The Demise of Ideology

A look at the changing nature of aliya and yerida provides a revealing portrait of Israel at 60 and the challenges facing a middle-aged Jewish state

02ethip (photo credit: Nathan Alpert/GPO)
(photo credit: Nathan Alpert/GPO)
Article in the [email protected] anniversary issue, May 12, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Neal Fullman pushes his compact black suitcase on wheels through the familiar arrivals hall at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Having just arrived from Johannesburg, Fullman, a 39-year-old public relations director for an Israeli high-tech company, is looking forward to spending a long weekend with his wife and two children before heading back to the airport to fly to Brussels on Sunday, Amsterdam on Monday and then on to Zurich on Tuesday. "A city a day," quips the affable native of London, who knows only a few words of Hebrew even though his home is in Israel. Fullman and his family immigrated last summer, but he spends about two weeks a month working abroad. "In one sense, Israel is my home because my family is here," says Fullman who - whenever he is in the country - resides in Modi'in, a convenient 15-minute drive from the airport. "But in another sense, I feel far away from Israel." Meet the new oleh (immigrant), circa 2008. About 15 kilometers away from the airport, on the leafy campus of Tel Aviv University, a talented student approaches his economics professor Dan Ben-David for a recommendation for graduate studies abroad. He is one of many students with the same goal. "It's obvious that some of them have no intention of coming back to Israel," says Ben-David. "Once students used to feel uncomfortable admitting they were planning to leave. Now there is no shame - they say it up front." Meet the new yored (emigrant), circa 2008. If the oleh, literally the ascender, was once admired, and the yored, literally descender, was once frowned upon, that paradigm has been turned upside down. Attitudes towards aliya and yerida, and even the very nature of aliya and yerida, have undergone a radical transformation in the 60 years since the establishment of the state. Jews who make aliya may, like Fullman, spend as much time out of Israel as in the country. And Israelis who leave for good are no longer traitors, but - if they are successful enough - heroes. What do the comings and goings of Jews to and from Israel mean in the era of globalization? And what do they say about the durability of Zionism? The answers to these questions provide a revealing portrait of Israel at 60 and the challenges facing the Jewish state as it enters middle age. From the establishment of the state and through the early 1990s, aliya meant primarily massive waves of Jews fleeing lives of duress in either North Africa, Yemen, Iraq, Ethiopia or the Soviet Union, with only a handful coming from the affluent West out of ideological commitment. But today immigration to Israel, even from the Former Soviet Union (FSU), has little to do with rescue or ideology and much to do with lifestyle choices. "We had a pleasant life in a middle-class neighborhood of London, with good work, family and friends," says Fullman. "But we had wanted to come to Israel for a long time," he says, seated in a café in Modi'in on a rare free day with his wife Jacki, 38. The couple, who were part of a Reform congregation in London, had been visiting Israel for years, ever since a close relative of Jacki's moved to the country. Gradually, they fell in love with the place. "It's a matter of lifestyle," explains Jacki, who gets the waitress's attention with an assertiveness that is more Israeli than British. "There is a sense of freedom here - especially for the children - that we never had in England," continues the mother of Olivia, 10, and Ben, 5. "The kids play in the park and walk to school by themselves - something that is unheard of in London." "Olim of choice" is the phrase touted by the Jewish Agency to describe immigrants like the Fullmans, who come to Israel not because they have to or need to, but because they want to. Just five years ago, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon and the Agency announced a goal of attracting a million immigrants of choice over the next decade. The focus on bringing "olim of choice" in the absence of massive waves of Jews seeking refuge has meant a shift in approach among the organizations charged with promoting aliya. Nowadays, the buzzword is marketing. "In the 70s, we were all very ideological. The message was: 'You should make aliya,' and we would shout it from the rooftops," recalls Mike Rosenberg, a Jewish Agency emissary on North American university campuses in the late 1970s and later director of the Agency's Aliya Department. "But over the last few years we began to take a more practical, marketing approach. The idea was to look at aliya as a lifestyle commodity that we try to sell." U.S.