Israel, Should I Stay or Should I Go?

I’m not the Israeli that Lapid and Lieberman would hate to see leave, although others would rue such a decision. I’m still here although many dear friends have abandoned ship. In fact, I even helped bring one Israeli back.

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משחק קוביה גמל
Illustration: Yael Bogen
Yoana Gonen


There is no greater crime than leaving.

In friends, what do you count on? Not on what they do.

You never can tell what they will do. Not on what they are.


May change. Only on this: their not leaving.

– “There is No Greater Crime than Leaving,” by Bertolt Brecht (translation by Frank Jones)

At the beginning of the 2000s I was part of an action group of queers against the occupation. Things like that still existed in 2000, queers against the occupation, but that’s not the point here. Of that group, Gur, Inna, Liad, Yossi and Dana now live in Berlin; Dalit, Mina and Thea are in California; Ishai is in New York, and Daphna, too, is somewhere on the East Coast; Idan is in Paris; and Amir, last I heard, was living in London. A few others – Noam, Dana (the second one – there were three) and Sarit also left for a few years but came back. That’s a hefty slice of a group that at its peak numbered about 30 people.

Much has been written of late about emigration as an Ashkenazi privilege. In this case, not everyone mentioned above is Ashkenazi, and most of them did not hold a foreign passport when they left. Some of them did take advantage of the only privilege accruing to queers, in the nuptial context: Because of a years-long ban on marriage, owing to the fact that the concept of marriage has been voided of meaning, even in places where same-sex marriage has been allowed for years, it became in our communities a useful fictitious institution for acquiring foreign citizenship.

I shared in the happiness of all those who succeeded in leaving and in finding a new life for themselves, a life in which they could breathe. At the same time, I also burned with envy at the fact that the same combination of despair and helplessness that impelled them to escape, kept me rooted to the spot. I experienced firsthand Bialik’s sour sense of loneliness, the solitary feeling of the student sitting alone in the darkness of the beit midrash after all the others were “carried by the wind, swept by the light, and a new song revivified the morning of their lives.”

So, “an action group of queers against the occupation.” It’s not surprising that a group of people linked to conceptual realms such as “queer” and “against the occupation” vanished from these parts in higher-than-average proportions (even “action” has become an alien word in present-day Israeli reality: It’s best to avoid doing deeds, because they are never as pure as theoretical words; and it’s best to be neutral and not be among the “extremists on both sides”). People like that are not natural to the Zionist body, so its immune reaction is to spew them out. The truth is that such people are no longer natural to the current reality in many parts of the globe, with taking action and being involved in the political are gradually becoming both incongruous and opprobrious.

Though the leavers are one statistical cluster from the perspective of the National Insurance Institute and would have been considered a uniform fallout of wimps in the eyes of Yitzhak Rabin, there are in fact hierarchies among them. During the period of the social-justice protests in 2011, there was lots of talk about leaving among the communities of Lapidists – a crude generalization for well-to-do Ashkenazim who vote for center and moderate left-wing parties, who weren’t especially bothered by events in the country until they discovered that their Milky pudding was priced disproportionately high. Because they’re considered a meaningful backbone of our society, their angry speeches of departure generated some public anxiety.

The departure of scientists and physicians is also a worrisome national matter, and like every important phenomenon has been awarded a special name: “brain drain.” In 2010, the Israeli government announced a plan to alleviate the phenomenon and invested billions of shekels in it, but it’s recently been reported that the project failed. In 2008, Avigdor Lieberman termed the brain drain a “national disaster,” and in 2013 Dan Margalit wrote in Israel Hayom that the emigration of scientists from Israel “has become a state epidemic.” It would not be amiss to say that Lieberman and Margalit are two pillars of the Israeli mainstream (abutting one another, even if not entirely overlapping), whose remarks reliably represent the prevailing opinion.

A group of Israelis in Berlin.Credit: David Bachar

On the other side of the political map – a reverse but otherwise completely identical mirror image – Uri Avnery, in a recent article in this newspaper, called on young people who have left Israel to return, because it’s “reasonable to surmise that they come from among the more vigorous, creative, entrepreneurial and skilled strata” of Israelis. They, he believes, are the Israelis who can save the country.

Israelis who have succeeded in escaping responded hurtfully to Avnery’s criticism. Other writers either scolded them or supported their decision to leave, and the obsessive ritual of dealing with yordim – “descenders,” a pejorative term for leavers, the opposite of olim, those who “ascend” – repeated itself, in all its ceremonial glory. The only difference is that New York and those looking for easy money there in the 1970s and ‘80s have been replaced by Berlin and those looking for comfortable politics. The location and the circumstances changed, but the approach has remained the same: The members of the select group of those who possess initiative and skills – covering a wide range of occupations, from medicine to social activism – are not permitted to leave. And if they do manage to get out, the long arm of the state will find them and taunt them with a finger-wagging “naughty, naughty.”

In contrast to this anxious-nationalistic approach, on both the right and the left, Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz many years ago suggested a possible alternative of a resigned-bitter approach. In December 1966, Leibowitz – who, in addition to being a thinker of thoughts that discombobulated the consensus, was also a chemist and managed the organic chemistry lab at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – took part in a symposium in Be’er Sheva on “The Brain Drain in Developing Countries.” Unconventional as always, he maintained that there was no cause to castigate these young people, “who prefer the original thing to the miserable imitation that exists here in the field of science and research.”

