By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
The Wall Street Journal has published a blog by Jennifer Lang describing the “10 things I wish I’d known before moving to Israel.” She describes herself as an American-born, French-by-marriage and Israeli-by-choice who moved to Israel in 1989. She seems to have spent five years in the country before moving abroad and then returning when her son enlisted in the Israeli army.
The narrative of what she wishes she knew boils down to a list of faux-negative traits that are all actually positive in the article. People need “thick skin” and “chutzpah” because the country has high levels of “humane” bureaucracy, which is due to the place being “one big family.” People are superstitious and nosey, but it’s really due to their “organic” kindness. The country likes its soldiers, doesn’t plan well, but everyone keeps moving forward, she claims.
That’s nice and all, part of the overall story many people who move to Israel tell themselves. The country is tough they say, but that’s its good quality. They need to convince themselves they didn’t make a catastrophic mistake by moving to Israel, and over time Israel grinds their expectations down and convinces them not to demand better. So every failure of Israel gets turned around into a positive. People shout at you in line and honk their horns incessantly, but that’s just because they are being “family”, it couldn’t be that also in Barbados many people are “family” and yet they don’t abuse eachother everyday. In Israel people are shouted at and cursed almost everyday, especially if they ride public transit or have to be around people too often. There is no other country I’ve been to, and I’ve been to 80 of countries at least, where regular public abuse of people by shouting and cursing and grinding them down, is normal. Is it “familial” or is it part of domestic violence? Families abuse eachother as well. What if the real story is that Israel’s “family” is abusive and rude. It’s not “chutzpah”, it’s long-term harm to people.
It is important for people to arm themselves with knowledge so they won’t be disappointed and also to question some of the received wisdom about Israel.
My list of ten things I’d like to have known about Israel would be a bit different. Here are some that jump to mind.
1) Israel is an expensive country where housing is not affordable: Unless you bring around $500,000 to Israel, you will never be able to afford a decent sized house in this country. The longer you live in the country and the more you settle down with a family, the less likely are the chances you will be able to have financial dignity. Average salaries range around 10,000-13,000 NIS a month (median salaries are even worse at 6,000 NIS), whereas the price of only a small apartment is 1.5 million NIS. There is no possibility to have a single family house with land in Israel. You will live in an attached apartment, unless you are a member of the privileged 1% of Israelis with connections or willing to live in a settlement in the West Bank (and even then you won’t have your own house). Moving to Israel sentences your family to financial difficulty and likely financial ruin. Whereas if you are American, your ancestors likely moved to the US with minor finances and made money, you will make the opposite journey. Israel is a country economically structured to keep you as nearly poor as possible. You are expected to give to the country, the country does not give to you.
2) Israel is a segregated society: Despite the stories one may hear abroad, Israel’s education system is 99% segregated between Jews and Arabs. Even between Jews, your children will be segregated into classes that are are for the religious, the national-religious or the secular. Your community will be segregated, such that it will be most likely 99% Jewish. If you’ve come for Jewish nationalist reasons or even due to those very Jewish-centric “light unto the nations” reasons, you will be in a community that is almost 100% Jewish and your friends will be almost 100% Jewish. Even if you try to have friends from other backgrounds, the overall culture mitigates and works against you maintaining those relationships. The best you’ll do is find some “coexistence” group where you might meet an Arab for coffee in some contrived setting. In short you will trade an immensely diverse society that values multi-culturalism for a regimented entirely Jewish society. Of course you can take solace in the fact you’re trading an effete de-racinated Western society for a muscular national one.
Those who move to Israel on aliyah enjoy more rights than Palestinians who have lived in East Jerusalem for generations, and many more rights than Palestinians living in the West Bank. Don’t pretend you’re moving to some wonderful democracy in the Middle East, it’s a country of deep democracy deficit.
