'I'm Moving to France for a Good Reason, but Israel Is Home. It’s Crap Here, but It’s My Crap'

Conversations at the Tel Aviv airport: A production manager leaves Israel for his country of birth, while a land assessor considers moving to Singapore, where COVID is under control

Yael Benaya
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Emmanuel Kohn
Emmanuel Kohn.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yael Benaya

Emmanuel Kohn, 28; moving to Paris, flying to Frankfurt

Hi Emmanuel, where are you off to?

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To Frankfurt, and from there I’ll take the train to Paris. My girlfriend is there, and that’s where I’m moving. I’m originally French, so I’m returning to my origins.

How long have you been in Israel?

Just about 16 years – we came on aliyah when I was 12 and a half. I hadn’t planned to leave, but life takes you to unexpected places. I grew up in the Paris suburbs, and we moved to Ra’anana. Two years ago, I moved to Tel Aviv, but now I am here at this moment.

And what brings you to this moment?

My girlfriend. She’s a lawyer and she can’t work here. If she were accredited here as a lawyer she would probably move, but she doesn’t have the language. She studied for eight years and she passed the bar exams both in New York and in Paris, so I couldn’t tell her to dump everything and come here.

How did you meet?

She’s the cousin of a good friend; I met her in university here in Israel. It’s almost exactly two years that we’ve been together. I was supposed to leave last Passover, but with the coronavirus, we said we would wait and see what happens. I flew to Paris once to see her, and then I went into quarantine. Three months after that, I went again, before the airport shut down, so I could see her at least once more, and then another quarantine. And now three more months have passed.

And this time it’s final?

I don’t intend to come back anytime soon. My ambition is to return in the future, but at the moment I’m leaving. I’m not deluding myself. Even if I do want to come back five years down the line, there’s the question of career, and that’s more complicated. I work in production, I’ve worked in television until now, I started as an assistant production manager and gradually I advanced to manager. Things went well for me here, but you shouldn’t be afraid in life. If I feel it’s the right choice, then I’ll do it.

What does it feel like to leave?

There are mixed feelings. Because I’m leaving for a good reason, but on the other hand – and the Jewish Agency will really like what I’m about to say – this is home. It’s crap here, but it’s my crap. It’s a connection that’s different. But I’m not moving to Guatemala, I’m moving to someplace I know well.

How did your parents react to your decision?

They said that they understand my desire to leave Israel but that they don’t recommend France. The situation there isn’t great, the society is split. But we’ll cope with that, too. I hope to fall in with good people.

What led your parents to move here back then?

Zionism, I would say. There was also already antisemitism in France at the time. I’m not one of those who say that everyone is antisemitic, but yes, there is a problem. My grandfather came to Israel back in the 1970s, my parents met here and returned to Paris, so they knew Israel. It was a big leap, but they knew where they were going.

How do you remember the move to Israel as a boy?

It was very hard for me to get used to the mentality when I arrived. In terms of the language, within half a year I could speak and I understood almost everything. It took me a year and a half really to be part of the Israeliness, but since then I’ve followed a completely normal track – army, school. When I got here there were other French people, and that helped. I know a lot of French people who stayed very French, with partial Hebrew, but that wasn’t what I wanted. I don’t want to be a tourist in my country.

Do you think the fact that you immigrated here as a kid will make things easier for you now?

Yes, I already know how it all goes – I know the different layers I’ll have to cope with. Now the language won’t be a problem. And as far as my career goes, here people work like Israelis and there it’s more strict, so I’ll have to get used to that.

What does a production manager do?

He manages all the logistics of a media or film production. It’s a lot of responsibility, lots of pressure, ungodly hours, routine that’s not routine, and that’s what I like. I worked on “Big Brother,” I worked on “Ninja” [reality shows]. I produced commercials.

Are you planning to look for work in the same field in Paris?

It might sound strange after I worked on “Big Brother,” but what interests me now is creativity, and that’s the direction I want to take. To be part of something I’m proud to participate in, something with meaning, that will be dear to my heart. It could be a film or a TV drama or a documentary, but I want to feel that it has meaning. I want to engage in something that will have a positive impact on the world.

Where do you see yourself a few years down the line?

