In Israel, just about every immigrant has some kind of “family” that isn’t family, a generous soul or two who took them in and helped make a foreign land home.
And so it was with me. My Ima was a powerful woman, of almost no height whatsoever but of bountiful girth. Born outside of Baghdad, she lied about her age to get into nursing school, to make the money she needed to get herself, her parents, and her seven brothers and sisters to Israel in 1951. She didn’t clear 5 feet, but she moved mountains.
When I was 18 years old, I had the marvelous fortune to meet and be overwhelmed by her. I spent years attending weddings and eating Seders with those siblings and their children; I never left Ima’s apartment without buckets of food to fill my fridge. She died soon after teaching me how to make Iraqi kubeh.
Among my Ima’s best efforts was her son, a man I call “Achi,” my brother. Widowed early, Ima raised him on her own, and he turned out great: handsome, confident, the proud father of three lovely children, owner of an unusually spacious home in a sleepy bedroom suburb of Tel Aviv, his yard full of running kids and bountiful fruit trees.
And now, he wants out.
Not out of the suburb — he wants out of Israel. Or more accurately, he wants to get his kids out.
Having struggled for years with a growing, deepening sense of frustration with how Israel is run and the direction in which it appears headed, he now writes me emotional e-mails, occasionally in tears, about not wanting his children to build their lives in the country to which his mother escaped.
“I have reached the sad conclusion,” reads one note, “that if I want any kind of future for my kids, it isn’t in Israel… it’s a good time to start conspiring to get them out of here!” Later, on the phone, I asked if part of his reasoning is a desire that his children not be drafted. “Yes,” he said simply.
When I made aliyah in the mid-1980s, all of this would have been anathema, to my Achi and to Israeli society in general. Just as aliyah literally means ascent, the Hebrew for emigration is also corporeal: yerida, descent. In the 1980s, yordim were discussed with open contempt. To suggest that your Jewish children would be better off not serving in the Jewish army? Unheard of.
But here we are, and my Israeli brother is not, by any measure, alone. In 2006, the Absorption Ministry reported that there were some 600,000 Israelis living abroad. In 2005, the Interior Ministry and Central Bureau of Statistics reported that some 25,000 people left the country in that year alone, up from 19,000 in 2004. By way of contrast, 2006 saw about 4,200 come back.
I know third-generation survivors of Nazi Europe who have taken out German passports so that they can move to the European Union. Then there are the friends who moved back to Israel after a temporary stay in the E.U. because their visas to Canada didn’t come through. More than half a dozen friends from my 14 years in Israel have decamped — including myself.
My Jerusalem-bred husband and I left over politics, not wanting to raise our children in a country that appears incapable of taking responsibility for the mess it created with the occupation. The friends who hoped to move to Canada were looking for a more stable economy. The Germans just wanted more options. My Achi, for his part, is sick of it all.
The economy, he says. The endless wars. The corruption, the lack of respect for individual efforts and needs, the overwhelming social exhaustion. He can take it, but he wants something better for his kids. Everything, he says, feels hopeless.
Indeed, no less a figure than Avraham Burg, the Orthodox former head of the Jewish Agency and speaker of the Knesset, now has French citizenship and recently called on any Israeli who can to take out a foreign passport. In promoting his new book, “Defeating Hitler,” he said that he had begun writing out of sense of mourning over the loss of Israel. “Israeliness,” he told Ha’aretz, “has only body. It doesn’t have soul.”
I would disagree with that last thought — indeed, it is that very soul that I miss most, out here in the Diaspora — but I, too, have been mourning the loss of Israel. I know what I believed when I arrived on its shores, I know what mattered to those friends who have left and I see where my home — my one, true home — stands today.
It’s no longer enough to insist that Jews must live in their state, no longer enough to call people names if they choose not to. Something has to give, something has to change.
Or, as my husband said on a recent visit back, “If they want me to live here, they need to give me a reason.”
Emily Hauser, an Illinois-based freelance writer, is a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.