The descent threat

Recent events have coincided to reignite public discourse over ‘yerida’

departures 521 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
departures 521
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Every few years or so, public consciousness focuses – somewhat hysterically – on the issue of emigration from Israel. Also referred to in its negative Hebrew formulation as “descent” (yerida ), or at other times as “brain drain” when those being considered are the best and brightest, it is seen as a major threat to Zionism.
Triggers for the most recent bout of collective hand-wringing included the revelation that two of the three Jewish scientists awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry were Israeli expatriates living in California; and a Channel 10 series called Hayordim Hahadashim (The New Emigrants), portraying Israelis – particularly of the young, secular and educated variety – in pursuit of socioeconomic comfort, particularly in Berlin but also in London and New Jersey. And there was another annual report by Prof. Dan Ben-David of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Public Policy, the executive director of the Taub Center, reflecting on the “catastrophic consequences” of the “hemorrhaging of leading minds.”
Reverberations were felt in the media, with Ynet featuring testimonies by “descenders” defensively justifying their move; Yediot Aharonot ’s weekend supplement included an interview with poet Natan Zach in which he declared, “I would not recommend coming here, there is a lot of evil in this state and I understand young Israelis who want to leave.”
FOR A number of reasons that go to the very heart of Zionism’s raison d’etre and to the Jewish people’s complex relationship with the Land of Israel, we as Israelis are particularly sensitive to emigration. Still, given the Jewish people’s long history in the Diaspora as a nation of wanderers, combined with our unique security challenges and the objective economic limitations of a tiny country that produces more highly educated and highly skilled people than it can employ, it is only natural that a relatively large percentage of Israelis choose to live abroad. So why do we get so uptight about the issue? THE ANSWER to this question is not as easy as it may seem. Despite repeated claims to the contrary, Israel is not facing a mass exodus that threatens to undermine Jewish demographics. In fact, Israel’s emigration rates are not any higher than most other Western countries. In recent years, on an annual basis, between 20,000 and 25,000 Israelis left the country for at least a year. On the other hand, around 7,000 to 10,000 return after living abroad for at least a year.
If you add the 14,000 to 20,000 who have been immigrating or “ascending” each year – mostly from North America, the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia – over the past decade or so, Israel has managed to maintain a positive migration rate. This is the difference between the number of people coming and going per 1,000 Israelis – which means more people are coming to Israel than leaving.
Admittedly, in 2005, 2006 and 2007 Israel’s migration rate was about 0. But in recent years it has climbed to the levels of most Western countries. For instance, the migration rate in Israel was 1.94 in 2012 compared to 1.1 in France, 0.71 in Germany, 2.36 in Denmark and 3.6 in the US. The EU average in 2010 was 1.9.
A more difficult statistic to determine is the number of Israelis living abroad.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, in the period since the founding of the state in 1948 through 2011, 690,000 Israelis had left Israel and not returned. Of those, it is estimated that approximately 145,000 have died and over 100,000 are Israeli Arabs.
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 Israeli emigrants were post-1989 immigrants (Central Bureau of Statistics, 2007), while their share of the Israeli population in 2005 was less than 20%. In all, nearly 10% of these “ascenders” had descended by 2005, according to the CBS.
But while this might sound like an awful lot to the untrained ear, in reality Israel’s 90% “rate of retention” is quite astounding. As preeminent demographer Sergio DellaPergola noted in a 2011 paper for the Jewish People Policy Institute, Israel has a “remarkably low rate of attrition.” DellaPergola compared Israel to Germany, where the percentage of ethnic Germans who immigrated to Germany between 1954 and 1999 and later left the country was 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.
Immigrants who have already picked and left once are more likely to do so again for a number of reasons. If they fail to integrate into their new environment, they might choose to move on or move back to where they came from.
Since they have already experienced dislocation once, they lack the fear of the unknown. Also, many immigrants to Israel use the Jewish state as a way - station for their real destination. Nevertheless, Israel is remarkably successful at holding onto its immigrants.
Emigration rates among native-born Israelis are even lower. In a 2011 article for the International Journal of Comparative Sociology, demographer Yinon Cohen wrote that the emigration rate for native-born Israelis was 5.85%, above the median of 4.9% in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries – but lower than 11 OECD countries, including Ireland, New Zealand, Switzerland, Austria, Finland, Greece and the UK.
