At this moment in Israeli history, what is the main draw that keeps those from the center leftward in Israel? When demographic data and voting records illuminate irreversible trends regarding what Israel will look like in the near future, how does one with political and moral views created and curated by the builders of ‘old Israel’ reconcile staying in Israel? The answer is friends, family, community and denial.
My grandfather, an expert on the history of the Jews of Christian Spain, moved to Israel with my grandmother in the late seventies. They were a part of a cadre of retirees who traded Boca Raton for Bograshov Beach. As my late uncle Stuart Schoffman would describe it, my grandparents were members “of the last generation of maskilim, Jewish intellectuals of a special time and place: European-born, multilingual Hebraists; rationalists devoted to Jewish tradition; liberal humanists with a passion for knowledge and independent thought.”
At roughly the same time, my two uncles made the same impractical move to Israel. They represented a wave of Olim that was full of, among many other things, idealism, hope and intellectual promise. In their late thirties and early forties, my uncles traded away the comforts of the liberal American coasts for a much more difficult, progressive Zionist dream. Both graduates of Yeshiva Flatbush, they went on to play pivotal roles in government and the arts, helping to shape modern Israel in a myriad of ways. Stuart helped bring his own and other prominent Israeli intellectual voices to the West, serving as the founding editor of The Jerusalem Report and the translator for A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman and Aharon Appelfeld (among others). Stuart combined religious, political, artistic, and popular cultural expertise and effortlessly transformed incomprehensible concepts into digestible depictions, painting vibrant pictures of a maturing Israeli society by helping to export the Israeli intellectual discourse to the West. My uncle Joshua Schoffman served as the Deputy Attorney General for Israel and the Legal Director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, where he worked tirelessly to improve and defend Israeli democracy, and, among many other things, successfully challenged the Israeli policy of demolishing the homes of suspected terrorists while refusing to respect their right to appeal before the demolitions. Their contemporaries during this wave of Jewish migration included the likes of Hillel Halkin and Yossi Klein Halevi.
At roughly the same time there were waves of other Olim, who came from Arab countries, Eastern Europe, and even from the Yeshivah Flatbush, who had a completely different experience, definition and familiarity with democracy and Jewish practice. These Olim and their descendants represent ‘new Israel’ or ‘second generation Israel’ and will ultimately make up the majority of the Israeli citizenry. The judicial overhaul packages and proposed halachic reforms are just a preview of what’s to come in the next five decades in Israel. Even if a ‘compromise’ is reached, the right wing and their extremist and hyper-religious allies will govern with carte blanche from 2040 onwards. Ultra-orthodox tripled in size from four to 12 percent of the total of Israel’s population since 1980 (and is projected to grow to over 20 percent by 2040), 72 percent of Mizrahi voters regard themselves as right or center right (and currently make up between 35-40% of the Israeli population), and Yeshivah of Flatbush is also the alma mater of Baruch Goldstein (there are currently over 500,000 settlers living in the occupied territories) .
My cousins in Israel are artists, documentarians, political consultants, and scientists. They espouse the views of their parents and grandparents, and represent a rapidly decreasing segment of Israeli society (roughly 1/3 of active Israeli Defense Force members voted for Ben Gvir). I spoke to my cousins in Tel Aviv this morning who told me that their identity is being challenged like never before. Outside of coordinating their meeting points at protests every week, the talk of their friend group is not about how they can help prevent democratic backsliding, it’s about what country they plan on moving to before starting a family. One of their friends just moved to Cyprus, another is moving to Portugal. This is where the main draw to Israel for those center leftward will inevitably be challenged. Communities will contract, posses will peter out.
They also told me that they went to school with one of the young men who was shot by a terrorist on Dizengoff Street last week. When their community continues to be directly affected by increasingly extremist governmental policies and rhetoric, I can’t help but wonder how much longer those like my cousins and their friends will stay in Israel. I worry that the conversations between those from the center leftward will increasingly be centered around how many passports they have and which countries they can move to. The liberal descendants of ‘old Israel’ will inevitably be without their likeminded friends, family and community that until this point, has kept them in Israel.