-born Rosenberg, 59, was one of 8,122 North Americans who immigrated in 1971, which was a record year for aliya from North America. He has been a member of Kibbutz Ma'aleh Hahamisha (near Jerusalem) ever since. He describes himself as a hard-core ideological Zionist but his talk about immigration is peppered with expressions such as focus groups, segmentation, customer service and global marketing center. He talks about luring potential immigrants to visit Israel "in the way you get customers to taste a new product in the supermarket." He refers to a 2004 survey commissioned by the Agency together with IBM Business Consulting Services that examined what 1,690 North American Jews were looking for in life. The Agency planned to use the results to develop a plan to market Israel, as a place to live, differentially to various segments of the North American Jewish population. "We found, surprisingly, that the Mediterranean-style night life of Tel Aviv answered the needs of a lot of young people," says Rosenberg. "The possibility of living on an isolated hilltop in the Galilee could provide the lifestyle sought by nature lovers." An indication of the pivotal role marketing has assumed in the Agency's strategy is the fact that Rosenberg, who left in 2005, was replaced by Oded Saloman, the former marketing director of Osem, the Israeli food conglomerate that makes popular children's snacks. But Rosenberg says that the Agency stopped short of applying many of the findings of the market research, as well as other ambitious marketing plans, mainly because of a lack of budget and a shift in priorities. "Active marketing of aliya was put on the backburner," he laments. The reason? According to Rosenberg, the lion's share of the Agency's budget comes from Jewish federations in North America whose members do not view immigration to Israel from the West as a priority. "When it was a matter of rescuing Jews, the donors were happy to give. But without the rescue component, aliya is not as urgent or as compelling in the eyes of North American donors," says Rosenberg, who now works at a private foundation that promotes settlement of the Negev. "Aliya is still a top priority for us, along with the strengthening of Jewish identity and the reshaping of Israeli society," insists Moshe Vigdor, director-general of the Jewish Agency, citing various programs to entice immigrants of choice. Vigdor acknowledges that there has been a gradual and continuing decline in the money that the Federations contribute to the Agency's core budget as donors are increasingly reluctant to sign a "blank check" to be used at the Agency's discretion. But he says the Agency has responded to this by offering donors the chance to support specific elective projects that fall within the strategic vision of the Agency. As the nature of the aliya business has changed from clandestine mass rescue operations to luring affluent Jews from the West, the semi-governmental, bureaucratic Jewish Agency has lost its monopoly in the field. Private non-profit organizations such as Nefesh B'Nefesh (NBN), operating in North America and Britain, and Ami, in France, have had considerable success bringing planeloads of immigrants over the last few years by promising a more efficient procedure. Says NBN co-chair Danny Ayalon, former Israeli ambassador to the United States: "Most immigrants to Israel have come because they had few other options in their lives. But the Jews from Nefesh B'Nefesh are coming because they want to. And they won't want to if their aliya is cumbersome or bogged down in bureaucratic hassles." The combined efforts of all the aliya bodies, with their marketing and bureaucracy-busting strategies, have resulted in 20,000-24,000 immigrants a year over the past five years. Last year's tally, 19,700, marked the lowest number of immigrants since 1988 - a far cry from the 100,000 a year or million a decade - that Sharon and the Agency set as the goal. On the other hand, the proportion of immigrants coming from Western countries is rising as the number from the FSU, still the largest group, at 6,445 immigrants in 2007, dwindles for the eighth year in a row. (Immigration from Ethiopia, which accounted for the second-largest group, 3,607 olim last year, is to end entirely in two months, in the wake of a government decision not to bring any more Falas Mora, Christians who claim their forefathers were Jews who were forced to convert.) So who is coming nowadays? North Americans are now the third-largest group: Over the last six years their numbers have risen from 1,653 to 2,957. Some 90 percent of these are Orthodox, according to Chaim Waxman, professor emeritus of sociology and Jewish studies at Rutgers University and an expert on American aliya. A religious new immigrant, Waxman moved to Israel two years ago and is now a researcher at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a think tank established by the Jewish Agency. Waxman notes that even among Orthodox Jews the choice to move to Israel is often connected to lifestyle and financial considerations. "Many figure that the cost of Jewish education in the United States is so high that they will actually have a better standard of living in Israel than in the U.S," he says. Waxman points out that American immigrants have on average a higher educational level than the rest of American Jews, who are considered to be the best educated of any ethnic group in the United States. And it is worth noting not only who is coming, but how they are coming. Once the choice to move to Israel was accompanied by an ideological "negation of the Diaspora," or as Mike Rosenberg puts it: "You left and never looked back." But nowadays, many "olim of choice" never even quit their businesses or jobs; they simply commute. Others move to Israel, but find employment abroad. According to a study by Waxman, one in four heads of families who immigrated to Israel from the United States over the last decade works abroad. The number is probably even higher for immigrants from Europe, Waxman suggests, since the commute is easier. Most of them, he says, are self-employed professionals such as doctors, dentists, lawyers or accountants; others