Yinon concluded: “Evidently, the stock of Israeli-born residing outside Israel is not exceptionally high relative to developed countries in the West.”
Amazingly, despite Israel’s high rate of foreign-born – who make up 40% of the population – despite grim prospects for a lasting political settlement with the Palestinians and a problematic security situation, and despite Israel’s relatively small economy, a surprisingly high percentage of Israelis decide to remain in the Jewish state.
EVEN CLAIMS that Israel is suffering from a brain drain are exaggerated. As Ehud Gazit, chief scientist at the Science, Technology and Space Ministry, put it in a recent interview in Globes , “Israel has no brain drain like in other countries.” According to Gazit, a brain drain occurs when educated people don’t want to live in the country. But in Israel, says Gazit, “Israeli scientists actually want to come back.”
The “problem,” if it can be called one, is that Israel, a tiny country, produces the largest number of scientists and engineers per capita of any nation. But there are simply not enough positions to go around for all these talented and well-trained individuals. Also, several migration studies have shown that while highly educated Israelis tend to be more likely to emigrate – in part because only these types of people are able to receive work permits in Western countries – these same highly educated persons tend to return to Israel in disproportionately higher numbers.
Prof. Lilach Lev-Ari, head of the Oranim Academic College of Education’s Sociology Department, whose research has focused on Israeli expats, notes that emigrants who go abroad to develop a professional or academic career are much more likely to return.
“If you are relatively less educated and you leave Israel to make money, the chances are you won’t come back,” notes Lev-Ari, “because there is no end to the amount of money someone can make.
“But if you are interested in attain ing specific educational or professional goals, once these goals are met there is a high probability you will return.”
YET, EVEN though Israel’s emigration rate is completely reasonable considering the makeup of the population and the unique challenges faced by a tiny Jewish state surrounded by antagonistic neighbors, a certain atmosphere of defensiveness and near-hysteria surrounds public discourse of the issue. For instance, after the airing of the first segment of Hayordim Hahadashim , which 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 the channel was encouraging Israelis to emigrate.
“In no way do we intend to argue in favor of leaving Israel,” Chodorov stressed.
Op-eds featured on Ynet penned by Israeli emigrants living in Berlin swung from apologetic (“I received a dream job,” “I plan on coming back soon,” “I am an emissary for Israel”) to defensive (“I fulfilled my obligations to the state, now its time to invest in myself”). And Zach’s comments to Yediot Aharonot in favor of emigration have rekindled old controversies.
IF ISRAEL’S emigration rate is reasonable and in line with other countries, why do public discussions about the subject tend toward the hysterical? Demographics might be a factor. Over the past few decades, the percentage of Jews living in Israel – including all of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights but not including Judea and Samaria – has gradually fallen vis-à-vis the percentage of non-Jews – including Arabs, migrants of different kinds both legal and illegal and immigrants from the FSU who are not Jewish according to Halacha. If in 1990 at the beginning of the large waves of immigration from the FSU non-Jews made up 18.6% of the population, by 2009 this number had risen to 28.35%, an increase of over 50%. While the aliya from the FSU brought many Jews, it also brought over 300,000 immigrants who are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return but are not strictly Jewish.
Maintaining a Jewish majority is central to Israel’s continued existence as “a Jewish and democratic state.” Our justification as Israelis for keeping in place legislation like the Law of Return, which grants automatic Israeli citizenship to anyone with Jewish ancestry while making it tremendously difficult for non-Jews to naturalize; or maintaining national symbols like “ Hatikva ,” which talks of the “Jewish soul’s yearning” for Zion; or adhering to a Jewish calendar; or dozens of other aspects of the Israeli nation from its culture to its legal system to the role of Judaism in marriage, divorce and conversions that make this state uniquely Jewish, depend on maintaining a Jewish majority.
And the desire to maintain a Jewish majority determines political reactions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The force driving the two-state solution as the most popular option for solving the conflict is the desire on the part of the vast majority of Jewish Israelis to ensure that Israel retains a strong Jewish majority. Since the annexation of Judea and Samaria along with the approximately two million Palestinians living there would endanger this Jewish majority, and since holding onto all of Judea and Samaria without granting Palestinians the right to vote would undermine Israel’s democracy, most Israelis support in principle reaching some sort of two- state settlement with the Palestinians.
