When you announce that you’re leaving Israel for America, people say the darndest things.
Friends and colleagues have met the news of our departure for a few years in America with reactions that ranged from envy to antipathy. People are not sure whether to condemn you or join you. Here the five reactions that seemed to repeat themselves often.
1. “It’s a good time to leave.”
This is the response I heard the most often. Go now, before things get worse, which they probably will. This presumes that after the murderous arson attack by extremist settlers on a Palestinian family in the village of Duma last month, after the reprisal attacks on Israelis, and all the other “afters” - after the fatal stabbing of 16-year-old Shira Banki at the Jerusalem Pride Parade, after the re-election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ensuing government of unbridled rightwingy-ness that seems to offer not a shred of hope in terms of a reconciliation with the Palestinians but does herald an ever-worsening relationship with the U.S. and the rest of the world there can’t possibly be anything good worth sticking around for just now. It may not be as bleak as it was this time last year following the war between Israel and Hamas, but it’s hard to find reasons for optimism. Palestinian friends in particular have offered this outlook: it’s a good time to go because things are probably going to get worse.
Of course, our timing has nothing to do with any of that, but is rather based on personal and family considerations that made this the ideal time to make our move, which is, as of now, not permanent – which bring me to the next reaction.
2. How long are you going for?
People immediately want to know. Are you jumping ship for good, or just for a few years? Are you coming back? Well, stay too long and you won’t want to come back. Stay for too short a time and you’ll regret not giving yourself a chance to enjoy it. People who have been there quickly offer their stories: We planned to go for two years and stayed for eight. We stayed too long. We didn’t stay long enough. They also offer advice, often unsolicited. Stay for two years, three max. A day longer, and your children will never readjust to life here. Yet another friend suggested we set and announce a deadline for returning to Israel: Commit yourself here and now to coming back within a certain amount of time, or you’ll never come back.
The truth is that our plans are open-ended. Maybe we’ll miss Israel desperately and come running back after two to three years. Or maybe we’ll find life in America attractive and decide to stay longer. It’s reasonable for people to want to know whether to expect us back here anytime soon. But it’s funny how keen some people are to get us to commit to a timeframe when we feel free to roll with it and see what’s best.
3. “I think I’m a bit jealous.”
Perhaps every Israeli and Palestinian maintains an escape plan – or at least harbors an escape fantasy. I’m aware that this is a privilege: Not everyone has the freedom to pick up and go when they choose. But I’ve been taken aback by the number of people who expressed envy at our plan, a desire to do something similar, or a regret that they considered it too late too make such a move – for example, because of kids who are too old to be moved around so easily. Pre-school kids are pliable and movable; by the time you get to adolescence, it gets complicated. It seems everyone is thinking about a move elsewhere, even for a time, but not everyone can do more than entertain the thought. Only a short while ago, there was a concern about the number of young Israelis emigrating out of the country, and it seems as if everyone who was anyone in Tel Aviv was picking up and moving to Berlin. But the numbers don’t support the rumors of mass immigration from Israel. In fact, immigration to Israel hit a ten-year high in 2014 and was up 40% this year as of May. Even the Tel Avivi who founded the Olim LeBerlin Facebook page got fed up with Deutschland and came home. So it’s not as if the departure of my little family of four will put a catastrophic dent in the sustainability of the state of Israel. But more than a few people have suggested that we ought to be at least slightly ashamed of our decision. Explaining that I have in America an aging parent suffering from a serious illness made these guilt-disher-outers mitigate their guilt-dishing only ever-so-slightly, which brings me to the next category of reactions.
4. “How could you?”
Well, they don’t exactly say that, but something similar. There is a whole contingent of Israelis and “new” immigrants who reacted to our decision as if our decision is a kind of rejection of Israel, a walking away from the Zionist project entirely. It doesn’t seem to matter that we’re leaving the Israel of 2015 and not 1945. How dare we walk away? What kind of selfish, superficial and shallow capitalists are we? Of course, our friends know that we’re hardly on a get rich quick trajectory – we’ll both be teaching – but America still has the patina of the goldena medina, the place where you can make a buchta and then buy a villa upon your return.
Moreover, there’s an image that as soon as journalists sniff conflict they tend to hang around, so it would stand to reason that if the word on the street is that things about to get much worse, a person like me should want to stay put. Why walk away from a good story? In truth, I still do love the story of this place – and it’s hard to walk away from it. But sadly, I don’t think it’s going anywhere. Though it pains me to say it, the smart money is on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not being solved in the next few years.
5. Azeh kef lechem! How fun for you.
Israelis may not agree on much, but most of them like to have a good time. Across cultural and religious lines, Israelis love to travel and explore, and appreciate time with their families. Among the key attractions for me to make this move is more time with my immediate and extended family – a family I’ve lived far away from for nearly 20 years. Having small children who haven’t had much of an opportunity to get to know their American family was a language that most Israelis could understand. Exposing our children to a few years of top-notch education in English was also an incentive that few people could argue against. But most of all, Israelis imagine America to be easy, fun and affordable. And you know, with some crazy exceptions I’ll explore at some other point, they’re right. But these are matters that I’m expected to be exceedingly prudent about writing or talking about publicly. I’ve already been reprimanded on Facebook, for example, for marveling at the fabulous local water park and pool that charges $5 entry per person. (The commentator compared me to the Israelites in the desert complaining to Moses about the delicious food they’d had in Egypt (Numbers 11:5.) In short, people of this mindset seem to indicate, if you’re going to indulge in the luscious delights of the diaspora, please don’t gloat (read: post or tweet) about it, because it might impinge upon our dedication to staying put. Better yet, just as I was leaving, a Jerusalemite I admire admonished me not to talk critically of Israel or speak about the hardships of holy land life, for that will only help people living in America “justify” their (inexcusable) decision not to make aliyah.
Perhaps my biggest challenge will be to ignore the voices encouraging this form of subtle self-censorship – and, like the motto of Israelis who can never resist a good adventure, ta'asu hayim – have fun.