We are not ‘frierim,’ either

Are these truly the hurdles a newcomer to this country should have to face to gain acceptance into Israeli society?

Olim arrive in Israel with Nefesh B'Nefesh  (photo credit: Courtesy Nefesh B'Nefesh)
Olim arrive in Israel with Nefesh B'Nefesh
(photo credit: Courtesy Nefesh B'Nefesh)
It was 1948. My grandparents had survived the Holocaust and were on a boat bound for Israel. Immediately upon arrival, they were under fire and sought shelter in Tel Aviv, leaving their meager possessions aboard. Hours later, they were surprised to find their suitcases perfectly lined up waiting to be collected, without a single item missing.
Within two generations, long gone are the days when you can leave your worldly possessions unattended; Israel has since lost its innocence, becoming a jungle culture of “eat or be eaten,” where those who lose the battle are marked as “frierim” (suckers).
Making aliya (immigration to Israel) into such a climate truly weeds out the friarim from the survivors. But both parties are required to endure intense immigration hardships (or what locals affectionately refer to as “initiations”) that, if survived, will prove one’s worthiness to be transformed into a true Israeli.
There is a popular sentiment shared by many sabras (native Israelis) that olim (immigrants) must pay their dues, and that it is necessary to jump through these hoops since the majority of olim do not fully serve in the army; instead receiving handouts from the government, graduating from university at tender ages and enjoying a comfortable life abroad, while sabras sacrifice their adolescence to guard this same homeland.
While these are strong arguments for disgruntled sabras, even with these “perks,” the trials and tribulations of olim making aliya can be so overwhelming that it is no wonder why so many are unsuccessful.
I have been testing the waters in Israel for the past six years. Last October, I decided, officially, to move my life from Canada to Israel.
Everyone says that the first year is the most difficult. I would agree. In my first year alone, I have weathered so many battles I wonder how I am still standing, why I still want to live here, and whether there is any help that can make things better.
Among the larger hardships, I was not recognized as an Israeli student in my Master’s degree program at Tel Aviv University, which exponentially increased the cost of tuition. Despite having a legitimate case and taking it straight to the president’s office, I was shot down by his higher authority and made to pay international students’ fees.
I was willing to accept my losses, but more grief was to come. The trio comprised of the Student Authority, the Jewish Agency and the Absorption Ministry decided to cancel, in mid-year, 50 percent of the tuition assistance (roughly NIS 13,000) promised to olim that I and so many others were banking on and were promised prior to making aliya. For months I have been part of a student protest that that has only just begun to yield positive results.
Then, my landlord turned out not to be my real landlord and swindled approx. NIS 25,000 from me and my roommates. I am now knee-deep in a lawsuit against my “landlord,” which may or may not be part of a larger network of orchestrated apartment scams. As it turns out, I am one of hundreds of cases, yet one of few to take it straight to the courthouse.
Did I mention that my day is not complete without battling miscellaneous charges that mysteriously pop up on my bills for no apparent reason? And only when I catch the charges and shed blood and tears over the phone, or better yet, in person, are they ever corrected.
There’s more: since August, I’ve been in the midst of converting my foreign driver’s license, which has been a complete black comedy skit, and the only solace I have is hearing sabras say that they too cringe at anything related to the Misrad Harishui (License Bureau).
With all of these funds taken away, charges and expenses added on and the time lost and cost of fighting them, I am on the brink of bankruptcy. I find myself, at the age of 25, having to rely on my parents, who just retired, for financial help. This was not exactly the aliya I was dreaming of.
I PONDER this question daily: are these truly the hurdles a newcomer to this country should have to face to gain acceptance into Israeli society? I am not so naive as to think that immigration should be painless, a perfect transition to a utopian world, but at the same time, I do not feel it should be this hard either.
Many of these issues have serious ramifications that require persistence, creative thinking, chutzpah (shameless audacity) and a pair (or two) of iron-clad balls.
I have had many discussions with olim in similar positions and their reasons for not standing up for their rights and seeking solutions range from despair to embarrassment to fear to lack of funding/ awareness to knowing that “you can turn back,” which is the contingency plan for many (but not all) olim that awaits on the back burner until the gas, funds and nerves run out. Is this the face that Israel wants to show the world? This piece is not meant to bash Israel, only to take an honest look around and ask: why not rethink how we might address the olim who courageously leave their home countries for Israel? Why should we not offer them a welcoming and softer landing? In my case, where were the olim organizations when I needed them most? Why are olim rights not being protected by the state? Why are these issues even occurring in the first place? Cultural change is the answer.
Just as the culture changed within two generations from my grandparents, so can two generations make positive changes, starting now. Olim and sabras need to take a stand against the abuse by opportunists looking at every angle to make newcomers friarim. At the end of the day, no one is a winner.
Olim may leave, carrying bitterness, and discourage others from moving to Israel, ironically reducing the market of friarim.
A friend once told me: “in order to leave Israel with a small fortune, you must come with a large one.”
I debate whether to live the rest of my existence in a relatively stress-free environment in Canada or endure stress-filled frustration here in Israel. As for my future, I plan to stay here at least until my larger battles have been fought and won. After that, I plan to reevaluate my position here in the land of milk and honey. I know one thing for sure: if I do leave, I will miss the balagan (chaos) and will most likely come running back for more.
This author is a recent graduate from TAU’s MPH program specializing in Emergency and Disaster Management, and is currently leading the ‘Olim Tuition Assistance Cut’ student protest.