Panoramic view of Netanya. Photo 49776727 / Israel © Vvvita | Dreamstime.com
Panoramic view of Netanya. Photo 49776727 / Israel © Vvvita | Dreamstime.com
Departures picking up

The new exodus

In Israel, 26 per cent of the population are foreign-born. It is a melting pot of cultures and traditions. Yet, currently, thousands of Israelis are booking tickets to leave. Alarmed by their country’s political direction, more and more Israelis are seeking to move abroad.

When Daniel Schleider and his wife, Lior, leave Israel next month, it will be for good – and with a heavy heart.

“I have no doubt I will have tears in my eyes the whole flight,” said Schleider, who was born in Mexico and lived in Israel for a time as a child before returning on his own at 18. Describing himself as “deeply Zionist”, he served in a combat unit in the Israeli army, married an Israeli woman and built a career in an Israeli company.

Yet as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, assembled a coalition that includes far-right parties and started pushing changes that would erode hallmarks of Israeli democracy, Schleider found himself booking plane tickets and locating an apartment in Barcelona. Spain’s language and low cost of living made the city a good fit, he said, but the real attraction was living in a place where he wouldn’t constantly have to face down the ways that Israel is changing.

Israel’s strength over its 75 years, Schleider said, is “the economy we built by selling our brains … And yet, in less than half a year, we’ve managed to destroy all that.”

Schleider has been joining the sweeping protests that have taken root across the country in response to the new right-wing government and its efforts to strip the Israeli judiciary of much of its power and independence. But while he considered recommitting to his country and fighting the changes rather than fleeing over them, he also accepts the government’s argument that most Israelis voted for something he doesn’t believe in.

“I have a lot of internal conflict,” he said about the protests. “Who am I to fight against what the majority has accepted?”

Schleider is far from alone in seeking to leave Israel this year.

Thousands of Israeli protesters rally against the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul bills in Tel Aviv on March 4. Photo: Gili Yaari/Flash90

While Israelis have always moved abroad for various reasons, including business opportunities or to gain experience in particular fields, the pace of planned departures appears to be picking up. No longer considered a form of social betrayal, emigration – known in Hebrew as yerida, meaning descent – is on the table for a wide swathe of Israelis right now.

Many of the people weighing emigration were already thinking about it but were catalysed by the new government, according to accounts from dozens of people in various stages of emigration, and of organisations that seek to aid them.

“I’ve already been on the fence for a few years – not in terms of leaving Israel but in terms of relocating for something new,” said Schleider.

“But in the past year, with all the craziness and everything, I realised where the country was going. And after the recent elections, my wife – who had been unconvinced – was the one who took the step and said now she understood where the public is going and what life is going to be like in the country. You could call it the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said.

“And then when the whole issue of the [judicial] revolution started, we just decided not to wait and to do it immediately.”

Ocean Relocation, which assists people with both immigration to and emigration from Israel, has received more than 100 enquiries a day from people looking to leave since Justice Minister Yariv Levin first presented his proposal for judicial reform back in January. That’s four times the rate of enquiries the organisation received last year, according to senior manager Shay Obazanek.

‘ I’m realising the longevity of Tel Aviv’s bubble of beaches and parties and crazy-smart, secular people changing the world with technology is maybe even more a fantasy now than when Herzl dreamt it. I found my perfect home, a Jewish home, sadly being undone by Jews. ‘
Benjamin-Michael Aronov

“Never in history has there been this level of demand,” Obazanek said, citing the company’s 80 years’ experience as the “barometer” of movement in and out the country.

Shlomit Drenger, who leads Ocean Relocation’s business development, said those looking to leave come from all walks of life.

They include families pushed to leave by the political situation; those investing in real estate abroad as a future shelter, if needed; and Israelis who can work remotely and are worried about the country’s upheaval.

Economics are also a concern. With foreign investors issuing dire warnings about Israel’s economy if the judicial reforms go through, companies wary to invest in the country and the shekel already weakening, it could grow more expensive to leave in the future.

The most common destination for the new departures, Drenger said, is Europe, representing 70 per cent of moves, compared to 40 per cent in the recent past.

Europe’s draws include its convenient time zones, quality-of-life indices, and chiefly, the relative ease in recent years of obtaining foreign passports in countries such as Portugal, Poland and even Morocco. Many Israelis have roots in those countries, and are, or have been, entitled to citizenship today because their family members were forced to leave under duress during the Holocaust or the Spanish Inquisition.

