The Real Reason Young Israelis Are Leaving the Country

It’s not just the cost of living that attracts Tel Aviv’s young, educated and secular elite to the idea, if not the reality, of living abroad – but a broader sense of political and social claustrophobia.

Arthur Pacalet
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The Tel Aviv beachfrontCredit: Tal Cohen
Arthur Pacalet

Over the last few weeks, Israel’s media has been embroiled in a stormy debate - picked up in abundance by the international press as well - about the so-called “Aliyah to Berlin” of its younger generation and one of its apparent triggers, the “Milky pudding debate”, concerning the high costs of living in Israel. Articles have examined what is the real cost of living in Germany, whether or not these “olim [immigrants] to Berlin” are traitors and long paragraphs on the numbers of Israelis settling there.

In fact, there are no statistically accurate figures about Israelis leaving for Germany – simply because the criterion used by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics can’t measure aborted attempts of less than a year, nor does it count Israeli students enrolling abroad as a first step to leaving Israel more permanently.

But the truth is that it doesn’t really matter. What really matters is that almost 40% of Israeli youth are willing to leave their homeland and intend to build their lives elsewhere.

If this debate were being conducted pragmatically, journalists and politicians would refrain from using derogatory terms that view these young people as ‘spoiled children’ – the contemporary economic equivalent of the old 1970s Israeli expression nefolet shel nemoshot (“the fallen among the weaklings”). Examining this mostly young, educated, middle-class, secular population's reasons for emigration could enable us to understand what drives the loss of this cultural, economic and political capital. The motivations that they give for emigrating actually give us substantial information about an important population's expectations for Israel as a state, a country and a society, their aspirations for the future and their daily disappointments. Moreover, their peers, even those with no intention to leave, are likely to share similar concerns.

What I found in researching my thesis on Israeli emigration (conducting my field work in Tel Aviv through abundant discussions and formal interviews with a focus group of the upcoming Israeli economic, social, cultural and political elite - 21-35 year old, educated, middle-class secular citizens) was that though the cost of living is definitely a motive for departure, various, often unexpected aspects also motivate such a difficult decision. The expectations about the attractions of “somewhere else,” be it Berlin, New York or London, are broader and far more complex.

Escaping Israeli confinement

There’s a recurrent term that arises when Tel Avivians explain their motives to possibly emigrate (or their emigration ‘aspirations’): Confinement. In every single discussion, as well as in many articles written on this subject, the same word is articulated. Digging deeper into this expression, the findings show that this notion covers a vast array of different topics.

The individual’s economic situation is considered a daily burden and a constant challenge in making ends meet. Even when working hard, the young generation is convinced that they won’t make it: They’ll never be able to buy an apartment, and have to keep constant tabs on supermarket receipts. Overall, it’s impossible for them to save money “just in case”, which makes them feel as if they are in a constant state of relative instability. They blame Israel’s whole labor architecture: Limited wages, unsafe work contracts and extensive working hours.

In this highly competitive and uncertain economic environment, there's no choice but to use kombinot (dubious business deals) and protektzia (favoritism or nepotism) in order to make it. This creates a dissonance in the minds of the young Israelis themselves: They condemn these backhand strategies and are seeking a truer meritocracy where they will be judged by their personal capabilities and professional efficiency alone. The Israeli reality they encounter means that the inescapable conclusion is that they can scarcely prove their worth in this economically oppressive place.

“Tel Aviv is a kibbutz” is another kind of claustrophobia that the interviewees frequently cite. It’s the sensation of knowing everyone in one's specific social environment – and vice versa, of being known by everybody from the same social environment – and is shared by many of this generation. In a country of eight million inhabitants, the impression (just as potent if imagined if not real) of social asphyxia feeds the feeling of confinement. The perceived smallness of the country and its lack of open spaces add a strong element of physical suffocation. This is aggravated by the fact that Israel’s eastern border (the West Bank) hasn’t been totally fixed, nourishing spatial uncertainty. Furthermore, the "Holy Land" as a whole has high nationalistic and religious symbolic value, adding a symbolic suffocation to its psychologically unsettling smallness.

Additionally, the violence to which Israelis are exposed, both from outside and inside the society, is often depicted as a motive for departure. The continuous risk of danger manifested through regular eruptions of terror, let alone war, not only causes stress to individuals, but also brings rise to oppositional opinions regarding how to respond. Israeli society is also further polarized on social and economic bases, as well as religious standards. This stressful, oppressive environment intensifies the desire to escape.

“I give much more than I get:” Demanding one’s fair portion

The notion of an unequal distribution of the burden (of citizenship, taxation, personal sacrifice) and of “giving more than I receive” are recurrent sentiments and cover large parts of these Israelis’ daily lives. Through their project of expatriation, educated youth express their grievances to the political and intellectual élite, as well as their disaffection with historic Israeli institutions.

The failure of the 2011 social justice protests (organized outside of the historic Israeli collective institutions, not least the Histadrut meta-trades union) alongside corruption charges against politicians and politically-connected tycoons, further fuels the feeling of disconnection between the middle-class and the political sphere.

The historic political parties and their representatives are considered impotent and unwilling to face social demands, and the new centrist party, Yesh Atid, which put these concerns at the head of its manifesto, seems to have disappointed most of its voters. Such disappointment rubbed off on the entire administration and its public services, especially social and health care, which are strongly criticized as inefficient and inadequate for the middle-class. Hence, the feeling of paying too much for taxes, without receiving the services for which they are contributing. All the more so as all citizens have the duty to contribute a long period of their youth to the state through their military service. If most of the sample I interviewed completed their service and consider it a civic duty, they deeply regret - and resent - the gap between their individual sacrifice to society and the quality of services they receive in return.

All these claims and frustrations point to the need for a re-evaluation of the Israeli social contract. Historical institutions and national myths are neither considered and debated enough nor supported by the country’s intellectual élites. A young, European-oriented generation, the future élite of Israel, is expressing a feeling of abandonment, whether it acts on this by actual emigration or no. Seeing no future for their expectations in Israel, some reluctantly decide to leave the country in order to satisfy what they consider to be their needs. In such a context, cheaper pudding won’t save Israel, but actual debate and bold political changes might.

Arthur Pacalet is a student in political science and public affairs. He studied at Sciences Po (France) and Tel Aviv University. His thesis on Israeli emigration was written under the supervision of the French Research Center in Jerusalem.

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