Commentary Magazine

Israelis in Exile

For a country like Israel, founded and built on the premise of continuing immigration, the rising rate of emigration in recent years has become a matter of serious concern. There are no reliable recent figures for the total number of Israelis living abroad, but published estimates vary between 300,000 and 500,000. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics indicates that 308,100 Israeli Jews who left the country between 1948 and 1977 did not return.1 According to one U.S. government official, as of two years ago there were 300,000 in the U.S. alone (many, perhaps most, illegal immigrants), and there are probably well over 100,000 living in Canada, South Africa, Australia, and Western Europe. In other words, more than one out of ten Israelis—the equivalent of 21.5 million Americans—is currently living abroad. Over half are Sabras—native-born Israelis—between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five.

These figures seem less drastic when compared with emigration rates for other settler societies like the United States, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. In all these countries, the initial massive influx of settlers was followed by a subsequent departure. (In the United States during the years of mass immigration between 1908 and 1924, 34 people left for every 100 who came.) Moreover, the movement out of Israel does not really diverge all that much from the “brain-drain” pattern of developing countries whereby the better-trained and better-educated tend to emigrate to countries more economically advanced.

Such reassuring comparisons do not, however, alter the fact that Israel is a tiny state of only 3-and-a-half-million people, for which every citizen counts, whether well-educated or not. Under constant threat for many years from hostile neighbors, it has regarded each and every resident as a potential soldier in the struggle for a secure and peaceful existence. Then, too, there are the special characteristics of Israeli existence which make this “normal” emigration rate more than normally painful: people who have devoted their lives to striking roots in the Jewish homeland have found it difficult to accept the emigration of a son or daughter in whom so many hopes have been invested by a closely-knit society. To some extent, every departure from Israel has seemed to threaten the foundation of the whole Zionist enterprise. This is reflected in the emotionally charged terms, biblical in origin, that are used to describe both immigrants and emigrants: the immigrant to Israel is called in Hebrew an oleh, meaning “one who goes up,” thereby fulfilling the ultimate Zionist injunction; the Israeli citizen who emigrates is called a yored (plural, yordim), meaning “one who goes down,” and by implication a deserter.



The problem of emigration from the Jewish homeland is not a new one, and predates the establishment of the state. At various times in the past, owing to a variety of factors, many, including dedicated Zionists, left. (Joseph Trumpeldor, who later became a national hero after he died in a battle against Arab insurgents in the Galilee, was one of these; he left Palestine in 1914 for a time because he could not bear to live in a country formally at war with Russia.)

But striking individual cases aside, the general pattern of immigration to and emigration from Palestine/Israel has conformed to fluctuations in the local political and economic situation and to conditions in the Diaspora countries. The largest flow out of pre-state Israel occurred during the years of the Fourth Aliyah (1924-29), which also saw a net immigration of only 30 per cent. The Hebron massacre (1928) occurred during this period; economic conditions in Palestine were unusually bad; and there was little overt anti-Semitism in Europe.

During the first few years of independence, mass immigration was coupled with very little emigration. Only in 1952 did the reverse movement assume significant proportions. About 80 per cent of those who left then were persons who had arrived after May 1948 in the aftermath of World War II. Some of these refugees were using Israel merely as a transit point on their way to more affluent countries; under the 1950 Law of Return, any Jew who wished to do so could go to Israel to acquire an Israeli passport—a procedure of one or two weeks—and then settle elsewhere.2

Up to the late 50’s, with the exception of Turkish Jews, the tendency to leave Israel was strongest among immigrants of European origin. Between 1948 and 1957, for example, Ashkenazi Jews made up three-fifths of those departing, while constituting less than half the number of new arrivals in Israel. There are various explanations for this. First of all, Jews of Afro-Asian (largely Arabic) origin could not really return “home” even if they chose to, while many of the Europeans could. Secondly, the European Jews were generally less willing to put up with material discomfort than were their counterparts from the underdeveloped Middle East and Maghreb countries. Thirdly, European Jews were likely to have relatives and friends living in the West who often encouraged and facilitated their departure from Israel. Finally, many European Jews received reparations from the German government (paid in foreign currency) which gave them both greater freedom of movement and an incentive to depart.

