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‘We’re Not in Kansas Any More’! by Natalie Wood
This essay was supposed to examine why so many western immigrants to Israel return to their birth countries or move on elsewhere.
But a startling report by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) explains how the number of Israelis migrating to Britain is vastly bigger than that of U.K. Jews emigrating to Israel. This seems barely credible although the JPR has used official British census figures to prove it.
But let me begin as intended and first ask why people emigrate to Israel.
Is it for a genuine love of the country and the Zionist ideal?
Is it to escape antisemitism?
Is it for a lark – a bit of adventure?
Or can it be – no, surely not! – to flee domestic and other personal responsibilities in their countries of origin?
I pondered this mishmash for the umpteenth time recently, first on reading the views of Ze’ev Portner, a British émigré who has returned to the UK after five years in Israel and then again on seeing the feature about the JPR report.
Portner, who qualified as a lawyer in Israel, claimed that the real story of western emigration to Israel was not about how many people go to live there, “but how many actually remain in Israel”.
It is alleged that up to 70 per cent of North American immigrants to Israel return to their birth countries and Portner believes the figure for British immigrants is similar. “The reason for such poor retention rates is simple. Western olim (immigrants) are simply unable to get a decent job or even earn enough to make a living”, he maintained.
I suggest that this is only partly true and that the entire picture is far more complex: To start, many newcomers, forgetting they are not tourists on an extended vacation, expect far too much, far too soon. The holiday jollity wears thin and they often find they have over-spent. Then they seem unable to cope with what is, after all, a terrific culture shock and refuse to consider that integration is not only a matter of learning Hebrew and acquiring housing but is about understanding a different mindset from that of people ‘back home’.
We all quip, “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more”. But joking about our dislocation is not the same as dealing with it – understanding that it takes many years’ patient persistence before we can live in Israel as we did in the U.K. or North America.
I am aware that I write as someone who has not entered the Israeli workforce and so I appear blasé when discussing these matters in abstract.
But living on a modest income and a tight budget, I am all too conscious that finding employment in Israel is very difficult; that wages are low; employers often treat their staff with disdain and that the cost of living is about twenty per cent higher than that in Europe.
And yes. Job seekers should be aware of a selection ‘pecking order’: Priority is given to native-born Israelis with a good IDF service record and yes, some prospective employers forever delight in insulting or deceiving new immigrants whom they seem to view as a diversion from their daily routine.
So we have a small country with a growing and hugely diverse population burdened by often excessive summer temperatures that can make daily life unbearably uncomfortable. Citizens cross all ethnic, religious and cultural divides; most young Jews fulfil compulsory military or national service and everyone in the workforce buys or rents expensive housing, food and goods on relatively low incomes. People often remark that they live on a continual bank overdraft.
The modern State of Israel is only 67 years old and its citizens also live on a semi-permanent war-footing. Indeed, there have been two full-scale wars since 2010 when I emigrated – along with innumerable terrorist attacks like those during the current (unofficial) ‘knife intifada’. One day I felt frightened enough to lock myself inside our apartment and twice we have cancelled plans to travel out-of-town because of anti-Jewish riots.
Finally, if we were to consider how being constantly bullied may form someone’s character, let us imagine how this feeling may have shaped the personality of many Israelis. If it has made them brusque to the point of rudeness, it has also made them ultra competitive; most determinedly driven. This is a difficult personality of the sort that may send soft souls scuttling back from where they came.
I use two stories – one from the ‘Keep Olim in Israel Movement’ and a second, more personal in illustration:
An individual living in a strictly Orthodox West Bank settlement has alleged that their child was bullied at school and that the authorities suspended the other students involved. In revenge, says the complainant, the mother of the bullies is attempting to have their family thrown out of the settlement.
No wonder a returnee to Manchester once remarked to my husband:
“Huh, Israelis? You can’t live with them!”
But what of the Israelis who live abroad? What pulls them, for example, to northern Europe whose lands are cold, wet and teeming with anti-Jewish hatred?
A good many are superbly educated and have top academic and business appointments. They will almost certainly be earning far more than they would anywhere similar in Israel.
Some Israeli émigrés to the U.K., says the JPR, are not Jewish and so would not feel too concerned about antisemitism.
Not everyone is born a high-minded patriot, so some people may decide to settle in Europe in the hope that their children would not have to serve in the IDF.
However, says the JPR, even those secular Jewish Israelis may send their children to Anglo-Jewish day schools. This, I’m forced to guess is because they don’t want to deny their offspring part of their Jewish heritage.
Then there are Israeli Jews who do not like their countrymen – or indeed, their country. It may be because they feel trapped; rather like being forced to live with one’s parents long into adulthood. I am not giving them unwonted publicity by naming them here. But they do remind me somehow of those western Jews who leave their birth countries and try living in Israel – but for all the wrong reasons. I don’t know about you. But I see a certain ugly symmetry here.
© Natalie Wood