Why Are Israelis Moving to Germany?

Thousands of Israelis, among them many artists, have chosen to live in Berlin because of its relaxed atmosphere and relatively low cost of living, even if it means living in a country with a fraught history.

Adi Hagin
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Adi Hagin

Two blue-and-white balloons at the compound's gate announce that we are at the Tel Aviv Beach Party.

It is a wintry Sunday in August under gray Berlin skies. Beach chairs are set up on soft sand on the banks of the Spree River, which snakes through this city, and revelers are offered hummus and watermelon. The Israeli band Jachzen Bachzen plays music that wouldn't pass muster as elevator music in Israel, but happens to be a resounding success here. Nor does the light rain prevent attendees from feeling like they are in the midst of a Mediterranean celebration - a feeling bolstered by the many people speaking Hebrew. Only the Lebanese security guards make it abundantly clear where we are: in a colorful, multinational city that has taken in immigrants from all over the world.

Between 8,000 and 15,000 Israelis are estimated to live in Berlin. Credit: David Bachar

Some 200 people attend the event organized by Habayit (which means both "home" and "the house" in Hebrew ), a unique program aimed at exposing Berliners to modern Israeli culture. Nirit Bialer, an Israeli who has lived here for the past five years, founded Habayit because, she says, "I wanted to build a house where Germans could learn Hebrew and Arabic, hold political evenings, and become acquainted with Israel a little differently - through Israelis who live here and know Germans." Indeed, about half of the attendees were Germans thirsting for a little exuberant Israeliness, reflected in the eyes of every Israeli who lives in this city.

The Israeli Embassy estimates there are 10,000 Israelis living in Berlin, but various forums serving members of that population put the number at between 8,000 and 15,000. Some say there are no fewer than 25,000 Israelis in Berlin's many boroughs and neighborhoods, though this is probably an overestimate.

Israeli painters, sculptors, filmmakers and musicians discovered a few years ago the possibilities this city affords them - from readily granted artist visas to grants and stipends, and the opportunity to make a decent living as an artist.

"It's painful that artists can't make a living in Israel and that there isn't enough respect for culture and art there," according to one Israeli at the party. "When Israel was more socialist, it was shameful to leave the country. But nowadays, when the state doesn't take care of its citizens, they have no choice but to leave. The fact that so many artists are leaving should be a wake-up call for the country."

Nati Ornan, 36, an actor, writer and performer who moved here in November 2010, says, "Now there are more Israeli artists in Berlin than in Israel. I think this is like the proverbial destruction of the Third Temple - the destruction of the Jewish spirit, which was gradually decaying until the current [social and economic] revolution, which has begun to lift it.

Ornan is living in Berlin on an artist's visa, studying German and working on various acting projects, including a student film. "I always had an emotional connection to Berlin. It's present in my writing," he explains. "I felt it was like a secret that was waiting for me to discover it. Naturally there was a problematic family connection - I'm named after my grandfather's brother, Natan, who was murdered in Treblinka. I came only after my grandfather died, even though my mother told me that if my grandfather could see my life in Israel, he would have let me go.

"There was nothing for me to do in Israel and I wanted to continue developing as an artist and a person, and to be able to breathe - not just financially, but also in terms of my daily activities. I refused to be a victim of what goes on in Israel, of the terror the leadership imposes on citizens. The economic factor is a means of keeping the population down.

"When things escalate, people can give in or rise up against the regime - which is what is happening now, fortunately. But in the interim, a large part of the suppressed population collaborates with the values at the top of the pyramid. The realization that people who should be in my camp are also collaborating was more depressing. I realized that if I stayed in Israel, I would have to adopt a value system that was not mine, and I could expect to go on being a slave to the system in a 'room with fluorescent lights,' as Daphni Leef put it.

"Israeli citizens are expected to follow some particular rule book, and when I looked back, I realized that I too was following it: I was a model soldier, I was a Jewish construction worker, I performed in children's plays, and worked for a year and a half at a cable company with that impenetrable glass ceiling. This [social-justice] protest [in Israel] is not political, but rather a matter of pigs who allow themselves to prey on the weak. The main thing is the audacity and mean-spiritedness that have overtaken the country. Gilad Shalit, for example, was turned into a sacrificial lamb by the twisted hierarchy of values."

