In the past year, Israelis have been increasingly campaigning to join the European Union. No, not as a nation, but one by one - as individuals. A mild clamor for European passports is not just a result of the dire security situation in Israel, but is tied also to the dawn of the euro era. This has at last made the unification of Europe tangible - and citizenship in this great enterprise a very tempting option.
It means that in recent months one enclave at least in Israel has not been plagued by rising unemployment - on the contrary, it is a sector crying out for more hands. The European embassies report increased demand for dual citizenship from Israelis who want to be part of the EU, and consular agents are complaining loudly of overwork.
New applications for foreign passports began mounting in January when the euro was launched as the common currency of 12 states in the eurozone. The birth of the new continental currency got extensive media coverage and helped to make the European Union a more real fact of life.
The juxtaposition of several factors has raised interest in the European passport - they include some European states easing rules for restoring citizenship to former residents, Israel's current security troubles, nagging consciences, and a feeling of personal helplessness in being able to influence current events.
Israeli citizens whose parents immigrated from France or French colonies like Algeria and Tunisia, from Germany, Austria, or Britain - or even from Poland and the Czech Republic - have been weighing the opportunities that would open to them if they also happened to be European citizens.
Holding citizenship in one of the 15 member states of the European Union gives the passport holder a chance to work in numerous European countries, or study with reduced tuition fees (even gratis, as in France), or enjoy certain benefits when buying a home. Other European countries like Holland and Britain grant the same rights to the citizen's spouse (including in same-sex relationships).
The idea of waking up every morning in a European city without feeling any obsessive addiction to the hourly news, the chance to live a tranquil daily routine, has in recent years held out much charm to twenty- and thirtysomethings. Many of them would like to try out such a lifestyle at least for a few years, studying for a degree or working. Dr. Gad Barzilai of the Department of Political Science at Tel Aviv University, says the phenomenon is known as "social protest by exit."
"It is an elitist statement reflecting a certain trend in Israeli society that includes a sense of alienation and a distrust of the ability of democratic institutions to produce a new political leadership. It is a phenomenon that should be a cause of great concern. I do not view the `New Israel' initiative - the group of Israelis who sought to leave and establish a community somewhere in the Diaspora - as an amusing trifle. For some time now there has been a noticeable brain drain from Israel but in recent months there is the added element of despair in the effectiveness of usual democratic processes to effect change."
The economic situation of course plays a strong role in an increasing demand for European citizenship. The crisis in the high-tech industry that resulted in many educated people losing their livelihoods has prompted many of them to consider living abroad for a few years. In that regard, the transformation of Europe into a single work zone definitely helps.
French embassy officials say applications for foreign passports have doubled in recent months from the normal. in the number of applications they normally receive for foreign passports. The embassy spokesman's office reported that Israeli citizens submit approximately 40 applications a day for French passports - people whose parents immigrated to Israel from Algeria, Tunisia or France. This is double the rate in the same period last year. The embassy assumes the number of potential applicants is even higher still, since the application is an extended procedure that can take up to a year, making it difficult to assess the numbers with any exactitude.
The British embassy also reported a noticeable increase in the number of applications for dual citizenship by Israelis whose parents immigrated from Britain, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There was a 5 percent increase in 2000 in the volume of applications for British passports; in 2001, the number of applicants rose by 11 percent.
A German embassy spokesman reported a gradual increase in citizenship applications each year. In recent years, as the euro has drawn near, the number of people seeking German citizenship in Israel has doubled. At present, about 2000 people seek citizenship each year. "The numbers do not go down - they only increase," said the spokesman. The embassy confirms that there are 60,000 Israeli citizens holding dual Israeli-German citizenship.
Germany grants citizenship to second- and third- generation descendants of German-born ancestors. Until 1966, there was no German embassy in Israel, and in order to file an application for citizenship, the applicant had to go to Germany. Such requests were extremely rare at the time. An embassy official said that in most cases the first generation was not interested in restoring German citizenship.
"Now there is a gap of a generation or two. The older ones continue to show little interest in getting citizenship, but their children and grandchildren want it, thanks to Germany's status in the European market."
Jurgen Meindl who is responsible for consular affairs at the Austrian embassy, also reports a steep upsurge in applications for Austrian citizenship. The trend actually began in 1993, with the passage of an amendment to the Austrian citizenship law whereby citizens who were compelled to flee the country at the time of the Nazi rise to power were permitted to have their citizenship restored. A change was effected last year in the way the law was interpreted and there was another increase in applications for dual citizenship.
Austria now recognized anyone who left his homeland in the 1930's as having been forced to flee. The more liberal interpretation of the law enabled second-and third-generation descendants of anyone who had emigrated from Austria to qualify for citizenship. Meindl says that hundreds of such applications were submitted last year, representing a significant increase since 1993, and attributes it to the strengthening of the European market.
According to most expectations Poland and the Czech Republic are likely to join the EU in the next two years. Mark Pedzich, head of the consular department at the Polish embassy, reports a large increase in the number of applications for dual citizenship submitted by Israeli citizens in the past year.
"In 2000, about 170 applications were submitted, and this year the number doubled. The numbers are continuing to go up. The procedure takes a few months. The application is submitted through us for authorization of citizenship, which is brought directly to the president of Poland," he says.
In contrast to other countries in or out of the EU, Poland does not invalidate dual citizenship if the applicant has served in another country's army, including the IDF. "There is no such restriction, but it depends on the individual situation of the applicant. We had one instance of a member of Knesset who applied for dual citizenship and we could not allow that," adds Pedzich.
A consul of the Czech Republic embassy says: "We are collapsing under the weight of citizenship applications. We don't have any time for other activities. Most of the Czech citizens who arrived in Israel never lost their citizenship, and they can receive passports. We just carry out an inquiry. Lots of people have expressed interest in this option in the past year. We process over 15 people a week, and there already have a three months waiting list."
She said the situation got more complicated in 1993, when the Czech Republic separated from Slovakia, and the states were forced to decide which Czechoslovak emigres would get Czech citizenship and which would receive Slovakian citizenship. The embassy cautions Israelis not to be easily lured by advertisements that tout buying property in Prague as a means to acquire citizenship.
"Bureaucracy in the Czech Republic is quite onerous, and in any case it is very difficult or near impossible to get citizenship simply because you happen to own an apartment in Prague. You have to remember that in most cases, we are speaking of long term leases, and at the end of the period it is not simple to hold on to the property," the spokesperson said.
And where do Israelis whose family trees lack ancestral branches in Europe or North Africa cast their yearnings? Some turn to the Australian embassy - for years now, Australia and New Zealand have been a popular destination for long post-army journeys. In the past year, in the interest of preventing the illegal stay of travelers and workers, Australia has encouraged long-term visitors to apply for work permits. After two years of living and working in Australia, permit-holders may apply for citizenship.
It is possible to maintain dual Israeli-Australian citizenship. Abdullah Azar, the head of the immigration section at the Australian embassy in Israel, says there are about 7,000 ex-Australians with dual citizenship living in Israel, and that dozens of Israelis join their ranks every day.
"There has been a substantial increase in the number of applications for work visas in Australia, that much is clear to us. However, since it is a lengthy procedure, we don't know who pursues the process to the point of receiving citizenship, and who doesn't. It is hard for us to assess the numbers."
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