in every country, people come and go.
Zilbi said Israel is no longer the democracy he wants to live in, nor is the Judaism here the Judaism he wants to give to his children. So off he goes.
In the 2016 US presidential elections, numerous Americans – including celebrities such as Barbra Streisand – said that if Donald Trump won, they were going to Canada. Trump won, but they stayed put.
Why? Because it’s still their country. Because they realize that one just doesn’t throw in the towel, pick up, and leave one's homeland if the current government is not to their liking.
Governments come and go, and in Israel, they come and go pretty quickly. Zilbi made a life-changing decision based on a current political moment that could quickly change tomorrow.
The decision by doctors to look for greener pastures abroad is likely rooted in more than just judicial reform. Perhaps some have wanted to leave for some time, lured by higher salaries and better conditions, and now they have an “honorable” excuse.
Channel 12 reported on Monday that the United Arab Emirates is trying to lure Israeli doctors by paying them triple the wages they get here. It will be interesting to see if any doctors jump at the offer. Wouldn’t it be ironic if some did leave Israel because it was turning “un-democratic” and “relocated” to the UAE, not exactly a paragon of democracy? Also, is the Jewish future really in the UAE?
So now, in addition to the concern that reserve pilots will not show up to fight the country’s enemies and that high-tech companies are spiriting their funds overseas, a fresh apprehension looms as a result of the judicial overhaul: the flight of doctors.
It all reinforces the demoralizing notion – a notion that is not new to this crisis and which is pumped up by the media – that masses of Israelis, if just given the chance, are interested in leaving.
Except that they aren’t; the statistics tell a wholly different tale.
On the eve of the Yom Kippur War, Israel’s population stood at 3.2 million, of whom 2.8 million were Jews. This year, as the country celebrated its 75th anniversary, and following hundreds of articles about mass emigration and the specter of a debilitating brain drain, the country’s population stood at 9.7 million people and 7.1 million Jews. So much for disappearing of our own volition.
Do some smart and talented Israelis look for and find greener pastures abroad? Certainly. But some smart and talented Jews from abroad also look and find greener pastures here. Over time – and there have been some difficult times here – the balance has been heavily weighted in Israel’s favor. We scare ourselves with perpetual talk of a “brain drain.” Historically, however, Israel has benefitted mightily from a “brain gain.”
Don’t take this wrong. It is deeply regrettable if some of the country’s top minds don’t feel they belong here anymore. They’ve contributed immensely, and their skills are undeniably valuable. And, of course, they have the right to seek what they feel is a better life elsewhere.
But some of them seem to be coming from the same place I came from when I threatened that Interior Ministry bureaucrat that I would leave the country: a misplaced sense of doing someone else a favor by being here.
It took a brusque bureaucrat to make me realize – and it was a humbling experience – that I wasn’t doing the country a favor by moving here. Instead, I was doing myself a favor.
I was taking advantage of a historic, once unimaginable opportunity to be part of a Jewish return to Zion. It was a privilege that put me on the right side of Jewish history – a history so much much longer than a single Israeli government one may or may not like, but which will definitely not last forever.