Aliyah “nightmare” or just learning about Israel’s reality


A heart-wrenching blog post by Jay Engelmayer is making the rounds on English-language social media. In it  he describes how his family’s “aliyah dream turned into a nightmare.”  He says police raided his house looking for drugs.  They ransacked the place. Then they strip searched him and took him to a police station in Modi’in for interrogation.  His report says that he was “slapped” by the police.  “My daughter was sequestered from me and interrogated without representation.” He was “put in leg and arm shackles.”  He asked to be interrogated in English, but was not. “When I asked for an attorney after several hours of some physical and a lot of verbal abuse I was denied this request.”  Engelmayer was sent to house arrest for five days, he says, by the police. “My fifteen year old son was brought in for questioning the next day…and was interrogated without representation.”  He says “we were booked and processed without ever seeing a judge. Our DNA, fingerprints, and pictures were taken.”

The experience was traumatizing.  “During the investigation I was told repeatedly that my wife and I raised a whore and two drug dealers and would have our youngest taken away from us.”  He concludes that his aliyah (immigration) dream is over. “Our hearts, minds and spirits are no longer with Israel.”

Welcome to Israel.

Israel has been selling itself to generations of Jews as a homeland of the Jewish people.  In the early years the state was a recipient of large numbers of immigrants who came from countries that they could never return to.  Whether Holocaust survivors or Jews expelled from Muslim countries, Israel was their new home.

But there have also been many immigrants who came and have gone back or moved on. Some Iraqi Jews I’ve spoken to described how they were forced into barbed wire camps when they came to the country in the 1950s and referred to as “primitive savages” or “blacks” by the Yiddish-speaking elites. Those who could afford to and who came from good families back in Baghdad, found transport out of Israel, to the West.  There they became successful, while their relatives wallowed in Israel, sent to development towns, kept in separate education from Ashkenazi European Jews, and told that they should do menial labor.  Algerian Jews preferred immigrating to France in the 1960s, rather than Israel. Many Russian Jews also preferred America, until the Israeli authorities encouraged the closing of the refugee network that enabled them to go to the US.

Numerous reports detail the “alienation” immigrants feel and how over time groups like American and Ethiopian immigrants feel less Israeli over time. Studies show that immigrants are less likely to obtain higher education than their foreign born parents in some cases.  Despite 43% of French Jews being interested in Aliyah, many of the 15,000 who came in recent years have wanted to return or move somewhere else. 

The main problem is that Israel sells aliyah as a “dream” and packages it, especially for Western Jews, as if they are coming to a more Jewish version of their home country. Israel is just “mini-America” but with Jewish bus drivers.  The aliyah process is made as easy as possible.  But there is a kind of salesmanship involved, like selling time-shares.  It’s easy to get in, but then you find out the product isn’t what you thought.

The product in this case is Israel.

A bit of history

Since the foundation of the state Israel has had a troubled relationship with its immigrants.*  The country’s narrow-minded founding elites were primarily from Eastern and Central Europe.  They looked down on anyone who was not from their narrow milieu.  They sought to re-fashion the Jewish people through a crucible that would turn them into workers of the land and “human material” for the new state.  Zionism was far more an experiment in European nationalist revolutionary ideology, akin to the fascist and communist movements then popular in the 1920s when the Second Aliyah founders arrived, than it was an experiment in anything Jewish.  The mentality of the founding generation of Israel borrowed much of their aesthetics from the mid-century communist and socialist paradigm of mass society.  The individual had to disappear to serve the greatness of the state.  The visual similarities are clear, when one sees how Herzl was worshipped as a man-god, his photo on the podium of the early state, like Lenin or Stalin adorned the Communist party congresses.

As in the communist and fascist states, the Israeli state treated minorities abysmally.  Yet Israel’s official history and its fellow travelers in the West tended to present the country as a socialist utopia.  Aviva Halamish and Anita Shapira, the state-loving official historians of this period have constantly portrayed 1950s Israel as “egalitarian.”  Egalitarian in the Soviet sense.  How a state in which Arabs were kept in military curfew, similar to Algeria or South Africa or the way the US treated Japanese people during the war, was “egalitarian” is unclear from a modern liberal perspective.  Israelis will say “these were hard times, sacrifices were made.”  Indeed they were.