work in high-tech. "I'm usually away Sunday through Wednesay night," says Neal Fullman, international PR director of Fring, an Israeli mobile internet service company. "I often see the same faces, the serial commuters with Anglo-Israeli backgrounds like myself, on the flights in and out of Israel." Just two weeks after arriving in Israel, before he had had time to study Hebrew or even fully unpack, Fullman received an enticing job offer. "I wish I would have had a chance to learn Hebrew first. That was my plan, but I couldn't turn down a job in my field. I love living here," sums up Fullman. "I just wish I were here more often." "We live in a world of commuters where people are increasingly trans-national," notes Waxman. "The idea of living in two societies is increasingly the pattern, and not exclusively a Jewish one. These commuter olim are living in two societies, but they are committed enough to Israel to want their families to be here full-time." In the hopes of attracting more "part-time" olim, as well as "gradual" olim, the Jewish Agency is launching a program called Flex Aliya, which will provide temporary residence status and various benefits to those who are trying out life in Israel, or those who want to live in the Jewish state only part of the year. "We want to encourage people to choose Israel as a second home, " says Vigdor of the Jewish Agency. But in an age in which lifestyle choices resonate more than ideology, how many affluent Jews from the West will choose to live in Israel at all? "The big aliya from the FSU is the last major aliya that we can envision. I don't foresee any dramatic increase in immigration from the West," says Waxman, arguing that the goal of attracting a million immigrants from the West over a decade "is not realistic. Historically when people are comfortable in a place, they don't pick up and move. And U.S. Jewry has, in many respects, never had it so good." Vigdor admits that the goal of a million was overshooting the mark. A more realistic target, he says, is bringing 30,000-35,000 immigrants a year, as opposed to 100,000. "I view the 'million in a decade' as more of a declaration that we must continue our efforts to promote aliya," he says. But Rosenberg, the former head of the Agency's immigration department, contends that the Agency is not doing enough to attract Jews from the West. "If you want to sell a product, you must put more resources into sales and marketing to get more orders. But the Jewish Agency is doing just the opposite by cutting the budget for promotion of aliya. Decreasing efforts to attract olim is the equivalent of a company stopping production because it is not getting orders. The result will be even less orders. They'll end up laying off staff and closing down the factory," Rosenberg warns. "Aliya will not grind to a complete halt because there are always some people who will fall in love with Israel, even if no one is marketing the country. But the numbers are not going to be great." In six decades there has also been a radical shift in attitudes towards yerida. "Wimps" was what then- prime minister Yitzhak Rabin called Israeli emigrants in an infamous televised interview in 1976. But even Rabin's own son, Yuval, spent the last nine years in the United States with his wife and children, working in the private sector, returning only a few months ago. Many of the sons and daughters of the country's leading statesman, from Alon Ben-Gurion, grandson of the first prime minister, to Shaul Olmert, son of the current one, live outside Israel. These days, few bother to even raise an eyebrow over this. Even the Israeli media have adjusted: There is no mention of the pejorative yordim. In Israeli PC, they are now called "Israelis living abroad." "There is no longer any badge of shame for yordim," says Prof. Oz Almog, a sociologist at Haifa University. "On the contrary, in the era of globalization, success means international success. So an Israeli who makes it big abroad is not 'going down' but 'going up' in prestige." Many of those who choose to remain in Israel are not content to be "just Israelis." In recent years, there has been a rush on foreign passports and a proliferation of agencies that help Israelis obtain European citizenship by virtue of a parent or grandparent who was born somewhere in Europe. In the early 1950s, riots erupted when Israel agreed to take reparations from Germany. But five decades later, the number of Israelis seeking German citizenship, among them descendants of Holocaust survivors, is growing steadily. More than 4,000 Israelis received German citizenship in 2007, a 50 percent increase over 2005 and the largest number since Germany began keeping records about 25 years ago. "You see young people, right after the army, applying for German citizenship," says Dr. Yuval Chen, a Nahariya-based lawyer who helps Israelis obtain German citiznship. "I help them because it's my profession, but I feel torn," says Chen. "I tell them that Israel needs them here." Chen counts among his clientele high-ranking members of the security forces who take out foreign citizenship for themselves, their children and their grandchildren. He says he does not know how many of his clients utilize their European passport to start new lives abroad. "What we're seeing is another sign that Zionism is waning," says Almog. "The whole Zionist ethos no longer resonates for Israelis, with the exception of the religious nationalist camp," whose education emphasizes a divine connection to the land of Israel. "Because of this, those who leave