With so much at stake, it is only reasonable that Israelis would be nervous about the idea of Jews leaving Israel never to return. Each Jew who leaves weakens the durability of the Jewish majority and, consequently, undermines the demographic justification for a uniquely Jewish and democratic state. This demographic threatens the entire Zionist project.
DESCENT IS also an affront to the very underpinnings of Zionist ideology.
Every stream of Zionist ideology, every Zionist political party, every institution of the Zionist movement, every Israeli government and nearly every Israeli political party adheres to the principle that ideally, the proper place of the Jew is to be found in the sovereign Jewish state created in the Jewish people’s historical homeland.
The centrality of the Land of Israel and the importance of living there was not, of course, a Zionist invention. Like so many aspects of its ideology, Zionism borrowed heavily from classical Jewish sources, reinterpreting them in the process with new secular meanings. The Babylonian Talmud likens living outside the Land of Israel to idolatry, and Maimonides rules in his Laws of Kings that “in all times it is forbidden to leave the Land of Israel for the Diaspora except to learn Torah, or to find a wife, or to res - cue Jewish property from the gentiles, and then one must return to the Land of Israel. Also, it is permitted to leave to engage in commerce, but to dwell outside the land is forbidden unless it is a time of severe famine... and even though it is permitted in this case to leave, it is not the way of the saintly...”
A long list of Zionist ideologues of diverse political stripes have viewed and continue to view Jewish life in the Diaspora as anything from a temporary quirk that will eventually be rectified to an anomaly. At the beginning of the 20th century, writers Yosef Haim Brenner and Micha Josef Berdyczewski were particularly extreme in their “the rejection of exile” ( shlilat hagalut ), referring to the Jews of the Diaspora as mentally and morally poor, spiritually disfigured, humiliated by their inability to defend themselves and otherwise despicable.
Even Zionist thinkers like Ahad Ha’am, who took a more moderate view and were willing to admit to some positive traits acquired by Jews in the Diaspora, nevertheless called for the creation of a “spiritual center” in Palestine which would radiate self-confidence to the Jews of the Diaspora and give them the strength to resist assimilation, which he regarded as a deformity and a moral failing. Rejection of the exile became a central plank in the dominant Labor Zionist movement.
And this line only strengthened after the Holocaust when the enormity of the destruction of European Jewry became known. If before the Shoah Zionism had been a minor Jewish movement that competed against Bundists, socialists, assimilationists, Reform Jews and other “solutions” to Jews’ predicament in the Diaspora in the modern era, after the war Zionism was vindicated as offering the most brutally realistic assessment of the chances for Jewish continuity in exile – at least in Europe.
While the emphasis on the rejection of the exile was toned down in contemporary Zionist ideology and in the Israeli educational system, negative attitudes run deep and are persistent. In an interview on Independence Day 1976, then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin referred to Israeli emigration as “the falling off of the weaklings.” And 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.”
Perhaps the most outspoken and well- known contemporary representative of this classic Zionist position is author and Israel Prize laureate A.B. Yehoshua, who happens to be a dove with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Over the years, Yehoshua has 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 , Yehoshua referred to Diaspora Judaism as “masturbation” while life in Israel was “the real thing.” In a 2006 speech in the US at the centennial symposium of the American Jewish Committee, he said, “Judaism outside Israel has no future. If you do not live in Israel... your Jewish identity has no meaning at all.” And in 2012, Yehoshua took aim at the large Israeli expat communities living abroad: “There are about 500,000 [sic] Israelis abroad who can easily glide into their Israeliness, which they consider only citizenship and not identity... Why? Because they cannot find jobs here? The Swedes, too, don’t have work in high technology like they would want, but you will not see so many Swedes in the United States.”
Israelis’ emigration and successful integration first in cities like New York, Los Angeles and London and later even in Berlin were a direct affront to classical Zionist values, and what had once seemed to be the irrefutable lessons of the Holocaust. Particularly in America, Jewry seemed to be thriving, not only economically but also culturally and even spiritually. Jews were, and continue to be, disproportionately represented in America’s economic, intellectual, cultural and even political elite. The highly influential pro-Israel lobbying effort provided proof for the need to maintain a presence in a country that has become Israel’s most important ally.
