From Mexico to Milan, Coronavirus a Time of Reckoning for Israelis Living Abroad

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing many Israeli expats to ask: Should I stay or should I go home? 'More and more Israelis who had neglected to do so in the past are now registering their kids for citizenship,' official says

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Clockwise from top left: Galya Sarner, Ilan Sagiv, Pazit Levitan, Anat Koren, Yeela Deil and Nitza Levy.
Clockwise from top left: Galya Sarner, Ilan Sagiv, Pazit Levitan, Anat Koren, Yeela Deil and Nitza Levy.
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Earlier this week, Israel’s consul general in New York, Dani Dayan, hosted a live Q&A session on Facebook for Israeli expats living in America’s worst coronavirus hot zone. Most of the questions inevitably touched on the topic of escape.

Some participants wanted to know if it was still possible to renew their Israeli passports. Others were concerned about whether their partners or children would be allowed to join them in Israel if they did not hold Israeli citizenship. Several wondered if they would be allowed into Israel if they were no longer full-time residents. A few were anxious to know if flights would continue to Israel from the United States.

But only one question noticeably made the ambassador pause: “Do you recommend going back to Israel now?”

“That’s a very personal question,” Dayan responded, “and it very much depends on where the center of your life and where your family are. But in all honesty, I believe that in terms of your ability to get proper medical care if, God forbid, you get sick – and sick enough to require hospitalization – you’re better off in Israel.”

For those already inclined to pick up and leave, he had these words of advice: “Go as soon as you can.”

Among the participants in this virtual gathering — organized by Homeis, a popular social media network for Israelis living in the United States — was Pazit Levitan, a stalwart of the Israeli community in New York and a woman whose fingers are very much on its pulse. She was not surprised by the questions.

A doctor walking outside Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan during the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, April 1, 2020.
A doctor walking outside Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan during the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, April 1, 2020.Credit: Brendan McDermid/ REUTERS

“I’ve literally lived half my life in Israel and half my life outside Israel – mainly in New York – and like many Israelis here, I feel that I have two homes,” says the mother of two teenage boys who serves as director of development at American Friends of Soroka Medical Center. “The coronavirus has created a situation where, for the first time in our lives, we really have to choose where our home is – and it’s a very hard choice. What makes it worse is that you can’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, because before long you may not be able to leave.”

Levitan, who has lived in Manhattan for the past 21 years, says her choice has already been made. “New York is my home, and I’m not going to pull my kids out of school now to move back. But I know of many people who are going back or are planning to,” she says. “It’s very common these days to see Israelis posting things on Facebook like ‘Thank you for all the lovely years in New York.’”

Because Israel’s consular offices in the United States are not working at full capacity these days, it is difficult to detect trends based on applications for Israeli citizenship or passport renewals, says Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat. “But there definitely is a sense that more and more Israelis who had neglected to do so in the past are now registering their kids so they can receive citizenship,” he relays. “Typically, it’s something that’d be done when the child is between 3 and 5 years old. In recent weeks, we’re seeing many Israeli parents asking to register children who are already in their teens.”

Perhaps most surprising, he says, were several inquiries in recent weeks from Israelis who had given up their citizenship but are now asking for it back. “It is extremely rare and a very difficult process to give up your Israeli citizenship. But in the past few weeks, we’ve had three such requests” to reverse those decisions, says Haiat.

Under Israel’s new coronavirus-related decrees, only Israeli citizens are being allowed into the country these days (with rare exceptions). This could explain why passports issued by the Jewish state are becoming such a high-demand item.

“Until now, it was common for Israelis to try to get a second passport for themselves and their children ‘just in case,’” Haiat notes. “Now we have the opposite situation: People trying to get Israeli passports for themselves and their children ‘just in case.’”

Shoham Nicolet, co-founder and CEO of the Israeli American Council, says it is too early to predict if and how the coronavirus crisis will affect the long-term plans of Israelis stationed in the United States.

“Basically everything is on hold right now, and my guess is that it will take a few weeks or months before people get a grasp on things,” he says. What is being felt “more than usual,” he says, is a desire among Israelis in the United States to connect to one another during this crisis period. “We see it in the thousands of families joining our virtual Kabbalat Shabbat service and signing up for our Passover seder.”

‘Basic survival’

Based on conversations with Israeli expats who have assumed formal and informal leadership roles in their local communities around the world, it is clearly a time of reckoning for this particular diaspora.

“Today, the questions we’re asking ourselves not only pertain to identity but also to basic survival,” Levitan says, “and that’s because Israel seems so much better prepared than America for this crisis situation. While America has been more reactive, Israel has been more proactive – and that may have to do with the fact that Israel is simply more experienced when it comes to emergency situations.”