In the years preceding the Six-Day War, most of those deciding to emigrate were responding less to the allure of other countries than to the difficulties of life in Israel. They were not being pulled out of the country so much as pushed, and the major “push” factor during this period was the economic situation, whose gradual worsening coincided closely with sizable increases in the departure rate. In 1965 and 1966 there was a severe recession in Israel, and a bitter joke went the rounds about a sign at Lod Airport: “Will the last one out, please turn off the lights.”



It was not until the period following the Six-Day War that hardship factors became secondary in determining emigration. By this time—two decades after the founding of the state—the first generation of Israeli-born Sabras, or those who had arrived in Israel as very young children, had reached college and post-graduate age and were eager to take advantage of educational and professional opportunities in other countries. For the first time, “pull” factors overrode “push” factors in the decision to emigrate. Ironically enough, this was the moment when Israel was in an exalted, happy mood and the economy at long last appeared to be recovering. But this very optimism was undoubtedly a factor in facilitating emigration. The country appeared to be more secure militarily and politically than it had for a long time, and leaving it no longer seemed synonymous with desertion. Released from the security and defense obligations that had governed their lives, thousands of young Israelis felt free to depart-for the larger, more cosmopolitan world; Israel’s increasing prosperity made it easier for them to do so.

As the barriers to migration fell, the limitations inherent in living in a small, relatively undeveloped country, far from scientific, intellectual, and industrial centers, became more apparent and more frustrating. Israel has always had more people aspiring to professional status in areas like medicine, the academy, and engineering than it can use. Though the original Zionist settlers envisioned a Jewish state which would include not only intellectuals and professionals but also taxi drivers, laborers, and cargo handlers, and though the socialist intellectuals who founded the kibbutzim glorified physical labor, these influences have not been sufficient in the long run to invert the hierarchy of values characteristic of all complex societies, wherein occupations linked to learning and/or making money are esteemed over others. Jews everywhere in the Western Diaspora, including Eastern Europe, have been disproportionately successful in such pursuits, and—unfortunately perhaps for Israel—most of those who moved to the Jewish homeland retained high professional aspirations. (In 1948, the Jewish population of the new state had a higher proportion of university graduates than any other country, including the United States.) Moreover, the dominant European Ashkenazi population who formed the basic culture of Israeli society succeeded strikingly in transmitting the high value they placed on educational achievement to many who had come from the Middle Eastern countries. Just how successfully, is apparent in the growing number of Israeli-born Sephardim among the emigrants to America.

Ironically enough, the opportunities for upward mobility are necessarily far more limited for Jews in Israel than for their brethren in the Americas, Europe, or Australia, where the small minority of Jews can realistically hope to gain entry into the privileged sector of their societies. In the United States, for example, close to 90 per cent of all Jews attend college; 3 per cent of Jewish males are professors; 29 per cent are in professional employment; and the average income of American Jews is among the highest of any ethnic or religious group. The pattern is similar in other Western countries.

Obviously Israel cannot compete with such statistics. A recent comparative-study of siblings from Moroccan Jewish families, for example, found that those who went to live in France did much better educationally and economically than their brothers who went to Israel. And the situation is not likely to improve in the near future. The sociologist Paul Ritterband points out: “As the proportion of the Israeli population with secondary and university education increases, we should expect the demand for educated persons to decline.” This can only result in increased numbers of educated Israelis remaining abroad.



The changing social situation in Israel is another factor leading to increased emigration. Israel’s present stage of development parallels that of other new immigrant societies where the ideology of the original founders has begun to lose its force. The Jewish state appears to be in a period of transition similar to the one experienced by the Puritans of Massachusetts. America’s first settlers were seeking to create a better society than the one they had left behind, and their daily lives were inspired by a sense of vocation which justified all their efforts and sacrifices. But this kind of ideological intensity seldom outlives the founding generation. As the historian Bernard Bailyn has shown, Puritan ideology became gradually diluted so that by the end of the 17th century, it re-adapted to the values of English society.