Another five years, I’m not sure, but in another 10 years I hope we’ll return to Israel. Together with my partner, and she knows that. I told her I’m making the effort to move, but if at some point I’ll feel that it’s enough, then we’ll have to talk about it. About big decisions you need big conversations.

Dalia Assis.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Dalia Assis, 57; lives in Hod Hasharon, arriving from Singapore

Hi Dalia, what were you doing in Singapore?

My son lives and works there. I fled from Israel last October. I thought that by now, things would have calmed down here, but that hasn’t happened. I was compelled to return, because I work – I have clients waiting for me. I worked via computer, with all my meetings on Zoom, but there are things where there’s no choice: I have to be in Israel for them.

What’s life like in Singapore these days?

It’s a different world, like a parallel universe. Everything is open there, almost everything, except maybe for big performance halls and things like that. The movie theaters are also open, all the malls are open and restaurants, cafés, bars, pubs. There was a restriction that only five people can be at a single table, though now it’s gone up to eight. They keep making progress with opening things. You could say that Singapore is one of the places that are the best role models. Singapore is the West in the East, it’s one of the most developed countries in the world.

Absolutely a parallel universe.

The number of infected people there is negligible, almost zero. Maybe one or two, who have come in on flights. But because they’re in quarantine, the [authorities] are in control of the situation. Everything there is organized and efficient. I stayed at first at a hotel in quarantine, but I have no complaints. A five-star hotel with excellent food, a big room with a balcony and a view. Except for the fact that I couldn’t leave the hotel for 14 days, the conditions were excellent.

Does it make you want to move there?

It does. I’m alone, divorced, so I can decide to do things. I have grandchildren there, my son is married and has two children, and I had a new grandson, so I was anxious to go. But I also have two grandchildren here and a granddaughter on the way.

What does your son do there?

He’s been there six years and runs businesses – cosmetics stores, restaurants and cafés – and now he’s going to open a few more things. I visit him a lot, almost every half-year. I feel at home there by now; this was my 13th time there. Now they’re not letting anyone in who’s not a citizen of Singapore, unless you have a really good reason or you’re a business person. I hadn’t been to see him since January 2020, and because I have a residence permit he got me a visa for free entry and exit.

If it weren’t for your work here, would you have stayed on?

I might have stayed, until they stop with the quarantining here. Singapore is a green country, there’s no reason for me to be in quarantine.

What do you do?

I’m a land assessor. I have my own firm and I work on projects like urban renewal, Tama 38 [fortifying buildings against earthquakes in return for construction rights] and things like that. I have employees here in Israel who dealt with what was needed, but I came back for a project that demanded my presence.

Is this a good time for building?

Always. There’s a bit of a slowdown in construction starts, such as in residential real estate. But I’m curious to see what real estate will look like after the coronavirus. Today we know it’s affecting the market for offices, and it’s affecting the residential market in a different way. More people want to live in an urban environment where they have everything available on the street below them, and where they don’t have to travel, because they work from home or from the café downstairs.

What do you think will happen with all the huge office buildings after the pandemic?

In my opinion they should already be converted to residences now. It would be good to have homes and a few offices on the upper floors, and down below restaurants and commercial shops – and then it’ll be fine for everyone. There was surplus office space already when the coronavirus arrived, the office market was saturated. There was demand, it’s not that there was an over-supply, but the moment the crisis hit, things changed instantaneously.

Will you return to an office?

Not so fast. And I know a lot more like me who won’t be in a hurry to return to an office. And even if we do go back, it won’t be in the same way. Maybe it’ll be twice a week. There’s a tremendous savings there, and besides, the output of employees from home is better. High-tech companies say the same thing. The situation hasn’t hurt the staff’s output.

Is it comfortable for you to work from home?

I worked from home for many years, in my previous job, too. I was divorced at an early age and I needed to raise my two children, so it was very convenient for me to work from home. I have a lot of self-discipline, so it’s more convenient for me. Getting up in the morning and wasting time, and not only time – you get tired from the traveling and get to the office half worn out, and then you need to sit down and start writing reports. My work requires concentration, and a lot of time gets wasted on other things. At home I have an orderly office setup, so I’m organized for work. Today homes are designed from the outset with a work room.

What did the pandemic change for you?

It pushed me now to start my doctoral thesis, instead of sitting at home and watching Netflix all day.

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