are no longer labeled traitors, and yerida becomes legitimate, further eroding the Zionist ethos. So it feeds upon itself. We're seeing the twilight of Zionism." "I don't see these changes as an ideological post-Zionism," counters Waxman. "It is a natural course of events. To a large extent, Israel has beome a normal country. That was the goal of Zionism. In a normal country people travel and some will leave." Nor does Waxman view the numbers of Israelis obtaining foreign passports as a cause for alarm. Having a European Union passport makes travel anywhere much easier, and enables Israelis to travel to the United States without going through the cumbersome and expensive process of obtaining a visa, he notes. Almog points to the Israeli wanderlust as one of the reasons why citizens leave the country for good. Israelis are the world's most frequent travelers," he notes. Indeed Israelis made a staggering 5 million trips abroad in 2006. (The number of Israeli individuals traveling abroad is actually less since many, like Fullman, take several trips.) "Since going abroad is so common and so easy, the question remains: For how long do you go? A month? A year? Five years? Leaving the country is not the big deal it once was so that, too, makes yerida much more natural. It's not black or white," says Almog. "You come and go for extended periods." Indeed, assessing accurately the number of Israeli emigrants is next to impossible. The Central Bureau of Statistics considers an emigrant to be anyone who left the country without returning after a year. But that is misleading, since many Israelis leave for travel or study for several years before returning home. Most experts estimate the number of Israelis who have left the country for good to settle abroad since 1948 at somewhere between 500,000 and 800,000. In November, the Absorption Ministry launched a campaign to coincide with Israel's 60th anniversary, aimed at luring some of those Israelis back home with series of perks, including tax breaks, and health insurance refunds. To date, the ministry reports that an estimated 4,000 have taken advantage of the progam. On an annual basis, most experts agree that the number of emigrants is thought to be just slightly lower than the number of immigrants (which includes returning Israelis). But will it stay that way? What is the likelihood of mass yerida? "There's no crisis at the moment," insists Almog, "but the danger is greater than ever," he says, citing in particular secular young Israelis who have an increasingly Western orientation. "You have a whole generation that is interested in career, a high standard of living, a love relationship and parenthood. All these are general, rather than Jewish or Zionist, values. So if they can have these things more easily outside of Israel, why stay here?" Yet even Almog does not believe that Israelis are headed out the exit gates en masse. At least not yet. "The forces that keep Israelis in Israel are still stronger than those that tempt them to leave," he says, citing the sense of belonging as that main force. "Israelis love the maskless, blunt, aggressive society that they have here; it is hard for them to live in places with different cultural norms," he notes. After spending almost nine years in Los Angeles, Nir Shoham was faced with the dilemma of many Israelis abroad. "I just knew that if I stayed in L.A one more year, I would probably never come back to Israel. The temporary was becoming permanent," says the 30-year-old native of Jerusalem, who studied film and television production at the University of Southern California. "I made a list of the pros and cons," recalls Shoham, who was working as a segment producer at the Discovery Channel until a year ago. "If I stayed in the United States I could look forward to career advancement and money. On the other hand, if I came back to Israel I would be near family and friends, in a place that I care about and feel I belong to." Shoham, who now works as a researcher in a Tel Aviv museum, is grateful for the time he spent abroad, which he says made him appreciate things about Israel that he had taken for granted, including the wonder of living in a Jewish state. "But Israelis who meet me for the first time often ask me why I didn't stay there," he says. While Israelis like to gripe, some 72 percent of them say that even if they had the economic means to move abroad with their families, the chances that they would do so are small or very small, according to a survey of 551 adults, carried out in October 2007 by the polling and research institute Maagar Mochot. The survey, presented at the Fifth Annual Sderot Conference for Social and Economic Policy, last November, also revealed that 69 percent of Israeli adults believe that Israel is the best country in the world for Israelis to live in. But in assessing the scope of emigration, as with immigration, the question is not only how many are leaving, but who is leaving. Israeli emigrants already comprise one in four academics on the faculty of top American universities, says Tel Aviv University economist Ben-David. His studies show that the Israeli brain drain is worse than that of any Western country. "This is a devastating loss with an impact on future generations," he warns, blaming government neglect of higher education, which has resulted in a severe shortage of academic positions at Israeli institutions, and poorer working conditions for academics compared to other countries. Ben-David could easily have been one of those Israelis with a cozy position at a top