I would like to preface this post by stating a few things. The first and most important thing is that I have no intention of leaving Israel unless the situation in Israel makes it so that I can no longer receive the healthcare I need. The second preface is that I consider my decision to make aliyah lifesaving and the best choice of my life. The third thing I would like to preface is that I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities given to me by the State of Israel. However, on this Yom HaAliyah, I do not feel integrated into Israeli society. My experience also applies to other immigrants; airing these issues close to a day meant to celebrate immigrants might help with some of the problems that immigrants face. As a result, I will intertwine this post with my experience with the experiences of other immigrants.
The first way that I do not feel integrated into Israeli society is that the Hebrew language is tough to learn for immigrants, especially English-speaking immigrants. The US State Department listed Hebrew as a Category III language, defined as “Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English.” In my lived experience, I am currently on my fifth ulpan in level daled, yet I cannot understand basic conversations in Hebrew (however, this could very well be due to my lack of opportunities to practice). That said, keep in mind I am not alone in the language barrier being an issue for integration into society, as the language barrier has been one of the most significant reasons why many olim contemplate returning to their country of origin.
This language barrier also has a problem when it comes to accessing services. Many disabled immigrants, I included, need to have access to more social services than normal Israelis for us to maintain what is an otherwise perfectly normal life. Unfortunately, social security does not have an English-speaking hotline. This could also be a massive impediment to even an otherwise non-disabled immigrant who lost their job, got hurt on the job, or is simply just a retired oleh who is trying to get a pension and are too old to learn a new language. Additionally, the website Kol Zichut, which lays out the rights one is entitled to in Israel, does not have all its pages with an English translation. This means that English speakers are being deprived of their rights just because they can’t learn an incredibly hard language for English speakers to apprehend.
Other things that have nothing to do with government services, like getting medical care or asking if a grocery store has an item in stock or its location, are a mess if you have difficulty learning Hebrew. Understanding Israeli cultural references is just a non-starter if you don’t know Hebrew, so no, I can’t tell an Arik Einstein from a Noa Kirel, and that makes me feel like a bad Israeli. As a result, unless the way of teaching Hebrew to non-Hebrew speakers improves, non-Hebrew speaking immigrants can’t access the services they need just to survive or live a normal life, which may cause them to feel unintegrated in Israeli society, such as I do.
The following way that other immigrants and I don’t feel integrated into Israeli society is through the employment sector. I am currently working some really cool volunteer gigs while living off my savings from being a defense industry employee and an immigrant Ph.D. student for a year. Remember that this was far better than my situation in America, where nobody was even willing to give a volunteer gig in international relations to a disabled person. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to add some incredible volunteer gigs to my resume. Additionally, I hope to continue volunteering for them until I find a paying job, especially because I love the gigs and because they’re vital to keeping my mental health out of the dumps. However, I still do not feel integrated into Israeli society seeing Israelis get paid jobs very quickly. In contrast, I have had to apply to over 163 paid positions in my field for over a year and still get rejected from every single one, despite having four tertiary degrees, some of which are from an International Relations program that is higher ranked than Yale’s and Oxford’s.
I know that I am not the only immigrant with this issue. Many immigrants take over a year to find a job. And these immigrants are just as educated as I am, if not more. While many of these immigrants take low-paid jobs to pay the rent, working in a low-paid job with a graduate degree can be dehumanizing and humiliating to a certain degree, and if one is disabled, finding a low-wage position that one can work in without decent Hebrew is practically impossible. The trap of an oleh being unable to find a job that corresponds with their education has resulted in numerous olim considering returning to their home countries or even killing themselves if they cannot return to their home country.
The third way that I and many olim don’t feel integrated into Israeli society is that we don’t feel like we are included by society. For example, while I had never had more friends in my life until I made aliyah, over 90% of my friends are olim. Additionally, I am 30 and have never been in a relationship (however, this is mostly because I was too busy in school to find a partner). If finding a partner is a kind of ultimate inclusion into society, I have not had that inclusion. Even worse, I have been ghosted on dating apps or had dates canceled when people found out I was autistic/due to my autism being a factor that makes me seem ineligible as a partner. This discrimination is not unique to olim but also afflicts all disabled people in Israel, which is why disabled Israeli people are far more likely to be lonely than the general population.
Unfortunately, discrimination in the dating world applies to non-disabled immigrants as well. The dating app OKCupid allows people to indicate if they are willing to date olim and if one is an oleh themselves. OKCupid then allows one to tell whether an answer to that question impedes dating or doesn’t impede dating. There have been more cases than I can count where people say that they are willing to date an immigrant but say the answer, “I am an oleh,” is a deal breaker in terms of dating. I mean, you cannot make this stuff up.
So, this raises the question of when will I, Paul Noah Weisko, a dual citizen of Israel and the United States, feel included as an immigrant to Israel. Well, I explained why I do not feel integrated into Israeli society. But, to spell it out, I will feel included when I learn Hebrew, find a paying job, get friends who are native Israelis and get a partner. Who knows if any of this will happen, but right now, I am feeling officially Israeli, but not actually Israeli.
Ryan O’Connor contributed to the editing of this article.