The state doesn’t really care if sexually-deviant-and-unreasonably-leftist people – as opposed to the Lapidists and the brains – abandon it in droves. They have already been marked as a demonic nemesis possessing prodigious powers, and now the state is working to eradicate them: in idea and in deed. This is the hierarchy of the forsaking of the country: There is a caste to which the children of the gung-ho military correspondent from Channel 2, Roni Daniel, belong, and there is a broad caste of unholy people of various kinds; there are those who feel that the country has been stolen from them, and there are those who from the outset led their lives here like thieves.


Israelis rally in New York in support of 2011's social protest movement

You said: ‘I’ll go to some other land, I’ll go to some other sea.

There’s bound to be another city that’s better by far.

My every effort has been ill-fated from the start;

my heart – like something dead – lies buried away;

You’ll find no new places, you won’t find other shores.

The city will follow you. The streets in which you pace

will be the same, you’ll haunt the same familiar places,

– “The City,” by C.P. Cavafy (translation by Daniel Mendelsohn)

As so many of the people I love have already left or are planning to leave “the miserable imitation that exists here” of life that is livable, I have started to work on a redefinition of the national disaster: not the drain of brains but rather the desertion of hearts. For it’s not the brain but the heart that is the core of this pain, even if it’s the pain of the personal body and not the body politic.

One consequence of the fact that so many have left Israel behind, is that for some years, my emotional life has spread across the globe. Two of the people most dear to me are among those who left. Eilat went to Chicago three years ago; Yotam immigrated to Paris 18 months ago. One might have thought that the vast geographical distance would separate us, but the two continue to exist by my side, in relationships that transcend corporeal limitations. A few years ago, that might have sounded dystopian, bizarre, contemptible to me; but in the meantime, I learned to stop worrying and to love the technology.

A few months ago, when I was in a deep crisis, they were effectively a constant presence in my life, safeguarding and protecting. They spoke to me unfailingly every day, to ensure that I didn’t fall too deep into the abyss. Eilat, with an eight-hour time difference, took freezing morning and afternoon breaks from a snowbound library; Yotam would call from the office during the jogging breaks of his French boss, updating me the minute the latter donned his shiny, sweat-wicking track suit. A man I’ve never seen, who organizes for his daily ritual of running through streets of Paris whose names I didn’t know, became one of the highlights of my day during that dark time. While I was in the East and my material body could barely leave the house, my heart resided with loved ones at the ends of the West, surrounded by grayish and tranquil American and European vistas.

In the past, it was taken for granted that the limits of our body are the limits of our social world. Figurative references to social activities were based on the organic constraints of the body: People met face to face, saw eye to eye, walked hand in hand, spoke heart to heart. But whereas the linguistic arena preserves the memory of those limitations, emotional reality changed with the spread of means that expand the realm of struggle, solidarity, encounter and dialogue.

All technological progress is accompanied by anxieties about the loss of the old world. Similarly, in the past decade, the era of the internet and the social networks has been accompanied by fear of the deterioration of the value of friendship, as encapsulated in variations on this theme: “If you have 700 friends, you actually have no friends at all.” Despite this reactionary fear, in practice the opposite happened (or, at least, a parallel process took place). If in ancient times friendship, being a bond of choice, constituted a unique institution that subverted structured boundaries of loyalty to family and state, today it has the power to vanquish even the boundaries of geography. It is still too soon to know whether the pain of parting and the fears of abandonment are dulled or become more acute in this brave new world.


I will not go to Paris.

I will stay in my house.

I will strip off my underpants

And lie down on my stomach.

I will lie and listen

To the moaning of Ramat Gan

The sighs of Givatayim

The barks of Tel Aviv

The crying of Be’er Sheva

Be’er Sheva that has no purpose.

I will not go to Paris.

– Hezy Leskly, “Hour of the Voices”

What will my fate be? True, I left the army of my own accord; true, I demonstrated against the government’s policy and even publicly tarnished Israel’s name. But despite everything, I am still here. I have no idea what bonds keep me tied to this place – the Hebrew language, the absence of a foreign passport, or perhaps the Mediterranean climate. The main factor is apparently just fear: deciding to stay pursuant to a process of elimination of other options. Unlike those vigorous, entrepreneurial types for whom Uri Avnery longs, I am the gazelle that freezes in the headlights of the oncoming car. If you’re reading this article in the print version, maybe you are, too.

It’s noteworthy, in fact, that not only have I not left Israel, but recently I contributed to the return of a brain (and heart) that tried to escape. Naama went to Holland to obtain her master’s degree and planned to stay. Holland has functioning health and welfare systems, an adequate education system, environmental awareness and tall people. Naama could have been rescued from the talons of the Land of Israel, but she made a bitter mistake by hitting on me on Facebook. After a few months of back-and-forth trips, it became clear that while heart-to-heart conversations can be conducted even across great distances, there are, nonetheless, things that require proximity between the organs of two bodies.

Surprisingly, my conflicted roots triumphed, and I was able to persuade Naama to return. If the Central Bureau of Statistics notes a falloff in the brain-drain rate, it will be thanks to me. But don’t start celebrating just yet, dear CBS statisticians, because in the meantime Naama and I have started to talk about emigrating together one day. Because in fantasy everything is possible, at the moment we’re considering Lisbon or Rotterdam. The weather there has me a bit worried, but weather worries are such a beautiful privilege.

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