From Bangkok through Berlin to Silicon Valley, about half a million Israelis live abroad. As a result of globalization and Israel’s changing demography, ’emigration’ is no longer perceived as a derogatory term, but as a legitimate option for people who wish to improve their lives. So why do Israelis leave, how do they choose their destination and will they ever come back?
Every Israeli travelling abroad knows that no matter where you land, which remote island you end up on, or which distant country you choose to visit, you’ll always meet an Israeli who lives there—and usually more than one.
But how many Israelis live outside Israel? The right answer is that no one really knows, and it depends on how the number is counted. According to figures compiled by the Central Bureau of Statistics, more than half a million Israelis went abroad from 1990 to 2015 and stayed there more than one year.
While there is an accurate number (527,000), no one knows exactly what they are doing there and the figures don’t distinguish between Israelis who emigrate for good, high-tech workers on a two-year relocation and discharged soldiers on a long post-military trip. During that period, about 230,000 Israelis returned to Israel after a long stay abroad.
So it’s impossible to point at an exact number of Israelis living outside Israel, but we can definitely assume that there are hundreds of thousands of them.
In the 1970s, the emigration debate became very emotional. Israeli emigrants were “the leftovers of weaklings” and were considered traitors. They had deserted a small country saddled with problems and security tensions in favor of the land of opportunity overseas.
Over the years, the discourse changed. As a result of the changing demography in Israel, the globalization and other variables, emigration is no longer perceived as a derogatory term, but as a legitimate option for people who wish to improve their lives.
Most Israelis leave for financial reasons. They are classic emigrants who wish to improve their financial situation by improving their education and professional status, through relocations and economic opportunities.
Reasons related to the security situation or to the local mentality have also been examined in the past but have turned out to be less significant than financial reasons. It’s safe to say other circumstances that are sometimes presented by emigrants as their reason for leaving are pretty insignificant compared to the financial issue.
The strong ones leave
According to Prof. Karin Amit, head of the MA program for Immigration and Social Integration at the Ruppin Academic Center, the average educational and professional profile of Israelis who emigrate abroad is higher than the Israeli average. In other words, the stronger ones leave.
According to research, emigration among the lower echelons of society is pretty low, and those who emigrate are usually people with family abroad or a specific opportunity.
Why is there such a difference in the emigrants’ profile?
“Not everyone can get up and decide to emigrate. Only a person who believes in himself, and thinks he can succeed in a new and challenging environment and improve his financial situation, will go for it. Someone who is afraid or has language barriers would usually prefer to remain in the familiar place.”
Where do Israelis emigrate to?
“Most go to the United States. According to estimates, about 70 percent of Israeli immigrants travel to the US, and mainly to the big cities—New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Miami and others.
“The profile of Israelis who travel to the US is higher than the profile of Israelis who emigrate elsewhere,” Prof. Amit adds. “They are more educated and financially stronger. The inequality level in the US is high, and you get more rewards for strong skills, so it’s worthwhile for skilled people to emigrate there of all places. When you look at the profile of Israelis in the US today, you see more families and older emigrants compared to other destinations.”
The second most popular destination among Israeli emigrants is Western Europe, and mainly Berlin and London. According to Prof. Amit, more young people and young families are emigrating to Europe, “sometimes without children yet. In this case too, it’s usually a financial consideration. They are young, educated people, they are more left-wing or have obtained a certain European passport.
“Since this is a relatively young emigration from the past few years, it’s hard to tell if they are going to stay there for long or eventually return to Israel, and we will have to monitor the numbers in the coming years.”
One of the hottest destinations for the Israeli emigrant is, without a doubt, Berlin. According to Prof. Gad Yair, author of the book “Love is not Praktish” about Israelis in the German capital, the source of attraction is the ability to provide an experience which is the complete opposite of the Israeli one.
“There, you can be whoever you want to be. It’s an experience of endless freedom. You have no family, no political or personal questions. Each person is a desert island. It creates a feeling of calm, relief and pleasantness. Not to mention the relatively low cost of living, the culture and the positive atmosphere, particularly towards the emigrants.”
What’s the average profile of Israelis in Berlin?
“It’s a relatively young profile, mostly comprised of students or young people at the beginning of their career. Many of them study for different degrees or come to learn the language and stay in the city for a while. Most of them return to Israel eventually, and it may be right to say that living in the city is a sort of pause in one’s life, and the majority don’t see it as a final dwelling place.”
Many in Israel are surprised that young Israelis are attracted to Germany of all places.
“There is an attraction, mainly because of the characteristics we mentioned, but Israelis who live in the city experience a lot of associations to the Holocaust—the train, the snow, the memorial sites. Israelis who live in the city share a unique experience, because the past reemerges.”
Prof. Yair explains that “most Israelis choose to come home, because the cultural gap is too big and they find it difficult to settle there for good. The Israelis will never be German, and their foreignness will always remain. Part of the difficulty has to do with the next generation: There isn’t a single Israeli who wants to raise a German child, and that’s bound to happen if you stay there and start a family.
“There is also something unsolved in an intimate relationship between Israelis and Germans. It’s based on emotional baggage related to national dignity. The State of Israel is in bed with you too. Israelis carry an extremely strong national baggage, and it’s expressed in the relationship and surrounding the sexuality issue.”
How is this difference reflected?
“The German mainstream is very different from what we are used to. Israeliness creates a person who doesn’t separate between thoughts and emotions, while in Germany there is a complete separation. In many situations, the German is purely rationalistic. Justice, justice, justice and no compassion. This encounter is very difficult for Israelis.
“It’s reflected in a radical way in people’s love life and intimate relationships. The Germans lead a practical love life, and the Israelis are amazed by it. There are situations in Germany in which local couples separate but keep living in the same house and even sharing the same bed, because it’s the practical thing to do. These situations discourage Israelis from staying. It’s hard to live in a country where the locals are so different from you.
Former Soviet immigrants arrive and leave
Another type of Israeli emigrants are people who made aliyah, stayed in Israel for a while and then moved on—mainly immigrants from former Soviet countries who stopped in Israel and then took off to places like the US, Germany and Canada. According to estimates, about 20 percent of the 1.3 million immigrants who arrived in Israel from the former USSR moved on to other destinations.
“We have to understand that the emigration from the Soviet Union was the result of strong urges, and they soon created a phenomenon of leaving like a ‘herd,’” says Prof. Amit. “The bloc was dissolved, the uncertainty was high, and there was a feeling that you have to move on.
“For the Jews, who also suffered from anti-Semitism, the clear destination was Israel. But if other options opened up to them after a certain period, some chose to move on, while other Jews who decided to immigrate to other destinations to begin with.”
To cut ties or keep in touch?
The world has changed and there is no doubt that the Israeli policy, which may be intertwined with the public atmosphere, is to keep in touch with the Israelis living abroad and strengthen their sense of Israeliness, even in other countries, rather than cut ties with them.
In this context, there are local activities known as “The Israeli House,” and there seems to be a lot less criticism towards the move. On the contrary, there is an attempt to emphasize the advantages—pro-Israel communities abroad and a connection with the second generation, which may come back to live here one day.
On the other hand, the connection between Israelis abroad and the “natural partners”—the Jewish communities—isn’t strong enough. According to Prof. Amit, most Israeli emigrants try to connect with local Israelis rather than with the Jewish communities.
“Most of them aren’t religious, and their Israeli descent is more dominant for their absorption than Judaism. They are more familiar with the Israeli than with the Jewish. They don’t emigrate to certain places because of their well-established Jewish communities, but to places with strong Israeli communities.”