'Do or die'

Ornan felt that he had reached a crossroads. "Either you stay in this place and say, 'I gave 35 years to the state, I'll give another 35,' or else you say, 'I don't want to be the victim, and if this country behaves like all the other countries, then it makes no difference if you live among another people who may have a terrible history but whose present poses no threat," he observes.

The decision to leave was a lengthy process. "My band, Gotel Botel, broke up and I founded a new band called Nati Ornan and the Minorities. We were set to record when it suddenly hit me that if I carried on, I would be repeating my previous 10 years, nothing would change. I chose to move somewhere that would accept me and let me develop. I enrolled in German lessons and started visiting Berlin to put out feelers. The current trip was supposed to last only three months. I had a girlfriend in Israel who didn't want to come, but I felt I could no longer walk around there. It was like I was paralyzed. She said that if I go, it's over. After three months I realized that there was nowhere for me to return to."

There is something about Berlin that lets you breathe, Ornan says. "I don't look for a caring attitude here, but I get it here more than in Israel. Berlin is no utopia, but it is sensitive toward the 'other' because of the Holocaust. In Israel there was no such catastrophe to make people realize an individual's life has great value.

"When I go running in the street, people over 90, about whom I can surmise where they were during the Holocaust, applaud me. In Israel, in contrast, I see how Holocaust survivors are treated ... There is respect for the old and weak here. They are treated properly. Society cares about them."

Ornan says that financially, Berlin is not necessarily any more comfortable for an artist. "It's not that I work less here. I didn't come here because it's more convenient. For me it was do or die. The main difference is where money is values-wise - are we worshiping the Golden Calf or do we sanctify human life?

"Here I feel that I get feedback about my creations. That is the central catalyst in Berlin. As far as creating goes, it's not easier, but it's a lot healthier emotionally. I just did a show at a bar where I performed a song that I had translated into German, and I was met with respect and appreciation. The system lets me give my best. In Israel I would not be able to make an impact. There you're considered worthless if you've reached a certain age and aren't bringing in a certain amount of money. I don't consider myself worthless and I didn't want to surrender. Here I feel I have value."

Ornan, who returned to Israel for a visit a few days after our meeting, is thrilled about the social protest sweeping the country: "I've been following the protest and said to myself, 'What do you know, they're managing nicely without me.' It's fantastic. I think the protest organizers are heroes. I only hope that the criminals who run the country won't break this thing up. Eventually I would like to live in the place where I grew up. I'm connected to the land, and I even planted trees at my grandfather's house in Givatayim, where I lived for four years. I'm hoping to come home."

'How will you live?'

Ruthe Zuntz moved to Berlin 20 years ago for love, which ended fairly quickly: "I began studying, and at a certain point I realized that I love Berlin and I stayed. I unpacked my suitcases and 12 years ago I founded a company that does photography and interactive installations. I take photos all over the world, edit them into films, and show them in large spaces. In Europe there is plentiful money for art and culture. An artist can live as an artist."

Three years ago Zuntz decided to return to Israel to be near her parents. "I love Israel very much, and I hadn't intended to leave permanently. I was raised in a patriotic home, and when I gave birth to my daughter Romi, I knew I wanted to raise her in Israel. When she was 5 months old, I came to Israel, intending to stay. I wanted my daughter to live with family.

"A few years back I did a project in Israel that was funded by the European Union, and I screened it on both sides of the separation barrier, in cooperation with a Palestinian artist. We photographed what Israelis and Palestinians have in common. I invited additional photographers from conflict countries, such as Cyprus and Northern Ireland, and everyone did the same work. ... In the course of that project, I made some connections and assumed that would make it easier for me to come back [to Israel]. That's why I got in touch with the Shenkar College [of Engineering and Design], to teach photography there.

