Thursday, February 21, 2002


My former Y. came back from his trip to Hungary and decided to drop by Be’er Sheva to say hello a while ago. "Ephraim, It’s good to see you man!" he exclaimed giving me a powerful bear hug. I asked him what his plans are, and he announced that he was going back to Hungary to live as soon as possible.
I was shocked to say the least, because Y. is not the sort to leave. He’s no Oslo fan, he’s no devote of Shimon Peres, Y. is hardcore right wing. In the last elections, in the middle of the peace process, he voted for Moledet, the party of the late Rehavem Ze’evi, the party which is now advocating forcible transfer (expulsion) of the Arabs. "It’s all ours," he tells me, "every last inch of it, but I don’t want to live in it." When I ask him what attracts him to Hungary, he just says, "It’s peaceful." Not because Hungary isn’t at war, he explains, but just the atmosphere. People don’t yell at him all the time, they aren’t on the horn in a split second at a traffic jam, and they are all polite.
"In America, you get a better package," elaborates another friend who is moving to New York. "You can see that the people on the streets are calm, everybody is easy going, nobody has any problems." I am still trying to believe that it’s New York City that he’s describing.
"Living in the Diaspora was the best thing the Jews ever had, we were stupid to give it up," declares another acquaintance of mine. When I mention the Holocaust and all the horrors of the past 2,000 years of exile, he replies, "Yeah, but except for those the Diaspora was really great. I’m just looking for a girlfriend with a foreign passport. The shop is closing down and it’s time to get out." When I point to the university across the street, and the massive construction projects going on there, when I mention the million Russian immigrants who came in the last decade, when I point out that the Diaspora Jewish community is, at least statistically, experiencing rapid death, he just shrugs his shoulders. "Who cares."
All this talk makes me curious about my other friends. I ask my roommate G. if he would leave if he had the chance, "BETACH!" of course, he replies, "What is there to look for here? The only reason I’m not there right now is because I can’t afford the plane ticket. In America there is no unemployment, there is no crime, there are no taxes, there are no wars, everything is perfect." Would he marry someone Jewish? "It’s a new generation, who cares."
Living in Israel is easier said than done. It’s easy to dream or pray for the "Return of the Exiles," quite a different thing to try to live it. There is, of course, the constant state of warfare, the knowledge that millions upon millions of Muslims are out there dedicating their lives to destroying you, the three years of active duty military service combined with another two years of reserve that every Israeli has to do, and the terror. "It’s just going to go on and on forever. Everybody knows it, even Peres. They lose every single war, they lose more and more land every time, but they just don’t care, they keep attacking," my roommate explains.
But these are almost external things for most people. Army service can be fun and rewarding, you can get reserve duty over with, terrorism isn’t particularly dangerous, at least statistically. It’s the daily grind here that’s really a killer.
The basic fact is that it’s possible to live, but it seems impossible to get ahead. Each paycheck goes to pay last month’s rent and groceries. The banks don’t give interest, and even if they did, most people don’t have any money to put in them. You can tread water, but you can’t swim anywhere. A new car costs $50,000 minimum. Everybody is heavily in debt. If the average Israeli took the sum total of his income minus his debts, he would be dead five years before he was born. Whereas a tenured professor in the United States would make enough for an enormous house and two or three cars, the Israeli professors I know make do with a four bedroom apartment and an old Japanese station wagon if they’re lucky. The joke among American immigrants is, "How do you make a small fortune in Israel? Arrive with a large one."
And even if an Israeli does end up somehow getting rich here, he simply won’t have the time to enjoy his wealth. Israelis work six days a week, and up to twelve hours per day. It is possible to live the "good life" in Israel if you’re prepared to die at 55 of a stress-induced heart attack. Most middle-class Americans work eight hour days, and after six it’s free time all night long. That plus the two-day weekend means there’s even time to be bored!
Not only do Israelis make a bit less, but everything is much more expensive. Of course, you can buy the cheap Israeli stuff at the shuk, but it all falls apart. I learned the hard way that it’s much better to buy American stuff. "Even the cars they sell here are lousy," says my cousin Rafi, who is an insurance broker, "Even the exact same model and the exact same make of car that they sell in America! They use lousier parts on the ones they ship here because they know that Israelis just don’t know any better and expect their cars to be falling apart all the time." A bar of deodorant costs about $7 here, while in America I can buy a four-pack for $6. When any of my relatives visit America, they always come back loaded with toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, cosmetics, clothes, even frozen meat.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the oppressive tax burden, which is needed to fund the army, immigrant absorption, the Yeshivas, the state subsistence payments to the exponentially growing and chronically unemployed Arab population, all burdens which most societies don’t have, suck the life out of the economy. God help Israel if the $3 billion per year in American military assistance aid ever stops.
