Israeli Emigration Isn't a Crisis, It's an Opportunity

Discussions about emigration from Israel too often resemble the discourse about divorce: Any parting is perceived as a tragedy, even if the couple’s relationship was stifling and made them miserable.

Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
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An Israeli protester wears an 'I love Berlin' T-shirt at a Tel Aviv rally.
An Israeli protester wears an 'I love Berlin' T-shirt at a Tel Aviv rally.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

The countless columns written following this summer’s Operation Protective Edge, and more recently in the wake of the “Milky pudding protest,” deal with the question of emigration from countless angles and raise important questions: Is this about socioeconomic privilege? Are the émigrés “traitors,” heroes, or just people who have gotten fed up? Is moving to Berlin essentially different from moving to any other Western destination? And is an Israeli woman who self-identifies as someone who cares about her country’s future and the future of the Palestinians behaving selfishly and irresponsibly when she decides to leave?

Without going into detail about the answers that were given to these questions (and yes, it is an important discussion), one of the problems raised by the articles published recently in Haaretz is that even the greatest supporters of the immigration option have internalized, to some extent, the national narrative – according to which it is of necessity a trauma.

Accordingly, most of the articles on the topic open with a sentence such as “Immigrating is always difficult, but...” with the rest of the article devoted to the “but,” not to questioning the assumption that immigration is a crisis, a tragedy and an irreversible loss.

As one who has spent much of the past decade outside Israel (I lived in Amsterdam for a year and moved to New York four years ago), I feel it is important to offer an alternative point of view that does not duplicate existing patterns of discourse, according to which we must be born and die in the same place, as if we were salmon.

For all practical purposes, the assumption that immigration is a terrible trauma creates a double injustice: First, it adopts the national narrative, which states that a person can thrive and develop only in the place where he was born and raised. Second, it dismisses the complex but positive immigrant experience of myriad Israelis who reinvented themselves outside Israel’s borders.

Treating emigration as a crisis utterly ignores an entire generation of Israelis who grew up on the Western ethos of choice as a tool for personal development: We choose what to see and when by downloading and streaming; what to buy and where by consumer awareness and comparison shopping; the digital narrative adopted by many Israelis promotes change as a way of life and a goal in itself. But when it comes to emigration, it seems the discourse is still stuck somewhere in the 1970s, when people who left Israel were called “yordim” (“those who go downward”), or left only to work as emissaries or to study, and always promised that their return was only a matter of time.

It is precisely for this reason that it is important to mention that emigration – just like couplehood or parenthood – is a complex human experience with various modes of expression, often unexpected, for different people. For many young people, emigration is not a default option that stems from despair over the political situation or frustration with the high cost of living in Israel, but a rare opportunity to start again, to emerge from the stifling Israeli closet.

The closet, in this case, is not just a metaphor for sexual identity. It is also a metaphor for one’s religious, national, political and work identity. Through countless invisible mechanisms whose existence we have learned to ignore, Israel is a country that goes not only into its citizens’ pockets but also into their wombs and bedrooms.

In this sense, “coming out of the closet” can be identifying not only as gay or lesbian, but also the ability of a woman over 30 to state publicly that she is not interested in having children without having admired writers diagnosing her as mentally ill.

That is why the discourse of trauma that accompanies any discussion about emigration resembles the discourse about divorce: Any parting is perceived as a tragedy, even if the couple’s relationship was stifling and made them miserable; even if separating enables each member of the couple to find someone more suitable.

Emigration by choice – unlike being a refugee, which is a traumatic situation that is totally different – is a rare opportunity to enrich our lives, get to know new cultures and languages, and leave behind the national baggage and the narrow closet that tells us what to think, what to wear and how to live.

True, emigration could be a crisis and in many cases it is even experienced as one. But it can also be a life preserver – a possibility that there is no sense in denying.

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