Anat Koren, publisher and editor-in-chief of Alondon, a popular Hebrew-language magazine in the British capital, has been living in England for the past 37 years. She doesn’t know of any Israelis in London who have gone back to Israel for good, but is aware of quite a few who are waiting out the crisis there.

“It’s mainly Israelis who have second residences in Israel who have packed up and left,” says Koren, who runs an annual Israeli film festival in London called Seret.

Military personnel are seen at the ExCel center that is being turned into a 4,000-bed temporary hospital known s NHS Nightingale to help deal with some of the coronavirus outbreak victims in London, April 2, 2020.
Military personnel are seen at the ExCel center that is being turned into a 4,000-bed temporary hospital to help deal with some of the coronavirus outbreak victims in London, April 2, 2020.Credit: Alberto Pezzali,AP

“I don’t know the numbers, but Israelis talk a lot about which country has a better health care system – and I think most believe it’s Israel. They look at the numbers who’ve died, and that in Israel it’s been mainly the elderly. The fact that most people work from home these days has made such a move easier.”

A co-founder of Global Israeli Leadership, an international networking organization for Israelis living overseas, Koren does not believe that those Anglo-Israelis who have taken flight will stay away for good. “In the end, most people make such decisions based on economic factors – not on where the health care system is better,” she says.

Last week, more than 200 Israelis left Hungary on a specially organized evacuation flight. According to Ilan Sagiv, a longtime Budapest resident who represents Keren Hayesod – United Israel Appeal in Hungary, most of the passengers did not have deep roots in the country. “It was mainly people without families, some pregnant women, students and factory workers,” says the 45-year-old.

“The Israelis who run businesses here are for the most part staying put, and they don’t really seem to care much about what is happening politically,” Sagiv says, referring to the recently passed coronavirus bill that tightens Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian grip on the country.

Homeward bound?

For the past seven years, Nitza Levy has been living in Mexico City, where she runs rural development projects with her life partner. Within the local Israeli community, which numbers some 4,500, the question of whether to stay or go back is “definitely on the agenda,” she says.

“I know of some women with children or who are pregnant who’ve gone back, as well as some young Israelis who came here not to backpack but to check out the place,” says Levy, 62. “But the Israeli businesspeople, and that’s the majority of us here, they’re not leaving – not yet at least.”

Caution tape blocking off a pedestrian street after Mexico's government declared a health emergency and issued stricter rules to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease, Mexico City, April 1, 2020.
Caution tape blocking off a pedestrian street after Mexico's government declared a health emergency and issued stricter rules to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease, Mexico City, April 1, 2020.Credit: GUSTAVO GRAF/ REUTERS

She and her partner did discuss the possibility of going back to Israel, Levy says, “but we decided against it.”

“My kids are all grown by now, and this is where my work is,” she explains. “If we came back to Israel, we wouldn’t have any work, and we’d just be a burden on the state. I don’t see any reason to impose myself on the state like that.”

Galya Sarner, a member of the Global Israeli Leadership board, is the long-standing unofficial leader of Toronto’s Israeli community. The other day, she recounts, a childhood friend of hers who now lives in Los Angeles contacted her to say he felt the need to be back in Israel during this crisis period. Sarner could relate.

“For us, Israel is home and always will be, especially in these crazy and challenging times,” she says. She is not aware of Israelis in Toronto who have gone back, though, noting that “even if they wanted to, it’s too late now because there are no flights.”

Contrary to her Israeli friends in the United States, Sarner says she takes comfort in the fact that she lives in a welfare state where health care is universal. “We’re fortunate in that way, and it really seems that [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau knows what he’s doing.”

A man wearing ski goggles, gloves and clothing rides the subway during the global outbreak of coronavirus disease in Toronto, Ontario, March 31, 2020.
A man wearing ski goggles, gloves and clothing rides the subway during the global outbreak of coronavirus disease in Toronto, Ontario, March 31, 2020.Credit: CHRIS HELGREN/ REUTERS

Milan is in one of the hardest hit regions in the world, but the Israeli community there is relatively small, comprised mainly of students. Yeela Deil, who is married to a local, counts herself among the old-timers. “Right now, we’re not really thinking about anything,” says the mother of four. “And we couldn’t go to Israel even if we wanted to, because my mother-in-law is here and we would never leave her behind.”

But she is convinced the day will come when they have no choice but to uproot themselves – and not specifically because of the coronavirus.

“That Jewish community here is shrinking, business isn’t what it used to be, so down the road there won’t be much keeping us here,” she says.

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