There’s a new rest stop on the classic Israeli road from the military to backpacking around the world: the tchotchke-laden kiosks that dot the arteries of most shopping malls. Thousands of young Israelis have been trading their M16s for aromatherapy pillows, nail buffers and foot cream.
Shot in the knee two years ago during a paratrooper training session, Liran, 22, can’t lift boxes, so working as a mover, as Israeli expats have for decades, was not an option. Therefore, when it came time to earn some money to fund his post-military travels, he went to the mall.
Liran has been selling ocean-view tableaus that are backlit to look like real windows. He lives in a two-bedroom New York walkup with Royi, his best friend since kindergarten, who sells cell phone accessories in a suburban mall, and with Tom, a similarly employed friend from his combat unit. They met their fourth roommate, Sagi, at the mall.
[Because working in the United States violates the terms of their tourist visas, those interviewed for this story asked that only their first names be used and that their specific places of employment be obscured.]
Kiosk owners have been known to wait outside the Israeli army base for the recently discharged. Breathless ads in Israeli papers promise big bucks manning carts, or agalot, in America. Having worked the carts once, many come back just to rake it in at Christmas, when weekly earnings for a good salesman can equal months of wages back home.
“People are making more money here than their parents do,” said Tal, a mall worker on Long Island. “Their parents, who work in nice offices.”
Chain-smoking in what passes for their living room, Liran and his roommates agree on one thing: There are no opportunities in Israel. “Everyone gets out of the army and is searching for themselves,” Liran said. “I don’t have the energy to search for myself in Israel.”
Royi nods emphatically. “There’s nothing to do in Israel. If you go to school, you have to get your master’s degree.” A mere bachelor’s degree, he said, is worthless. And a master’s isn’t much better.
Whether the exodus of Israel’s youth is the product of “a high degree of alienation” or whether they’re just taking a “time out” after fulfilling their military duties remains the subject of much debate, as Chaim Noy and Erik Cohen write in the introduction to their anthology “Israeli Backpackers: From Tourism to Rite of Passage” (SUNY Series in Israeli Studies, 2005). Globe-hopping Israelis are often paradoxical creatures. While outgoing soldiers may talk of shunning Israel and Israelis, they nevertheless will rotate from one Israeli enclave to another, whether in the United States or elsewhere. They may seek to cut off ties with the Israel Defense Forces, but they will often talk in military terms long after the uniforms have been turned in.
When hawking heavily marked-up products like Dead Sea cosmetics, Israeli swagger is sometimes a must. Being Israeli is less handy, however, when it comes to the ladies, Liran and his roommates complained. “Girls hear you’re from Israel, and they’re totally disappointed,” Liran said. “They think you’re some barbarian.” The boys have learned
their lesson: Claim to be Italian. Tom, a Yemenite Jew with fine cheekbones and an easy charm, is used to the fear in the eyes of customers who assume he is Muslim. He doesn’t mind, in part because the Arabs working nearby also assume he’s one of them. Where are they from? “I don’t know, and I don’t want to know,” he said. “And I don’t want them to ask me.”
Having entered on tourist visas, the kiosk workers are under constant threat of arrest and deportation, and Homeland Security already has caught a few dozen. There are signs that a federal crackdown is under way,
In a poll conducted last year, 27% of Israelis aged 15 to 18 told the Israel Democracy Institute that they did not plan on remaining in Israel. Almost half the same group said they did not “feel a part of Israel and its problems,” while 73% of those over 18 said they did. Adults cited the economy when asked to diagnose why Israelis left the country, while teens overwhelmingly blamed the security situation.
Such shifts have not escaped the notice of government officials. “We have to encourage young people to stay in Israel and develop by finding appropriate jobs,” Knesset member Michael Nudelman said last year. “That will require a change of the state’s image. A country that does not protect its human resources is suicidal.”
To be a what is called a freier — loosely translated as “sucker” — is the greatly unexpressed fear of an Israeli, particularly an Israeli man. For the ex-soldiers now stationed in America’s malls, there is no better illustration of the freier than the American shopper. Essentially, an Israeli would have to be a freier not to take advantage.
“Israel is a country at war, where people yell and cut you in line, where people are uncivilized,” Tal said. “So when the Israeli comes to America, he sees the people here are so naive, what’s he going to do? An Israeli thinks two steps ahead. What does the Israeli do here? He gets here and says, ‘Look what idiots Americans are. They buy any kind of crap. I’ll start my own business!’”
Yet this is what draws so many Israeli youth: the quiet. They’ll express contempt for American society, but admit to envying the ease of daily life here. The idea that the future can be planned for, that being a law-abiding cog in the machine might get you something other than screwed by the system, is intoxicating. It’s the surrender of forgetting the fear to which no one wants to admit.
Still, many say they’ll go home. “There’s nowhere like Israel, as disgusting as it is.… I can’t believe I’m even saying that,” Royi said, wincing. “But there’s no place like Israel.” As usual, Liran has it figured out: “In Israel, there’s everything but no money. Here, there’s nothing but money.”
For now, though, they’re going to stay away for as long as possible.
“We gave of ourselves,” Liran said. “How much can you give? You can’t give your whole life up. At the end, the country’s not worth that.”