"Everyone constantly asked me, 'How will you make a living in Israel?' and that made me nervous. In Berlin, as an artist and a photographer, I don't get asked that. I was afraid I might be compelled to change my life and stop creating. Here I make a living without doing commercial or fashion photography, but I realized that in Israel that wouldn't be the case.

"Anyway, I continued with the process of returning and intended to go back to Berlin to pack up. I got here and fell back in love with the city and how easy everything is. Romi goes to a preschool with 15 kids and four teachers for just 80 euros a month. Everything is subsidized, including private preschools. I eat organic food, which is also subsidized. The standard of living is very high. I realized I could go back to Israel only if I was very well established.

"I thought I could open a branch of the business and manage with my connections, but I realized that as a single mother, it would be difficult to impossible. There is some support for artists in Israel, but it's ridiculous. I knew I would have to change a great deal, and people scared me that I wouldn't succeed financially. Even my father said I should go back to Europe because it would be easier for me to make a living as an artist.

"It was hard for me to give up Israel again, but I know Romi will bring me back there someday because she really loves it. I'd be delighted to go back when I'm financially stronger; until then I'd struggle to survive as an artist, or have to abandon the field entirely. Here there's a calm that is hard to explain."

'Poor but sexy'

At the Israeli community's radio station we meet Aviv Russ, 34, who has lived in Berlin for six years and hosts a weekly program in Hebrew and German called "Kol Berlin" (Voice of Berlin ), for Israelis and Germans interested in Israel. This time he is hosting Yafit Reuveni, a musician and sound artist from Jerusalem, who came to Berlin for four weeks to record a project with a German producer. Reuveni is full of admiration for the Berlin studio she worked in. Jerusalem Sound Gallery, which she founded with her friends from the Naggar School of Photography, Media, New Music, Animation and Phototherapy in Musrara, is still looking for a permanent home.

Russ asks whether she's had a chance to discover Berlin's magic, and why artists from all over the world are thronging here en masse. Reuveni replies that she has, adding, "Berlin makes it comfortable to create, it is inspiring and its beauty is mesmerizing. Everywhere you go, you discover a source of inspiration - from the graffiti to the buildings. Beside that, in Berlin there are lots of spaces for rent at ridiculously low prices, it's convenient to live here, you can get an artist's visa easily, and it provides emotional calm compared to Israel. You don't need a lot of money to live here. The art is grassroots, not institutionalized. Berlin inspired me greatly."

Russ has been broadcasting in Berlin since 2006. When he lived in Tel Aviv he worked at the radio station 88 FM, so when the idea came up to broadcast a radio program for Israelis, it was only natural that he be involved. He estimates that his show has 1,000 to 1,200 listeners.

Russ: "The first significant change happened in 2008, when a large wave of Israelis came here. The second change occurred when we began incorporating German [into the show]: Many Germans, who feel a strong bond with Israel, listen to the show to get to know Israeli culture. When I moved here, I was contacted by numerous locals who wanted a 'pet' Israeli. It stemmed from a curiosity to meet a secular Jew, an Israeli. Eventually you begin to realize who's interested in you as a person and who is interested because you represent something."

For Russ, the move to Berlin was easy because he holds a European passport, "which makes life very simple." He decided to leave Israel in the summer of 2005: "I felt like taking a break from Israel. It's hard for me to explain why Berlin. There is a special feeling here, beyond the Holocaust issue, because this is a place that is still developing, ever since the Wall fell. In Israel these changes weren't discussed that much, but when someone comes here he discovers an entire universe.

"It begins with a person coming from Israel with existential stresses and fears, with constant tension over our Jewish identity, from a place with a lot of negative energy. These things make us think we are the center of the world, and then we get out of Israel and discover that we are not - and that we are not as hated as we'd thought. Here I have an easier time addressing my Jewish identity and the Holocaust. They remember it, but they don't hit you over the head with it. You discover there was another Germany before 1939, and the memory of the Holocaust is palpable here daily.