Similarly, Israel is a society in transition from an ideological to a territorial democracy. Its early settlers placed a premium on fidelity to Zionist doctrine, but the younger generation, like the scions of the Puritans, feel they are simply living there by right and custom. The once closely-knit, quasi-collectivist community has become much more individualistic and competitive. Israel’s political and ideological organizations, once total institutions with a major role in providing both public and private services like education and health care, have come more and more to resemble the impersonal machinery characteristic of most Western societies. The growth of cities (close to 90 per cent of Israel’s Jewish population is urban) has furthered this process of depersonalization. Finally, the coming to light of several instances of corruption among the country’s upper echelons has served to undercut the commitment of ordinary Israelis to the ideal of social selflessness.

When ideology was more central to people’s lives, they were less bothered by the material shortcomings of Israeli society. With the decline of ideology, it has become permissible for Israelis both to question the necessity of continuous belt-tightening and to acknowledge a more self-centered concern with such things as advancing their careers, bettering their standard of living, providing for their families, and so forth. Once these concerns are acknowledged—and legitimated—the decision to go elsewhere in search of greener pastures becomes no more than logical.

The propensity of Israelis to travel should also not be overlooked. For many, life in a tiny Middle Eastern state is claustrophobic, and neither ideology nor the satisfaction of living in a Jewish society has eliminated the urge to move around or out. Jews in general have shown a greater readiness than any other people to move in search of a better life, or simply for new experiences, and Israeli Jews are no exception. (Israeli academics, for example, attend proportionately more international meetings and take more sabbaticals, research leaves, and visiting lectureships than the professoriate of any other nation.)



Yet the unease which leaving seems to generate among the emigrants themselves is most striking. The decision to emigrate from any country is a difficult one for most people, but for the Israeli it seems to border on the traumatic. Having fought or lived through at least one war, and often as many as four, and frequently having lost relatives, friends, and colleagues in these battles, the Israeli feels his links to “home” in a deeper and more emotional way than would a person reared in a long-established and stable society, whose existence has never been called into question.

In the past, whenever Israelis left the country, they tended to justify their trips abroad in terms of national needs. Today, there seems to be less inclination to do so, and perhaps fewer inhibitions in describing the negative features of Israeli society which have contributed to the decision to emigrate: corruption in public life, loss of credibility in government, discrimination against lower-status ethnic groups, lack of civility in social relations, and the importance of connections (protektzia) rather than merit in getting ahead. Paul Ritterband’s study of 3,000 Israeli students in America found that “many Israelis tend to see an inordinately significant role played by political and familial ties, particularly as compared with the United States.” His study showed:

Only 50 per cent of these students felt that ability is very important in advancing one’s career in Israel as compared with 74 per cent who felt that ability was very important in the United States; 20 per cent thought that family connections were very important in Israel, as compared with only 6 per cent who believed this about the United States; 28 per cent felt that political connections were very important in Israel as compared with 3 per cent who felt they were important in the United States.

But even while they cite these reasons for leaving, it seems to be very important to the great majority of migrating Israelis to believe that they are only departing temporarily; that once they have secured the requisite education, training, or experience, or have earned some money, they will return home. Whether or not they do so seems to depend upon how long they stay in the United States—for obvious reasons. The longer they stay, the greater the difficulties they may anticipate in readjusting to life in Israel. A study of returning Israelis by the social scientist Nina Toren has shown that of those who remain here for five years or more, only relatively few return. The first months and years are the hardest, as with most immigrants, but once the initial difficulties have been overcome, it becomes easier to stay than to go back. One Israeli who has been in this country for nine years recalls that his first two years were a “horror”:

I couldn’t wait to get back to where I was more secure. . . . But once I finally started working here, . . . I felt more comfortable. Every time I went back to Israel for a visit, things were financially much worse. So I said to myself, I might as well stay here for the time being. I still have my friends there, but there’s no longer the same tie between us. Also, when I left, I didn’t have anything. Now, if I went back, I’d have to start from scratch.

Still, the large majority of respondents in a study conducted by Dov Elizur said they intended to return to Israel, although only one-quarter had any clear plan for doing so in the foreseeable future. The desire to return to Israel is associated mainly with emotional factors. Feelings of national allegiance and a wish to rejoin families left behind are among the motives most frequently cited, along with such concerns as protecting one’s children from the drug culture and other perils of American adolescence, as well as staving off the likelihood of intermarriage. Pulling in the other direction, however, are the material considerations which brought Israelis here in the first place—a higher standard of living, better employment and housing, and greater opportunities for professional advancement than they believe exist in Israel.