American university. He was born in Israel but grew up in the United States, where his Israeli father pursued an academic career. At 17, he returned to Israel to serve in the army and complete his university studies, then went back to the United States for graduate studies. Quickly, he became an up-and-coming economist on the faculty of the University of Houston, publishing in prominent journals and advising the World Bank. But at a critical point in his career, he and his Israeli-born wife decided to return to Israel to raise their three children in the Jewish state. "It's not fashionable to say it these days, but Zionism is still what it's about for me," the 51-year-old with a thick dark mustache, explains. "There's a reason for this country. If it wouldn't have been, I wouldn't have been. My father's name - Ben David - is derived from my grandfather, David, who was murdered by the Lithuanians during the Holocaust. I regard my name as a way of not only remembering him, but also remembering what happened 65 years ago when we were at the mercy of others. Here we are not; here we determine our own future." Ben-David laments the fact that some of the students who ask him for recommendations for graduate study abroad "want a ticket out of here. Their view is that this country is going downhill and they don't want to be the last ones left to turn out the lights." Ironically, Ben-David, the self-professed Zionist, has given them every reason to think this way. In the course of the last semester, he has pulled out graph after graph to demonstrate to his final-year undergraduate economics students how Israel is, in effect, doing just about everything wrong. In the key indicators of a country's health - economic growth, poverty and income gaps - he shows how Israel went from an almost unbelievably promising beginning, in which the nascent state nearly caught up to the United States, peaked around 1973, and then began losing ground steadily in comparison to other Western countries. Warped priorities and shortsighted government planning have put Israel on a course that is unsustainable, he claims, noting that within a couple of decades approximately half the male working-age population of Israel will be out of the labor force and will require the support of an ever-shrinking minority of working Israelis. "If we don't change course, we cannot survive more than another generation or so like this," he contends. He says he decided to leave the more prestigious and lucrative world of theoretical economics, which has little impact on Israel, and focus instead on bringing the implications of his practical findings to the attention of Israeli policy-makers. (He has met with several prime ministers, and other policy-makers, and even staged a failed run for the Knesset on the Kadima ticket in the hope of changing government educational and economic policies.) "When students tell me that they plan to leave the country, I can't convince them that they have a promising future here," he admits. But on the last day of class on a warm morning in March, as 180 final-year economics students gather in the auditorium of the palm tree-lined campus of Tel Aviv University, in Ramat Aviv, Ben-David launches into his send-off speech."You guys may become the leaders of Israel in the next 10 or 20 years. The question is: Are you going to go and build the fanciest homes and buy the nicest cars without any thought as to what the rest of the country looks like? If you want to live not only in a nice house, but in a great neighborhood, you are going to have to do something more than think about yourselves. "And if you do that, you will find that a lot of the things that you could find abroad you can have here. And you can have them even better here because people here share your mentality and because, despite everything, there is a feeling of togetherness here. But if you don't give of yourselves, then this country is going to hell. And we have no one else to blame but ourselves." The students, many adorned with assorted nose rings and tattoos, break into loud applause. For the next hour or so, groups of them crowd around Ben-David, eventually following him back to his cramped office, where they ask his advice on how to combine personal goals with a contribution to the country. Ben-David is somewhat heartened. "When you scratch the surface, you see that people here care very deeply about this country," he says later. Do they care enough to stay? The Ma'agar Mochot survey found that some 75 percent of Israelis found it difficult to be proud of their country because of government corruption, the continuing conflict with the Palestinians, violence within society and the gap between rich and poor. Perhaps one of the most disturbing findings of the survey was that only 26 percent of respondents believe that Israel is to a large extent or a very large extent a state that promises a good future for their children. In an era in which ideology has lost its hold, the labels of oleh and yored are meaningless, and lifestyle is what interests people. It is that issue that may ultimately determine what brings Jews to - and keeps Jews in - Israel. "You can offer tax breaks to olim and returning residents. You can market Israel. But in the grand scheme of things," says Ben-David, "what matters is: Is this a place where you want to raise your kids? You don't need to cajole or buy people off if you make this a great place to live." • Article in the [email protected] anniversary issue, May 12, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.