Julie Gray
Editor, Writer and Only Slightly Reformed Overthinker.

Dwindling Olim & The Elephant in the Room

Haviv Rettig Gur’s excellent analysis, The End of Aliyah should be printed out on leaflets in rainbow colors and dropped over the Knesset while a flash mob stages a huge Age of Aquarius number to rival the ending of The 40 Year Old Virgin.  It’s that important. Plus I like flash mobs and leaflets.

Gur points out that the steady drop in aliyah is, among other things, because on the whole, Jews living in the Diaspora live safe, prosperous lives. Why should they give that up to live in Israel? Who does that?

Here’s a truth bomb that you won’t hear through the Jewish Agency, NBN or anyone else trying to persuade someone to make aliyah:

No matter how much you love Israel, no matter how many “next year in Jerusalems” you have said at Grandma Ethel’s Passover Seder (hagaddahs provided by Folgers Coffee), the reality is that you really are better off in the Diaspora if you like to buy a new pair of shoes just because they are pretty, to dine out occasionally and not to have to memorize where to run to a bomb shelter. War is neither charming nor adventurous and gas masks do not come in the sal klita absorption basket.

I came to Israel in 2012 and have since dropped many percentage points from my financial Before Times life. There are too many things about Israel that I love to name here but it is very hard to make a decent living here and I cannot emphasize that enough. There is a huge divide between the Have Start Ups and the Everyone Else.

I do not have a friend – not one – who does not have a significant negative balance in his or her bank account. Skyrocketing prices for rent, food and goods trickle down (or is that up?) to inefficient bureaucracies and poor service that are like a Nietzschean nightmare.

When I was warned that life would be difficult in Israel, I smiled a Mona Lisa smile – oh you mean that I have to hang my laundry outside on the line like some kind of a Dutch housewife in 1789?  Hey, you in the fast lane, I thought, slow down and come to Israel! You are not really living, you in your drive-thru, Starbucks, car wash slumber of convenience!

I would literally kill for a car right now. Ha ha j/k.

I really do love my life here – I do! I am much less materialistic, I walk or take the bus, I canceled my Hot cable,  I can handle withering heat and rude clerks – I am stronger, hear me roar! It builds character! I just wish these things were not because I have to work 24/7 to make half the money in Israel I made in Los Angeles in a week and a half.

Gur’s excellent piece examines ayilah numbers over time and digs deep into both the Jewish Agency and NBN’s efforts to bolster the numbers. Why aren’t olim coming here, the article asks? What can various agencies do to sweeten the pot?

Traditionally, aliyah was driven by need. Jews were not safe where they were, and had to get out. But now that the age of the pogrom is over (right?), potential olim need a better reason to come to Israel beyond  safety, ideology, religious practice or the beach in Tel Aviv.

Olim must feel they can come to Israel because they can flourish AND enjoy the culture and lifestyle of Israel.

Nobody in their right mind moves thousands of miles from home to Israel, in a gesture of emotional and historic return, knowing they will become a pauper who can make it to a bomb shelter in 90 seconds flat once they acclimate. Newsflash: you don’t “acclimate” to sirens and wars and bombs. You scar.

The canard that we really are safer here laughable. Stop it.

If I had an agorot for every time an Israeli has asked me, with a frank stare of disbelief, why I came here from the US, I would have enough useless coins to annoy my bank in a way that would satisfy me greatly and provide some much needed payback to  the sour-faced “manager” (you know who you are) who goes out of her way to make visits unpleasant and confusing.

But I digress.

A dwindling supply of new immigrants is a very bad thing for Israel. We need a diversity of skills, thinking, energy and ideas. Waves of immigration have always helped Israel to grow and innovate. The importance of immigration cannot be overstated.

[Sidebar: I, for one, am psyched so many French have come lately – I’m hoping this brings a wave of cute boutiques and cheese shops.]

Gur’s article speaks to absolutely everything except for one big elephant in the room.

It’s the conflict, stupid.

I’ve gotten used to a simpler, lower income lifestyle. I’ll save up for a car half as fancy as the one I had in LA. I’ll eventually move into an apartment with more than one bedroom. I’ve made peace with these things; it really does build character, and my love for Israel is not a rational one anyway.

But having gone through both Operation Pillar of Defense and Operation Protective Edge and scanning the paper daily for signs of the next, inevitable conflict gives me pause. Can I live like this? Forever? I’m no quitter, I am dedicated to being in this country and contributing in my own way to making it a better place but I don’t know that I can keep going through what we went through last summer.  Articles about how the next war will be much more violent and dangerous do not comfort nor surprise me.

My resolve would be boosted if I thought the government were actually trying to make a difference, instead of “cutting the lawn” every couple of years. I don’t know if I can stick around for that.

Tell me – why should I?

This country spends an estimated fifth of its total budget on security. (At least some of these security issues – *cough settlements cough* are of our own making). The war between Gaza and Hamas this past summer cost an estimate of £1.5 billion! That’s – currency converter, one sec – that’s A LOT of clams.

Money that we could be spending on schools, families in poverty or creating more jobs is being spent on an endless war that costs Israel more than lives, more than money but it’s future both in terms of human capital (olim) and its very existence.

The dwindling number of immigrants are perhaps a symptom of the fact this incredibly innovative nation is headed in the wrong direction, making the situation worse and worse until it eventually becomes unlivable.

Israelis born and raised here, with deep roots and family have learned to live in a bizarre situation and in many respects have nowhere else to go. But those thinking about immigrating to Israel have a relatively short conversation about it despite the best efforts of the Jewish Agency and NBN.

In order to boost immigration, Israel needs to become more habitable. That doesn’t mean more American and convenient (although a Target would be nice. Just sayin’.) It means more normalized.

Here’s another truth bomb: Life in Israel is not normal. Nobody should have to live like this.

The Jewish Agency and NBN are doing the best that they can with what they have. They don’t need more funds to persuade immigrants, they need to join us all in pressuring the government to make a few changes:

  • Make serious, actual efforts to create a lasting peace with the Palestinians (Hint: settlements: STOP IT).
  • Just spit balling on this one but treat Sudanese refugees with dignity and legality so as to make for a just society for everybody. How we treat the helpless is a barometer of our values.
  • Maybe NOT have the Chief Rabbinate exclude Reform Jews (hello, Diaspora) from civil ceremonies and treated like 3rd class citizens?

In other words, potential new immigrants need to know that  Israel has its priorities straight. That Israel is a free, democratic Jewish state that takes serious steps to resolve a complicated conflict so that we can all prosper and live normal lives. That in Israel we stand by our oft stated reverence for life and that we treat refugees like human beings.  That coming to this country means new opportunities and experiences that do not require mortgaging your future for a failed idea.

About the Author
Julie Gray is a story editor and nonfiction writer who made the leap from Los Angeles to Israel almost seven years ago and has many (mostly) humorous adventures ever since. A longtime Huffington Post contributor and self-described "Hollywood refugee", Julie works with writers all over the world on fiction and creative non-fiction books. Her own memoir, "They Do Things Differently Here" is an understatement and a work in progress. Julie heads up The Gidon Project, a collaborative memoir about the nature of memory, the spirit of resilience, the Holocaust the art of aging well and other lessons learned from one man's life. Julie's favorite color is "swimming pool" and when she's not working with and wondering about words, she loves to knit "future gifts" in her beloved Big Red Chair.
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