Jamie Ben-Cnaan

The future Israelis we risk losing

Potential newcomers may be willing to sacrifice convenience and luxury – they won't forego their democratic liberties
'How will organizations tasked with encouraging immigration to Israel ... possibly convince anyone to take that leap if Israel is no longer a full democracy?' (iStock)
'How will organizations tasked with encouraging immigration to Israel ... possibly convince anyone to take that leap if Israel is no longer a full democracy?' (iStock)

I immigrated to Israel from the US in 2013 and got married last year. Up until about a month ago, my husband and I had been saving for a house in preparation to start a family here. But in the wake of Israel’s proposed judicial overhaul, which will severely limit the independence of Israel’s judiciary — and especially after the recent violence by radicals in Huwara — we are questioning our future in Israel and whether this is a place where we will feel safe starting a family. Do we really want our future children risking their lives for deadly, uncontrolled conflicts inflamed by our own government ministers, and where our court system may be neutered from ruling against such rioters or, worse, are entirely sycophantic to them?

We aren’t the only ones with these questions. In the last two months, friends and family who have rarely mentioned our US and Australian citizenships are bringing them up in every conversation as we all figure out whether and how we might jump ship should the time come.

These are discussions I would have never anticipated having. When I moved here, I did so planning to stay in Israel for good. Mere months ago I chose to take my husband’s name Ben-Cnaan, largely out of love for a name that translates directly to “son of Cnaan.” Over the years I have worked for several pro-Israel organizations, and I have spoken and written against the delegitimization of the Jewish State. I did all this with full conviction that I was working to protect not only the Jewish homeland but also the strongest democratic regime in the Middle East – a beacon of freedom and refuge for Jews forced out of their countries of birth by intolerance and antisemitism.

I have always brought this enthusiasm to my conversations with potential new immigrants, or olim, many of whom originate from developed and wealthy countries. And they fully understood that moving to Israel would mean giving up many standards and products that they had been accustomed to. Most were nonetheless happy to trade in their Costco runs, customer service, guaranteed hot water on rainy days, and larger houses for the opportunity to live in a thriving Jewish democracy and take part in growing the “start-up nation.” I have met olim from countries like Japan, the Netherlands, and Norway who chose to move to Israel even knowing they would have to forgo some such luxuries, not to mention relative economic prosperity and some personal freedoms.

But there was never even a question as to whether their basic rights would be included in this tradeoff — whether their freedoms would be protected in their new home by Israel’s Basic Laws and Supreme Court. This baseline expectation will cease to be accurate if the government’s legal reforms pass. Israel’s independent judiciary will morph into a muffled tool used by the regime in power – historically the first step toward single-party rule and autocracy by many formerly democratic nations.

In this scenario — where basic liberties cannot be protected here — many potential olim may justifiably reconsider their eagerness to move to Israel. Instead of the well-worn story of an American immigrating here after falling in love with an Israeli soldier on a Birthright trip (a program that organizes free trips to Israel for young Jews), that soldier will jump to move abroad once their service ends. Zionistic entrepreneurs will choose to incubate their start-ups in Silicon Valley rather than in Tel Aviv. Many potential LGBTQ olim, who today choose to immigrate to Israel even despite its lack of marriage equality, will now think twice knowing that their basic human rights, currently guaranteed by Israel’s Basic Law Human Dignity and Liberty, could be struck down at any moment.

How will organizations tasked with encouraging immigration to Israel, or aliyah — Nefesh B’Nefesh, the Jewish Agency, and so on – possibly convince anyone to take that leap if Israel is no longer a full democracy?

As former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg recently said in a New York Times op-ed, “The best and brightest want to live in countries where they can be assured they will not be persecuted or discriminated against because of what they believe or whom they love.” When we consider the judicial reform’s possible calamitous impact, we cannot think only of the potential devastating economic repercussions and short-term drain of Israel’s prized human capital – the loss of young, ambitious Israelis who choose to move out of their home country, along with the innumerable Israeli children who now will be born abroad. Israel is also likely to lose untold numbers of future immigrants, and the children they might have raised in Israel, when those people decide to remain in wealthy countries with guaranteed freedoms.

All of these people will doubtlessly contribute to and enrich economies, culture, and Jewish life abroad – and not in the Jewish state. If we cease to be a fully democratic Israel, we will lose not only talented Israelis, but also countless future Israelis.

About the Author
Jamie Ben-Cnaan has worked for several pro-Israel advocacy and research organizations, and currently works as an analyst for a start-up. She holds degrees from McGill University and Hebrew University. All views stated are her own.
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