Can You Leave Israel and Still Be a Zionist?

Israel's emigrants can play an important historical role in saving the democratic state from the destructive forces that threaten it from within.

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People hold Israeli flags as they gather for an anti-Semitism demo at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate September 14, 2014.
People hold Israeli flags as they gather for an anti-Semitism demo at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate September 14, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Eran Rolnik
Eran Rolnik

In the State of Israel’s discourse of self-justification, pride of place is occupied not only by the right of Diaspora Jews to Israeli citizenship, but also by the question of whether it is legitimate for citizens of the Jewish state to emigrate.

In the week in which the historian and Holocaust researcher Yehuda Bauer berated journalist Rogel Alpher (who, in an August 31, 2014, column in Haaretz, declared, “I can no longer live here”), likening him to a rat and calling on him to leave the country without further ado – a video clip on YouTube showed dozens of young Israelis dancing in various overseas cities to which they have immigrated. “Berlin, Berlin, / Even if I forget my right hand, / You’ll wait there forever,” the Shmemel band sings energetically.

It’s provocative and imploring, heartwarming and appalling.

The facts are known: In recent years, thousands of young Israelis, and some who aren’t so young, have been looking to leave the country. Something very enthralling – “uncanny,” in Freud’s term – is being played out in the wave of immigration to Germany by Israelis in the past few years. The idea of a Jewish nation-state is European. Israel is now sprouting a kind of doppelganger in the German hinterland, even as it distances itself from European universalism. A stroll through the streets of Berlin reveals not only plenty of Israelis, but also a postmodern variation on the idea called “Israel,” a kind of metaphoric vintage shop of Israeliness.

Yet, every time the subject of emigration appears on the public agenda, the discussion bogs down at the same point where it got stuck in the 1970s. Speak heresy about the logic of life in Israel and you’ll be pilloried by the right and the left. “Leave, you gutless nonentity,” you will be urged by the right. “Stay, you back-stabbing defeatist,” you will be branded by the left.

All the poor wretch can do is mumble: It’s my right, I did army service, I pay taxes, I practice a liberal profession, I have a foreign passport – and offer other similar arguments, showing that the would-be emigre from Israel is inclined to perceive the desire to leave the country through the prism of free choice and self-fulfillment. He is not locating his emigration in historical, moral or universal contexts, still less projecting onto the wish to emigrate a positive political intent that transcends his personal interest.

Only under certain conditions will Israelis soften their hostile, self-affronted attitude toward those who wish to live outside the country’s borders. A prospective emigrant who cites economic reasons as justification of his decision to leave, will find people who will empathize with and forgive him. If the emigrant is recognized to be an individual for whom Israel is too small and whose natural venue is really the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Silicon Valley or the research labs of Princeton, he will be cheered. Culture heroes of that ilk are often written up in glowing terms in the Hebrew press. They fuel the narcissism of the tribe, and the tribe has never cold-shouldered them.

Something is missing in the conversation about the emigration of Israelis, and it’s worth trying to pinpoint and extricate it from the narrow confines in which the discussion has been conducted for decades.

“Some victories are harder to endure than defeats,” the historian Jacob Talmon wrote, quoting Nietzsche, in an open letter to Prime Minister Menachem Begin published in Haaretz in March 1980.

“Striving to dominate and rule, in the late 20th century, a foreign population that is hostile, different in its language, history, culture, religion, national consciousness and aspirations, in its economy and its social structure, is tantamount to an attempt to revive feudalism,” Talmon asserted, in a text titled “The Homeland Is in Danger.”

Indeed, Israel’s military superiority, which makes possible the country’s continued existence even in the absence of a political settlement, continues to undermine its democratic, liberal character. No one knows whether its society will succeed in spawning forces that can put the lid on the processes of self-destruction inflicted on it by the conquest and subjugation of the Palestinian people. No one knows when the conditions will emerge that will cause the international community to demand in no uncertain terms an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

One need only observe the silence that seizes the Israeli left whenever the cannons roar to understand that the society here has not changed since the state was founded. It is basically a “mobilized” community that is incapable of shaking off the dominant nationalist and messianic trends. Furthermore, whereas the sources of power and influence of the political right have for decades resided outside Israel, left-wing circles count only those who attended the latest demonstration in the city square.

Under these conditions, the liberal, humanistic forces who are concerned about the future of Zionism cannot allow themselves to ostracize Israelis who wish to live outside the country’s territorial boundaries. Their emigration reflects not only an understandable desire for a better life – but also the aspiration for a better Israel. The emigrants are playing an important historical role in saving the democratic state from the destructive forces that are welling up from within it.

We should not make light of the political and social import of the presence of thousands of Israelis in Europe, Australia and the United States at a time when Israel’s international standing is at a nadir. The contribution of these “unauthorized agents” to Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry, to the image of the Jewish state and to the illumination of the deep crisis afflicting it, goes a little way toward offsetting the damage done by the false hasbara (PR) rhetoric of official Israel.

The voice of civil, democratic and humanistic society in Israel is fading. It needs more than a handful of intellectuals-in-exile of the old type: former members of protest and socialist-revolutionary movements like the Black Panthers (the Israeli version) and Matzpen, who would occasionally fire off an angry letter to Haaretz or to the (now-defunct) muckraking weekly Ha’olam Hazeh. The sane Israel needs a vibrant Zionist Israeli dispersion, social-critical multicultural and broad-horizoned, that will bud and blossom in better conditions than Israel itself allows at present.

This is not a call to "abandon ship," or to outsource the opposition to Netanyahu's politics of omnipotence. This is however a plea for broadening the idea of political agency in times of political impasse.

Bid the emigrants Godspeed and spare them the sermonizing. Their way is not an easy one, and it could well be that in the future their leaving will be acknowledged as a positive, formative act. Maybe even as a farsighted move on the road toward undoing the great debacle that has befallen Zionism.

The writer is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and historian. He is the author of "Freud in Zion: Psychoanalysis and the Making of Modern Jewish Identity" (Karnac Books, London, 2012 ).

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