3) Israel has a racism problem: Israelis are tremendously racist and full of stereotypes for everyone that is different. Ethiopian Jews are “cushim”, the Israeli equivalent of the n-word. Arabs are “those Arabs” and “those primitives” or “terrorists”. Jews who happened to have come from Yemen or Iraq are “Mizrahim” and are regarded by elite culture as uncultured and less intelligent than “Ashkenazim”. If you are Ashkenazi, you will be expected to embrace this new invented “Ashkenazi” identity as an ethnic identity and encouraged to think of yourself as superior, just for having been born with a European-Jewish last name. You will be expected to learn the Israeli terms for the “others”. Mizrahi Jews are “arsim” and Orthodox religious Jews are “dosim”. Everyone is seen is an other and often as a “threat”. So you’ll be expected to feel that Orthodox Jews, who might have lived in your neighborhood before you even got there, are a “threat” to the secular “life”. Mizrahi Jews are said to be “racist” and they are claimed to be at fault for the “right wing government.” Over time you’ll be expected to only associate with people “like yourself”, which means joining one of these balkanized groups and raising your children only around “our kind” and wanting to maintain your community as “us only.” You’ll be expected to blame all the other groups for the failings of society, so that religious Jews who don’t go to the army are “parasites” and Arabs are a “demographic threat.” You’ll discuss openly these “threats” over dinner with friends. The “settlers” threaten the state through bi-nationalism, and the radical left does also, everyone is out to get you. Only your kind are the “good ones” who if not for you the state would collapse. Eventually you’ll grow to hate most of the people in society who are different, and your hatred of them will be reinforced by your friends.
4) Israel has acceptance committees: Abroad we are told that Israeli kibbutzim are wonderful utopian societies. In Israel you’ll soon realize that as a citizen you can’t move to most communities in the country, especially no where outside a city. Cities are for you, the rural communities, where people relax in swimming pools and have nice homes with gardens and breath fresh air, those are for groups that maintain their community through an “acceptance committee”. That means if you want to move to any community outside a city, around 1,000 places in Israel, you must beg to be “accepted.” That means submitting handwriting samples, proving that your family has similar “social” origins as the people there, that you are the same ethnic and religious category as the people there, and that you will be part of the “community.” Unless you’ve grown up in a youth movement abroad like HaBonim and already been socialized to be a “member” of these apartheid-fraternities, you won’t even know the lingo of how to move to these places. In short, you’ll be a second class citizen in “your” new country. But it’s ok, you’ll tell yourself, because the Arabs and other citizens are even worse off. And anyway, “who wants to live in a rural community.”
5) You’ll be hated: Israelis are disliked by their own people and by countries around them and other people in the world. For no reason, you’ll find that you are hated. People abroad, friends from high school or university, will doubt your choices for moving to Israel. You’ll be seen as supporting “apartheid” and “fascism”. In my experience I was shocked to be called a “fascist” and “collaborator” while speaking at a conference at Ben-Gurion University. I was called “collaborator” for sharing a scholarly study that concluded Bedouin indigenous claims to the Negev are problematic. The accusation came from someone who is an academic and whose salary is paid for by the state. I was a “collaborator” with Israel, despite not being employed by Israel, but he was not. After I was called fascist and collaborator I wondered why the other academics present did not defend me at the time, or denied it happened. I realized that I, a foreigner, was a “fascist”, even though these academics daily serve the state of Israel. For them a “fascist” is anyone who disagrees. In another incident a Jewish activist in America who once worked for JTA and is invited to many Jewish events said my place of work should be burned down and threatened my family, for something that had nothing to do with me. He was angry about an editorial at the newspaper I work at, which was written when I was even on vacation.
I find it odd that it was only in Israel that I was called a “fascist” and I was wished hatred on by other Jewish activists and academics. For what? I’m not a fascist. I believe in equal rights. But I was called a fascist because Israel allows many Jewish extremists to become unhinged in their debates and discussions. They call other Jews “Nazis” frequently, and say the most terrible things. Hatred in debate about Israel is common. It is one of the few places a Jew will routinely be hated by other Jews. That is a difficult fact to wrestle with.
Israelis are hated, unfairly, and you’ll be hated by your own society and by people abroad. In Israel there is daily hate speech and incitement by different groups against eachother. Rabbis incite against Reform Jews, academics write about how they support ISIS or support terrorism, other people say that Orthodox Jews should be expelled or exterminated. No matter what group you belong to, the anger and hatred against Israel and within Israel will be directed at you at some point. You’ll also find traveling abroad that now you are cognizant more of being Israeli and the risks you might be taking.