As if to coincide with the end of one regime and the beginning of another, Israel’s curfews ended in 1966, but then a new set of curfews began as Israel conquered the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai and the Golan. To consider this era “liberal” is to forget this was an era Israel was banning newspapers, its security services used torture openly, and it even banned the Beatles. There was a major rights deficit.  While the rest of the world was advancing civil rights and human rights and individual liberties, Israel was treading water or going backward.

It’s not Kansas

The origins of Israel’s security, police and bureaucracy borrows much from several regimes.  First of all it borrows from the emergency regulations of the British Mandate, basically the kind of regulations used by a colonial power to keep the locals in check.  It borrows bits from the Ottomans and then much from the Eastern European Soviet-style mentalities of the founders. It also borrows much culturally from the Middle East.  Israel could be compared to other hybrid countries like Malaysia or Turkey in its faulty view of individual rights blended with an attempt to be partly Western in outlook.

What this means is that just beneath the surface the veneer or legality and rule of law disappears.  This is obvious throughout Israel, whether it is lack of enforcement in building codes, the conquest of state land in the Negev by “unrecognized” villages, the invasion of public beaches by “kiosks” or illegal fencing on the Kinneret. Israel sought to aggrandize most everything in the hands of the state, but as with most centralized authorities that break down and rot from within, centralization leads to corruption, nepotism and eventually the eating away of public resources.

It is important to remember that the system of rule of law found within Israel is heavily influenced by the lack of rule of law in the West Bank, the areas Israel conquered in 1967.  Over the years around 500,000 Jewish citizens have been exported to the West Bank, while the millions of Palestinians there have been denied rights and citizenship either in their own state or Israel.  This has a corrosive affect.  The security forces in Israel have gotten used to administrative detention and other abuses, which are seen as normal.  There are few checks on the power of the authorities.

For some reason all of this is sold and packaged as “Western” and “American”, when in reality it has little in common with the larger trends in the West.  Into this system came unsuspecting immigrants.  Much of this is willful blindness on the migrants part.  They pretend they are moving to an American style democracy, many of them may even move to the West Bank and live next to Arabs who are denied basic rights, and never wonder about it.  They may never wonder why their Arab neighbor can’t drive to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, but why they as an immigrant have suddenly got more rights than a person born in the land 50 years ago.

Over time the western immigrant faces a choice.  Either they leave or they integrate and adapt.  Israel speaks about integration and what it means is accepting the Israeli system.  Go to the army, accept lower wages, accept segregated education, accept the fact you cannot afford a house, accept the fact that from the state’s point of view you are human material.  Jewish immigrants are surprised in Israel to find themselves treated by the police the way they thought only African-Americans were in the US, or the way they thought only happens to Palestinians.  They thought they got rights to an attorney and are shocked to find out minors are interrogated.  But these same people saw the video of the 14 year old Palestinian perpetrator of the Pisgat Zeev stabbing being interrogated by police and knew there was no lawyer present.  But they thought “it only happens to them.”  But of course it doesn’t “only” happen to them.  When a state tortures people, the torturer doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  He has a family and friends and he has doctors and an elite society that enable his torture.  He doesn’t deny rights in place X and then protect them in place Y. The corrosive affect of his abuses have a long tail.  The corrosive affects of checkpoints stay with those who man them for their whole life.  Sometimes Palestinians get the short end of the stick, and sometimes an American immigrant is seen as a Palestinian, because for people in authority, everyone is a Palestinian in a sense when the boot of power is put on.

In general the immigrant lives on borrowed time to some extent.  The fantasy in Israel is that he or she can “change things” and “make it like home” and “stand up to the system.”  But the system eats him up and breaks him or her down.  They either accept the situation and become “Israeli” or they leave.  Usually they carve out a little bubble of polite society and try to replicate “back home” for a time, like the British did in India.  But it is temporary.  Their children become “local” and eventually, like the Raj, they go “native” as well.  Proteksia, the hamula, the clan, it all becomes part of their new life. Perhaps they shelter inside a religious community, or they use their wealth to get inside a gated community.  But it will always be there, the shadow of the thing they don’t want to admit.  That Israel is not America.  It is not France.  It is not Australia or the UK.  It is an amalgam of Egypt, Mexico, Russia and Hungary.  It has good qualities to be sure.  But those qualities that people pretended would exist, like “right to an attorney” do not exist.

Welcome to Israel.


*This dim view of immigrants is constantly changing in Israel.  In the 1990s Israeli artist Meir Ariel suggested Russians should not have a right to vote until they “accepted” Israeli culture, and three years ago Gideon Levy claimed Russians have “crime in their blood.”



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