Ich Bin Ein Sub-slime Israelische

Alarmed as some of its best brains leave, Israel resorts to an old tactic: Mark emigrants as traitors.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid is no stranger to controversy. He has starred in quite a few furors since abandoning television for politics. But the ire he roused last week was grand, even by his standards.

Using his favorite medium for communication – Facebook – Lapid vented about people who leave Israel because of financial stress. "They'd throw away the only country the Jews have because Berlin is more comfortable," he admonished, then launched into a Holocaust-themed tirade.

The impetus was a Channel 10 series about the new yordim – emigrants. The verb form literally means “to descend.”

The series described the growing phenomenon of Israelis – mostly young – leaving Israel for no better reason than the cost of living. According to Channel 10, since the cost-of-living protests of 2011, emigration has been spiking. Thousands leave each year, and it's not just the young anymore.

According to a Channel 10 survey, 51 percent of Israelis have considered emigrating because of the high cost of living and difficulty buying a home. In Berlin, buying an apartment takes 67 monthly wages on average. In Tel Aviv that's 170.

Israel takes it personally

Israel has a complex relationship with emigration. There are Americans living in Japan, Japanese living in Australia, Russians living in Argentina – and most aren't accused of treason. It's different for Israelis. And as emigration spiked and with it media attention, Israel resorted to a time-proven method: attacking those who leave.

A week after Lapid whipped up his furor, it was Uzi Dayan's turn. "I will always view descending as a betrayal of Zionism," wrote the former deputy head of the Israel Defense Forces on Facebook. "To those who use their financial situation to excuse their leaving, I remind you that anti-Semitism claimed that wherever the Jew is well-off, that's his home."

That did it. Where Lapid had irked, Dayan made emigration the hot-button issue of the day.

This is not, mind you, a rational debate. The conversation about emigration is so ridden with emotion that "descenders" are public enemies in the eyes of some, and tragic martyrs in the eyes of others. Radio personality Yoram Sheftel – the lawyer who defended John Demjanjuk and no stranger to controversy – went even further, proclaiming emigrants from Israel “the lowest, most despicable sub-slime flowing in the sewers of the Jewish world."

That may sound a hair excessive. Yet this powerful disgust for descenders is rooted deep in Israel's cultural history.

Israel is a hardscrabble country in a hardscrabble region, and there have always been people who wanted out. And they've always received the same disdainful treatment. Immigrants to Israel are called olim, ascenders, compared with those descending yordim. In 1976, late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin famously called the yordim nefolet shel nemushot (fallout of weaklings).

Defection loses its stigma

As a country perpetually at war since its establishment, leaving it for convenience or personal gain is often seen as defection. Leavers are often seen as weakening Israel, thereby enabling a second Holocaust (as Lapid suggested), or as opportunists who’ll doubtlessly come back if and when anti-Semitism catches up to them.

In a warring country where every citizen is a soldier by birth, there’s no room for personal considerations. To leave is to be an opportunist, a symbol of decline, to betray your nation.

The stigma is overwhelming. Yet is this changing?

Seems so. The Israel of 2013 seems to be a different country. The reactions to Lapid's and Dayan's posts were largely negative.

“I grew up in the United States and lived half my life there,” wrote one Facebook user in response to Lapid’s post. “Every time I come back here, to Israel, I do it out of love for the country and an honest desire to give the Jewish state one more chance. But each time I leave, in a moment of honesty with myself at the gates of Ben-Gurion Airport, I know I’m leaving for a better future.”

Dayan's post attracted more than similar 3,000 responses. And Lapid was reminded by social-media users that he himself "descended" for a few years in 1997 for a media job in Los Angeles.

Many Israelis don't even refer to emigrants as descenders anymore, veteran journalist and television host Dan Margalit complained. The kids who leave grew up in a world of global brands and multinationals. They have French Facebook friends who emigrated to Germany and German friends who emigrated to French Polynesia. They don’t fear a second Holocaust like Lapid or Dayan. They expect their country to do better than just ensure their survival.

If Israel can't give them the life they want, they have no moral qualms about leaving.

Given that it seems Israeli policy makers are still berating them and snarl that they'll be back on all fours when the next Hitler shows up, what happens to a country that uses fear as a selling point when it can't scare the kids into staying anymore?

Tomer Appelbaum