"Berlin is cheap, especially for someone who lived in Tel Aviv and needed parental help, despite working full time. There is no reason you should not live in the city you want to live in. There should be room for everyone. Here food costs half as much. True, living in Berlin became more expensive because of the euro, but there is still a huge difference.

"Berlin has completed its renewal: Derelict, gray neighborhoods on the east side are now only for the wealthy. But because it's such a big city, you can move to another neighborhood, a cheaper one, without hurting your quality of life. Public transportation is excellent and you can manage just fine even if you have to take a train or two to work.

"When I got to Berlin, I studied German and lived off my savings from Israel. Once I knew German, I found translation work. In between I also worked at a Catholic publishing house in Dublin, where the cost of living is higher but you also earn more. I also worked on a gay youth-exchange program with the Bar Noar [youth club] in Tel Aviv. Here, if you're unemployed and you worked for a year, you're entitled to unemployment benefits for a year. If you can't find a job after that, then you get 600 to 700 euros a month in income guarantees.

"If necessary, you can live in Berlin on 400 euros a month, after rent. There are really cheap grocery chains where you can buy milk for 50 cents and pasta for 40 cents. Germans pay high taxes, but get social benefits we can't even dream of in Israel. University tuition, for example, is 300 euros per semester including a monthly public transportation pass, for foreigners, too."

A visit to a hair salon in one of the upscale quarters costs a mere 17 euros (NIS 85 ) for a haircut and blow-dry, and lunch for four at a Korean restaurant that includes appetizers, entrees, and two bottles of wine costs 76 euros (NIS 380 ). Not for nothing did the mayor dub Berlin "poor but sexy."

Micha (not his real name ), 39, has lived in Berlin for almost a decade. "I finished architecture school, came here on a student exchange, and was amazed to see students and young professionals getting by," he says. "If there's work, great; if not, you can take a break for a few months and the state will help. In Israel I constantly felt I had to chase after money, and in the last few years it became worse. When I moved here I had a hard time fitting in because I was an illegal alien, and the September 11 attacks were also a crisis, but on the other hand, I got help when I was in trouble."

Now Micha has a German residency permit, "like an ordinary citizen with restrictions," and is married to a German: "Half the people here were living under a communist regime until 20 years ago, and even though things are better now, they are used to having the state take care of them. This is a productive and very stable economy with a socialist mentality. In Israel we wanted to follow 'big brother': We tried to be like the United States and we got screwed."

There are quite a few Israelis with European passports who complain about the ultra-Orthodox who "bled them dry" in Israel, but who have moved to Berlin, and are living on unemployment benefits of 800 euros a month. They don't have any problem with this: It's the Germans' money, and we deserve it, they assert.

"Not everything revolves around money here," says one Israeli woman who has lived in Berlin for three years. "People work on average 38 hours a week. You won't see people with brand-name clothing. They dress stylishly but prefer second-hand. People rarely use credit cards, and some businesses don't accept them. I use a debit card. In Israel lunch costs NIS 40-50; here it's 5 euros at most. It takes me two months to recover financially from every visit to Israel, and I can't even understand what I spent so much money on."

'Living like dogs'

At a cheap hummus joint in the center of town we meet Eran, 30, the owner. He lives in Berlin with his German wife and their baby. "Life here isn't easier. I have to spend 2,500 to 3,000 euros a month if I want a decent apartment and to travel abroad once or twice a year. I pay 1,500 euros for a 100-square-meter apartment, and leasing a car costs me 400 euros a month," he explains.

"The ordinary supermarket is very expensive. Israelis shop at the discount chains that sell rotten tomatoes and low-quality merchandise. The Orthodox in Israel also know how to live well on nothing. You can do that here, too. It's true the social benefits are better, but people live here cheaply because they're living like dogs. If they did that in Tel Aviv, they would pay less there too. If the Israelis here can live in Neukolln among Arabs, let them go live in Kafr Qasem. It's exactly the same thing. I wouldn't be surprised if they started firing Qassam rockets at the Mitte district."