Everything in life is a struggle here. Even just getting to the front of a line (a line in Israel is shaped like a triangle) you have to push. When one of my relatives had a serious medical problem, she had to go to the hospital to have an MRI scan. When she arrived, the doctor told her she wasn’t on the list and she would have to wait a few months even though she was clearly in great pain and it was an emergency. Eventually, her husband found out that he knew the plumber of the building, who threatened to cut off the water to the Magnetic Resonance Imaging department if the chief doctor didn’t admit her immediately, so he did. Two Israelis having a heated discussion sounds to most outsiders like a roomful of people screaming at each other. You feel that you have to yell at the top of your lungs just to be heard.
All of this with the feeling of being locked in a ghetto. Israel is an absolutely tiny country. No matter where you are in the country, to drive half an hour west will take you to the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, to drive half an hour to the east will land you in the prison of some third world Arab country, and now you have to be careful where you’re driving inside the country because one wrong turnoff will land you in the clutches of the Palestinian Authority. Ramallah, where the two Israelis were brutally tortured and lynched a year ago in front of the cameras by the Palestinian Authority, is a fifteen-minute drive from downtown Jerusalem. Never mind that Silwhan and East Jerusalem are only five minutes away. Sometimes, you can even just stay where you are and the suicide bombers will come to you. Tulkarm, a major Palestinian center for terrorist bombings on the Israeli city of Hadera, is only an hour away from Hadera by foot.
It all adds up to a feeling of discomfort, like the land is trying to spit you out. Every inch of territory, every shekel in the bank, every minute of sleep is a constant struggle. In order for someone to decide to live in Israel, there needs to be some sort of counterbalance to the equation to make the struggle to be worthwhile. When an Israeli can’t answer the question, "How can you stand to live in this place," then it’s only a matter of time before he leaves. Today one in nine Israelis doesn’t live in Israel.
The difference between the people who leave and those who stay is like the difference between people who love their work and those who hate it. If you have a job you hate, or you aren’t suited for, every minute seems to take an hour, every hour an eternity. Small problems become frustrating and it becomes difficult to understand new ideas. For someone who loves his job, the days fly by, and every problem is a new challenge to overcome.
The main draw to Israel today is no longer Zionism or Jewish national liberation, it’s religion. Everybody who has told me that he wants to leave is secular, everybody who has told me that he wants to stay is religious. I am yet to find an exception to this rule. While most of the immigrants of today come from Russia and other decaying countries, when these immigrants find out that I came from America, they always ask me with bewildered expressions, "Why!?" Most secular or non-Jewish Russian immigrants with whom I have spoken view Israel as a stepping-stone to greater things, a way station on the way to America. Immigrant benefits provide an education and a recognized degree which will be very useful upon arrival in the United States.
Succeeding in Israel requires a certain level of acceptance. The happy Israeli has to tell himself, "It’s okay, I’m not going to live with everything. I’ll have one car instead of two, my house will have one story instead of two, I’ll stop drinking Coca-Cola all the time and drink the lousy Israeli version." The Talmudic saying goes, "Who is rich? He who is happy with his portion."
I asked my religious roommate S. whether he could ever imagine living in the United States. He paused for a quarter second before replying, "No, never." When I mention that I will have two years of army service if I decide to make aliyah, he immediately replies, "Do it! And try to get into a combat unit. It’s hell, but the army was the best thing I ever did in my life."
When I ask the secretary at work why she moved from France, the answer is simple, "What is there in France for a Jew?"
To the proud immigrant, being poor becomes a distinction. "When I first came from Canada and married, we had nothing, and our apartment flooded every winter," my cousin tells me, "we built furniture out of scrap wood, Styrofoam, and cardboard boxes, but it was really fun!"
Emigration, known in Hebrew as "Yeridah," or "descent," is a very serious problem. Shimon Peres’ "New Middle East" philosophy, in which he attempted to turn the Middle East into a borderless common market, was supposed to be a secular remedy to the problem. Israel was to become a wealthy merchant hub, the Hong Kong of the Middle East, distributing goods and services throughout the Arab world. Even if the peace process had succeeded, the "New Middle East" wouldn’t have done anything to help with Yeridah. No matter how rich Israel becomes, the United States will always be richer. No matter how calm the situation may be between wars, there’s always another war around the corner. Yeridah takes away the best educated segment of society, it is Israel’s version of the "Brain Drain." Worse, those who leave Israel, especially the non-observant, lose the anchors of Jewish identity and face the prospect of assimilation. Those who leave may not be the idealists or the dreamers, and I may have my political differences with them, but each and every loss is an inestimable tragedy both to Israel and to them, and I for one will miss them.

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