On a visit to Eastern Europe last week, Yair Lapid, Israel’s telegenic finance minister, wrote a defiant yet innocent-seeming Facebook post: “A word to all of those who are ‘fed up’ and ‘leaving for Europe,’,” he began,
I happen to be in Budapest at the moment. I came to give a speech in parliament against anti-Semitism and to remind them how my father was almost murdered here because the Jews had no state of their own; how my grandfather was killed in a concentration camp; how my uncles were starved; how my grandmother was saved from a death march at the last moment. So forgive me if I’m a little impatient with those who are willing to throw away the only country the Jews have because it’s easier to live in Berlin.
Lapid’s harsh words appeared to be directed at the subjects of a highly rated new documentary show, which examines the lives of Israelis living abroad. The show is called “The New Yordim,” the last word being a semi-derogatory term in Hebrew used to describe expatriates. Yordim means “those who descend,” as opposed to olim, people who immigrated to Israel, or, literally, “those who ascend.” The charged terminology provides a clue into how divisive the phenomenon of uprootedness is—and has always been—in Israeli society. (Yitzhak Rabin once called Israeli expatriates “a debris of weaklings.”)
At first glance, the numbers seem to justify the alarm: more than half a million Israelis, or about seven per cent of the population, live abroad, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. The majority resides in the U.S. or in Canada, but recent years have also seen a booming Israeli community take root in Europe, especially in Berlin. The expatriates tend to be young and educated, in search of graduate degrees or better-paying jobs—part of the famous “brain drain” that is changing the entire developed world and against which many politicians have railed.
The truth behind these numbers paints a different picture, however: the statistics define as an expatriate anyone living overseas for at least a year. (I am one of them, and so, by the way, is Lapid, who spent several years in the U.S.) Yet, ask these people where they see themselves in five or ten years, and many of them would not flinch before answering: in Israel. Their reasons for leaving are largely financial or educational. Yes, some settle down in their adopted countries, but a surprising number of them come back. In 2010, for example, fifteen thousand Israelis left the country, but ten thousand returned. These extended trips abroad, therefore, represent a stepping stone for many Israelis, a prolonged layover on a journey whose final destination is Israel. (Some fields of work, admittedly, make it easier to return than others. In academia, the situation in Israel is dire. Two of this year’s Nobel Laureates in chemistry, which was announced yesterday, are Israeli citizens who had left the country; one of them complained that he couldn’t find tenure.)
Yet Lapid chose to ignore the financial squeeze that was driving Israelis away. If, in writing his diatribe, he was hoping to ride a wave of shared indignation, he could not have predicted that the tide would swiftly shift and come crashing over him. [… Read more]