Thus, despite Yehoshua’s claims to the contrary, Judaism outside Israel seemed to be thriving, albeit with increasingly higher levels of assimilation, notably among the unaffiliated and the non-Orthodox. And a growing number of Israelis wanted a part of it. According to a recently published survey of 500 Israelis conducted by pollster Geocartography Knowledge Group, 48% said they would have preferred to be born and to live in another country, while 52% chose Israel. Similar results were received in a 2007 poll. Surveys conducted through 2009 by the late Asher Arian of the Israel Democracy Institute have shown that while a majority of Israelis were convinced they wanted to stay in Israel over the long run, the percentages have fallen after peaking at 83% in 1995, after the signing of the Oslo Accords.
ANOTHER CAUSE for concern regarding emigration is the fact that many of the Israelis who leave Israel and never come back tend to assimilate in very high numbers. That was one of the conclusions reached by Oranim’s Lev-Ari, in her book American Israelis: Migration, Transnationalism and Diasporic Identity, authored together with Uzi Rebhun. Apparently, an identity built solely on Israeliness is not very durable in the Diaspora.
Unlike Judaism as a form of peoplehood that emphasizes religion, which has proved to be remarkably resilient in exile, an Israeli identity – which is essentially no different from any other national identity like Greek, Italian or German – tends to be difficult to transmit to one’s children and grandchildren when outside the physical territory of Israel. Indeed, one of the criticisms of the Orthodox rabbinic leadership, which tended to oppose the Zionist movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries, was that it strove to replace religious identity with a solely or primarily national identity. And the validity of this argument is proven by the high rates of assimilation among secular Israeli yordim.
Classical Judaism succeeded in developing the idea of a “portable homeland” which continued to see Jews as a nation with special ties to a specific land, but also developed a strong religious identity that was not dependent on being in a specific geographical area.
Judaism, which never was just a religion but also contained a peoplehood dimension, successfully adapted itself to the pressures of Diaspora living.
And while Jews suffered from the lack of political power and from a fundamental inability to defend themselves on their own land, they had a remarkable ability to retain their Jewish identity and pass it on to the next generations – through ritual, beliefs and communal life.
In contrast, the continuity of national identity like Israeliness depends on living in a specific place.
While it is undoubtedly true that as long as the Israeli remains in Israel the extent of his Israeli identity’s reach into his life is immeasurably fuller, broader and more encompassing than the “Jewishness” of the American Jew, as Yehoshua and other Zionists contend, as soon as the Israeli steps outside Israel, his Israeli identity become difficult to maintain. With all the talk of transnationalism and the ability to maintain national identities across borders and great distances via the Internet and new media, one’s geographical location still plays a large part in the formation of identity, for oneself and for one’s children. By emphasizing national identity, Zionism has made Israelis particularly vulnerable to assimilation.
AS SHOWN above, emigration rates from Israel are not exceedingly high. In fact, they are more or less in line with other Western countries.
Even the relatively high rate of emigration among the most well-educated is not a sign of a serious failure in Israeli society. If anything, it is evidence that Israel produces a disproportionately high number of exceptionally skilled and educated people, so high in fact that many end up going abroad, even while many stay. And those who leave tend to come back in much greater numbers. Israel has also succeeded exceedingly well in retaining the vast majority of immigrants who arrived here and who make up a full 40% of the population.
Nevertheless, emigration continues to be a source of worry for reasons connected to demography vis-à-vis the Palestinians, Zionist ideology and Jewish continuity and identity.
But we must remember that Jews have always had an ambivalent relationship with the Land of Israel. Unlike other nations that tend to be autochthonous, the biblical narrative relates that the Jewish people was created before it ever entered the land. The land was given to the Jews on the condition they maintained moral behavior.
And almost as long as they have been around, Jews have embraced Diaspora living. After the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, when the Jewish people were exiled from their land, many chose to remain in Babylonian and other locations even after the Second Temple was built.
It is nothing short of extraordinary that Jews managed to survive in the Diaspora during the nearly two millennia of exile leading up to the creation of the State of Israel. To achieve this feat they developed unique cultural skills.
While Maimonides and other rabbis ruled there was a commandment to live in the Land of Israel and it was prohibited to leave, except under special circumstances, hardly any Jews actually adhered to these strictures for centuries. Maimonides himself was a yored, coming to the Land of Israel around 1168 but leaving to settle permanently in Fustat, Egypt.
Even after the Jewish people returned, the very legitimacy of the state they established is questioned.
Even among those who wholeheartedly support Israel, there is disagreement about the Jewish sovereignty’s exact borders.
Concern over yerida cannot, it seems, be detached from the Jewish people’s complex relationship with the land.