Many Israelis have stereotypes and a chip on their shoulder against foreigners. When they argue they will quickly devolve into bashing you for being a “damn French person” or a “stupid American.” You’ll find yourself scorned by those you thought were your “brothers” and of course disliked by Palestinians who see you as a “settler invader” and foreigners and others. In one place hated for being “Israeli” and in another for not being “one of us Israelis.”
6) You’ll always be an outsider: The dream of aliyah to Israel promises “instant Israeliness”, which means you’ll feel “Israeli” after a few weeks, but over time that will fade and everyday will remind you how much you’re not from here. The longer you’re in Israel the more you feel like an immigrant and not a “vatikim” or “veteran Israeli” or “sabra.” Subtle things, like not having served in the army, or being in a youth group, or growing up as part of a close-knit homogenous community, will make you realize over time that you mostly only associate with other outsiders. Some will find their way towards membership, but most will not. Many will leave Israel. You’ll find that up to 80% of immigrants leave (in the group that came in 2004 to Hebrew University with me this was the case). You’ll also find that the more patriotic you are and the more you “love” Israel, the more you find Israelis dislike Israel and are leaving Israel. They’ll be aghast how you gave up your life abroad, as they narrate how their children all want to move to America and Berlin. You’ll wonder if perhaps you were encouraged to come to Israel just to fill the gaps in the patriotic line, while others take leave.
7) Things are too expensive and tycoons run it all: One day you’ll realize after living in Israel for a while that none of your friends have cars and that having a car is a luxury. Taking your family on a picnic is a “luxury” rather than normal. More than a few days vacation is a “luxury”. You’ll wonder why it is that a Swiss chalet is cheaper than a dank and disgusting hotel room in Eilat. You’ll wonder why Europeans can fly all around Europe for a few hundred dollars, but you can’t afford to fly to Cyprus because of the price gauging local airlines and monopolies. iPhone products are 50% more expensive. If you want to bring a computer to Israel, prepare to pay high taxes. Fedex in Israel is some sort of different company that is “Fedex” in name only. Meat in Israel is substandard and over-priced. And if you want cheese? Prepare to spend $50 just for a bit of good cheese. Forget fresh salmon, it says its “fresh”, but its probably not. And beer? Beer is $8 for some reason for a pint. In short, prices in Israel are like the posh bits of New York or London, but wages in Israel are like Greece and Hungary. You’ll wonder why a few families seem to control the whole Israeli economy and why choice is lacking. Things are getting better, you’ll say, but you still have no money at the end of the month. But at least you’re not like most Israelis, in overdraft.
8) You can still hitchhike: In most countries hitchhiking is a one-way ticket to being a statistic. But in Israel, you can still hitchhike. That’s part of the national solidarity that still exists in the country, which is lacking in Western countries. It’s nice to pick up hitchhikers and you’ll meet lots of interesting people, especially young people, full of energy and hope.
9) There is almost no crime: Unlike some countries where some areas of cities are “no go zones” and you aren’t comfortable walking home at night, Israel is a country with low levels of street crime. There are very few murders. There are no car-jackings or pick-pockets. You can basically feel very safe. That is also related to national solidarity and the fact that people are dealing with conflict and terrorism. Even though the police in Israel tend to be incompetent and dysfunctional, its mitigated by lack of crime.
10) Forget about those “civil rights” you enjoy abroad: If you’re used to a lawyer being present when people are questioned or people not being kept in “administrative detention”, put that behind you. Israel is not a full liberal democracy. It has security services that can do mostly what they want. There is censorship of media. Many “civil rights” people take for granted in the US, don’t exist in Israel. You’re moving to a country whose heritage is closely connected to Eastern European-style Soviet policies, not America. It’s not “mini-America”. Disabuse yourself of this fact.
These are things that people should know. It is better to arm yourself with knowledge. Once one accepts the failures of Israel and its problems, perhaps they will not be disappointed. Perhaps they will decide to make it better. The worst people are those who keep selling themselves a lie, refuse to acknowledge failure, never want to improve things, and won’t even admit the country has deep problems. Every country has its failures. Israel for some reason combines a deep loathing of itself abroad, by a similar love for it by its supporters. Neither is entirely justified. But moving to Israel has serious ramifications for people. It has ramifications for the next generation as well. People should consider what they have signed on for. And this only scratches the surface above without discussing terrorism, the conflict and other issues.