The result is often an uneasy compromise whereby many middle-aged Israelis who have been here for ten or twenty years, and hold American citizenship, still contemplate returning when their children have grown. By then, they hope to have accumulated enough capital to buy into a business, acquire property, or find other ways to provide a decent income in Israel. Some who—unconsciously, perhaps—would like to avoid military service for their children, talk of going back permanently when the children have completed their college education. But there seems to be a large dose of wishful thinking in such talk. Though 70 per cent of Elizur’s respondents reported strong and continuing emotional ties with Israel, their spouses and children—many of whom are American-born—were less disposed to feel this way and their reluctance is often decisive in determining attitudes toward returning. If a non-Israeli wife or husband wishes to remain, or the children object to going back to what has become for them a foreign land, there is little likelihood of re-emigration. Most of the yordim polled (81 per cent) felt more Israeli than American, but this attitude held for only about half of their husbands or wives, a third of whom had never lived in Israel, while a majority (61 per cent) of their children identified more with America than with Israel.



When one studies the statistics, relatively sparse though they are, of the current Israeli emigration, it is not hard to understand why there are so many Israelis in America. Most of those interviewed reported that their living conditions were better than they had been in Israel. An overwhelming majority (88 per cent) in Elizur’s survey indicated that their income was sufficient for most of their needs, while only about one-third reported the same about their income before they left Israel. Many expressed greater satisfaction with their present work than with their last employment in Israel (89 per cent as compared to 59 per cent), and their occupational profile tends to bear this out. Fully 38 per cent of employed Israelis naturalized in 1974 were professionals and technicians, while another 15 per cent were in business or managerial pursuits. Less than 4 per cent held blue-collar jobs. All in all, these Israeli Americans have attained a strikingly higher socioeconomic status than new citizens from other nations.

Such dissatisfactions as they report are mainly in the social sphere. Many Israelis claim life in America lacks the camaraderie of Israeli society. As one emigrant put it, “You spend a hell of a lot of time working hard and you forget that there’s supposed to be something else to life.” Feelings of social isolation are further aggravated by the general chilliness with which Israeli officialdom, as represented by government and diplomatic offices in this country, has tended to view expatriate citizens. While wanting to maintain close contact with the children of the yordim whom they view as potential returnees, Israeli officials believe that by extending more than minimal help to the émigrés they may be encouraging or facilitating their stay abroad. Up until now, resident Israelis have rarely been invited to share the burden of their government’s information campaign in this country, for example, and efforts to raise money among them have deliberately been discouraged. As one former Israeli consul in New York explained: “We don’t want them to feel they can give $50 and have a clear conscience.”

But this policy of non-recognition seems gradually to be changing. Israeli officials seem aware now that in refusing to acknowledge these citizens residing abroad they are ignoring a sizable potential population source, one which already knows the country and its language and which—in spite of expatriation—has never really severed its ties. The overwhelming majority (85 per cent) of those questioned by Elizur had visited their homeland at least once since leaving, while more than half (59 per cent) had been back a number of times. Over three-quarters (79 per cent) corresponded regularly with friends and relatives back home; virtually all (85 per cent) read Israeli newspapers with some kind of frequency; close to three-fifths (58 per cent) listened to Hebrew broadcasts, and half reported speaking Hebrew at home. These survey results are reinforced by the 1970 U.S. census which reported that 100,000 persons declared Hebrew to be their major language at home.

Thus far, Israeli government policies aimed at encouraging return have focused primarily on material assistance. Programs have been set up offering special benefits to returnees similar to the ones granted to new immigrants. But there is little evidence that these inducements have played a significant role in affecting the decision to stay in America. Indeed, according to Elizur and Toren, who attempted to evaluate these programs, the provision of “immigrant rights” for Israelis living abroad may actually serve to delay their return, since it is necessary to be out of the country for no less than three years and nine months (and no more than four years and five months) in order to take advantage of the current program, and some might stay abroad longer than they had originally intended to in order to qualify. Furthermore, these incentives for returnees have aroused considerable controversy in Israel. Many Israelis are understandably hostile to the provision of immigration benefits to people who have left the country, and do not see why those who have remained behind and shouldered defense and tax obligations should be asked to pay for the return of their fellow citizens.