On the other hand, Drenger said, emigration to the United States, where the vast majority of the one million Israeli citizens abroad live, has declined significantly.

The United States is known for its tough immigration laws and high cost of living in areas with large Israeli and Jewish communities, and even people who have no rights to a foreign passport have an easier time obtaining residency rights in Europe than in the United States.

Some Israelis aren’t picking anywhere in particular before leaving.

Ofer Stern, 40, quit his job as a tech developer, left Israel and is now travelling around the world before deciding where to settle.

“We’re living in a democracy and that democracy is dependent on demography and I can’t fight it,” he said, alluding to the fact that Orthodox Jews, who tend to be right wing, are the fastest-growing segment of the Israeli population.

“The country that I love and that I’ve always loved will not be here in 10 years. Instead, it will be a country that is suited to other people, but not for me.”

Israelis protesters block the main road leading to the departures area of Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on March 9. Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

While others have already started their emigration process, American-born Marni Mandell, a mother of two living in Tel Aviv, is still on the fence. Her greatest fear is that judicial reforms could open the door to significant changes in civil rights protections – and in so doing break her contract with the country she chose.

“If this so-called ‘reform’ is enacted, which is really tantamount to a coup, it’s hard to imagine that I want my children to grow up to fight in an army whose particularism outweighs the basic human rights that are so fundamental to my values,” Mandell said.

Similarly, Casandra Larenas had long courted the idea of moving overseas.

“As a child-free person, Israel doesn’t have much to offer and is a really expensive country. I’ve travelled around so I know the quality of life I can reach abroad,” she said. But she said she had always batted away the idea. “I’m still Jewish and my family are still here.”

That all changed with the judicial overhaul, she said. While not against the idea of a reform per se, Larenas is firmly opposed to the way it is being carried out, saying it totally disregards the millions of people on the other side. Chilean-born, Larenas grew up under Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship.

“I still remember [it] and I don’t want something like that again,” said Larenas, who has purchased a plane ticket for later this spring and plans to take up residency abroad – though she said she would maintain her citizenship and hoped to return one day.

‘The country that I love and that I’ve always loved will not be here in 10 years. Instead, it will be a country that is suited to other people, but not for me.’ Ofer Stern

The departure of liberal and moderate Israelis could have implications on Israel’s political future. Israel does not permit its citizens to vote absentee, meaning that anyone who leaves the country must incur costly, potentially frequent travel to participate in elections – or cede political input altogether.

Benjamin-Michael Aronov, who grew up with Russian parents in the United States, said he was taken aback by how frequently Israelis express shock that he moved to Israel in the first place.

“The number one question I get from Israelis is, ‘Why would you move here from the US? We’re all trying to get out of here. There’s no future here.’”

He said he had come to realise that they were right.

“I thought the warnings were something that would truly impact our children or grandchildren but that our lifetime would be spent in an Israeli high-tech, secular golden era.

“But I’m realising the longevity of Tel Aviv’s bubble of beaches and parties and crazy-smart, secular people changing the world with technology is maybe even more a fantasy now than when Herzl dreamt it,” Aronov said. “I found my perfect home, a Jewish home, sadly being undone by Jews.”

Not everyone choosing to jump ship is ideologically aligned with the protest movement.

Amir Cohen, who asked to use a pseudonym because he has not informed his employers of his plans yet, is a computer science lecturer at Ariel University in the West Bank who voted in the last election for the Otzma Yehudit party chaired by far-right provocateur Itamar Ben Gvir. Cohen was willing to put aside his ideological differences with the Charedi Orthodox parties if it meant achieving political stability – but was soon disillusioned.

“None of it is working. And now we’re on our way to civil war, it’s that simple. I figured, ‘I don’t need this nonsense, there are plenty of places in the world for me to go,’” he said.

Cohen stuck with the country after one of his brothers was killed in the 2014 Gaza War. Now, he said, his other brothers have recently followed his lead and applied for Hungarian passports in an effort to find a way to move abroad permanently.

“I’m not alone,” he said. “Most of my friends and family feel the same way.”

Back in Israel, Schleider is making his final preparations for leaving, advertising his Tesla for sale on Facebook last week. He remains hopeful that the massive anti-government protests will make a difference. In the meantime, though, his one-way ticket is scheduled for April 14.

“I dream of coming back, but I don’t know that it will ever happen,” he said. “We made a decision that was self-serving, but that doesn’t mean we’re any less Zionist.”

JTA

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