Eran grew up in Tel Aviv. At 23 he went traveling: "I was always looking for ways to develop. In Tel Aviv you build a business, and a year later you move on. Here you build the business slowly. So for the first two or three years it's very hard, but afterward it'll last for 100 years. Now 95 percent of my customers are regulars. There are some Israelis, but the business doesn't rely on them; it relies on the neighbors.

"I go to Tel Aviv a lot, and it will always be my second home. Berlin is a slightly odd city. It's supposed to be Western, but it isn't. It's like Prague, but better. It's not productive like the rest of Germany. People start work at 10 A.M., there is no industry here. Berlin is a city for fun, not for business. It's very hard to do business here. The [soccer] World Cup saved my business, otherwise I wouldn't have survived."

The walls of Eran's hummus place are covered in Israeli mementos, including pictures from Sinai and a big picture of the Western Wall, taken by Berlin-based Jewish artist Daniel Josefsohn. The patrons are Germans and Israelis, tourists and locals. This may be the only hummus joint in the world that serves latte alongside hummus. Eran says that his hummus place is situated in what is considered the city's most expensive neighborhood, and he adds: "Most Berliners don't live here, but rather in the surrounding areas. Like instead of living in Tel Aviv, people lived in Ramat Gan, Givatayim and Herzliya. Most of the Israelis who live here come with the attitude that, 'I reside in Berlin and live in Tel Aviv.'

"For me, the only difference is in business. They meet you halfway here. When you open a business, they don't come to check on you every week. They give you a two-year grace period to get settled. They don't constantly check to see that your kitchen is clean. They're mainly happy that you're providing jobs. I also have a business in Tel Aviv, so I'm very aware of the differences. In general I oppose the tent protest in Israel. My family has real estate. It's hurting us. They want to cut into our money."

His apartment is a few streets from the hummus place, in Berlin's most expensive neighborhood, and the rent includes almost all utilities. The car he pays so much for is a new BMW with a 3.5-liter turbo diesel engine. In the middle of the interview, Eran's Moroccan neighbor gets a parking ticket for blocking a fire hydrant while unloading goods, and starts arguing with the inspectors.

"What's he getting so worked up about? They'll cancel his ticket at City Hall," Eran says, and shouts at his friend to calm down. It turns out that fines are also cheaper in Berlin: An ordinary parking ticket is 5 euros and parking in a handicapped zone is 15 euros.

Yehiel and Nava Skornik are sitting in the hummus joint with their two children and listening to our conversation. They work in real estate and heartily disagree with Eran.

"Rents here are lower - we pay 1,000 euros a month for a 100-square-meter apartment and that includes municipal property taxes, trash removal, heating, even cable, everything except electricity and telephone," Yehiel says. "Raising kids is also cheaper. Private education for a child is cheaper than a nanny's wages in Israel. Except for fruits and vegetables, everything is cheaper at the supermarket."

Nava adds, "Maternity leave lasts a year, during which time you get 75 percent of your salary - even if you're self-employed like me - up to 3,000 euros a month. You can take a break of up to three years. In the first two years they reserve your job, and in the third year they keep some kind of position open for you at the company. Anyone who didn't have a job and stays home with the child gets 300 euros a month, which is considered education money, plus a child allowance of 168 euros a month. Children's medical expenses, including dental care and glasses, are fully subsidized."

"Berlin is the ultimate place to raise a family," Yehiel explains. "Even if tomorrow there's no work, I'm not worried. The state gives more. An unemployed person receives more. I make decent money here, not a ton, and I manage to get by. I earn almost as much as an Israeli, but live well. I'm not running anywhere. We're not in a pressure cooker here.

"That is the reason I left Israel. I was a discharged soldier without a college degree and I felt I had nothing to do. We want to go back to Israel, but the prices have gone up insanely. I go into the supermarket and pay NIS 200 for one measly bag of food. In Berlin I'll get a huge bag for that money. If this protest [in Israel] creates something positive, it will bring us back. When all is said and done, there is nothing like the sea and the weather in Israel, but you can't live there. Where could we raise our children for this price and standard of living in Israel?"



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