But it is not only the Israelis who have been giving the émigrés the cold shoulder. Until recently, the American Jewish community, too, has been reluctant to acknowledge their presence, and relations between the two groups have been at best ambivalent. Though living in America themselves, many yordim maintain the condescending view held by many Israelis of American Jews as people who express their Zionism by giving money in lieu of going to live in Israel. Culturally, too, there is considerable distance between the two communities. It begins in such trivial matters as differences in cuisine, but extends to larger questions of Jewish identity. The Israelis have grown up in a country in which their identity as Jews is taken for granted, and the American Jewish concern with the issue strikes them as obsessive.

The American Jew for his part tends to be no less scornful of the yored, whose very presence is a threat to his own idealized view of the Jewish homeland. So long as the Israeli is a temporary visitor, he receives a warm welcome and may even be accorded minor celebrity status within a particular community. But if he appears to be an immigrant, he is often asked to justify his decision to settle in America as no other immigrant has been asked to do in America’s history. This reaction to the yordim may be contrasted with the attitude toward Russian émigrés who opt for the West. American Jews have extended a warm welcome to the latter and have defended their right to settle here even if they left the Soviet Union with Israeli visas or came here after residence in Israel.

For the most part, however, American Jews seldom have much personal contact with yordim. They may encounter them as taxi drivers, storekeepers, or teachers in Jewish schools, but rarely as participants in Jewish communal life. Most Israelis here do not attend synagogues, since they are drawn largely from the non-observant sector of Israeli society, and they tend to have little idea of the other, purely communal, functions of the synagogue. With few exceptions, they seldom contribute to fund drives, in part because of the feeling that as Israelis they belong to the receiving rather than the giving sector of Jewry and in part because of their general isolation from Jewish communal life. This isolation is further intensified by the fact that few of the Israelis here are American citizens. Since—as non-voters—they add little to the political strength of the Jewish community, the community in turn tends to ignore them.

The end result is a stand-off: the lack of involvement of yordim in the American Jewish community reinforces the hostility to them as deserters from Israel but at the same time the community has failed to make any sort of gesture that might involve them. As one Jewish educator has written: “Although it is disturbing to note the flow of Israelis to these shores, it is equally frustrating to find Israelis . . . keeping aloof from the mainstream of Jewish life. On the other hand, the newcomers are neglected by Jewish communal leaders, and left to themselves with no guidance or counseling.”

Recently, there have been signs that the treatment of the Israelis as non-persons within the Jewish community is beginning to change. In Los Angeles, an effort is now under way to organize and raise funds among the estimated 70-100,000 Israelis in the region. A study conducted last year for the New York Federation of Jewish Philanthropies concluded that: “There is a strong feeling . . . that the rights of these [Israeli] individuals are no less than the rights of all people to choose where they shall live. . . . The American Jewish community, concerned with demographic decline, cannot ‘write off’ a significant number of Jews. . . . It is our responsibility to reach out to them. . . .”

Following up on this study, the Federation has set up a committee that includes representatives from various Israeli groups in New York to look into ways of involving yordim in Jewish communal life and with Federation agencies. It is estimated that in the New York area alone there are 30,000 children of yordim. who attend public schools and do not receive any formal Jewish education; by finding means of retaining them and their families as active Jews, the American Jewish community would increase its human and cultural reservoir while Israel would have access to a source of potential aliyah.



By sheer weight of numbers, the Israelis in America appear finally to be breaking down the barriers to acceptance by their fellow Jews in America and to recognition by Israeli authorities as an asset to their mother country. One hopes that this will spell an end to their curious status—looked down upon by their co-religionists here and frowned on by their fellow citizens at home, uncertain and a bit shamefaced about their personal future and that of their children. Such a change in status should enable the Israeli immigrants to build an ethnic community in America without apologies, as other immigrants have done, and to cease living suspended between two worlds.


1 The number of Israelis who live permanently abroad is likely to be much higher, as Israelis who live abroad and come home for a visit are considered, statistically, to be emigrants who have returned.

2 To curb this abuse of Israeli nationality, the Knesset amended the law in August 1966 to require a year's residence before citizenship is granted.

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