Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Whatever Happened to “Yordim”?

You can tell a lot about trends in society by the rise and fall of specific words and terms. “Yordim” is a good example.

The word literally means “those who go down,” but its accepted denotation has always been “those who emigrate from Israel to foreign lands” i.e., “go down” from the heights of the Holy Land – the reverse from “Olim,” those Jews who immigrate to the Promised land. More significant was its connotation: very negative, almost “traitorous” for leaving the Zionist project behind. Thus, we used to (and to a limited extent still do) have the phenomenon of Israelis living in the States or elsewhere, “only for a limited time.”

Indeed, one of the oldest jokes along these lines relates to an uneducated Israeli who moves to New York in order to better his economic situation in the “Goldene Medinah.” Unfortunately, given his lack of skills and zero fluency in English he can’t find a job. Finally, an Israeli friend gets him work as the late-shift, elevator operator at the upscale department store Sachs Fifth Avenue. “You only need to remember two words,” explains his friend: “Up and Down.” The Israeli shows up the first day, and from floor 1 to floor 6, he announces “Up” each time he closes the elevator door. However, by the time he reaches Floor 6, he has forgotten “Down.” So as the door closes, he announces in desperation: “Yordim!” To which all the customers packed into the elevator respond defensively in unison: “Rak le’shana akhat!” (“We’re here  for only one year…”).

Today – and for some time in Israel – the term used is “Israelis living overseas” or “Israeli-Americans.” The negativity has disappeared. Why? The reasons go a long way to understanding some fundamental shifts in Israeli society and mentality.

First, the number of Israelis living overseas is huge. By most estimates, close to a million – in other words, about 10% of all Israelis (and far higher if counting only all of Israel’s Jewish population for this calculation). It’s easy to stigmatize such people when they are few and far between, as was the case back in the country’s earlier days (although during the great “tzena” depression in the early 1950s, many Israelis did leave the country, but that was understandable under those very difficult conditions). However, when virtually every other Israeli has some family member living in Diaspora, such stigmatization becomes harder to maintain, as their “blemish” ostensibly reflects on the remaining family members.

Second, a country that feels itself weak and beset by enemies will inevitably be highly sensitive about anyone jumping ship. By the turn of this century, however, it was clear to all that Israel was no longer “weak” (economically or militarily), so that with growing self-confidence there was less animosity towards those leaving.

Third and related, for most years in the past few decades the number of Jews making Aliyah has outnumbered those making Yeridah. In short, world Jewry overall were offering a vote of confidence to the Jewish State, notwithstanding those moving out of Israel.

Fourth and related to that is the demise of the “Demographic Bomb” fear that Israel’s Arabs will eventually outnumber the country’s Jews. For reasons having to do with modernization trends among the Arabs living in Israel, their birth rate has plummeted from 1948 to the point that today it matches the Jewish birth rate at around three children per woman. With their proportion of the country’s population being ”stuck” at around 20% (and that includes pro-Zionist Druze), there is no longer any fear of Israel’s eventual loss of a Jewish majority.

Fifth, paradoxically the vast majority of Yordim are fiercely nationalistic and patriotic about Israel. Whether that has to do with “pangs of guilt” for leaving or because they honestly intend to return at some future date, the fact is that if overseas Israelis were allowed to vote in Israeli elections (they are not, by Israeli law, unless they are physically in Israel on Election Day) the Right-wing parties would gain significantly.

Sixth, if there is strength in numbers, then such a large Israeli cohort in important countries such as the U.S. and Germany can also serve as a political “lobby” for Israel – precisely because of their continued emotional (and familial) connection to the Jewish State. Such lobbying need not be “political” in the official sense of the term; given rising anti-Semitism and certainly anti-Zionism on the campuses and elsewhere, having many Israeli-Jews who can explain the situation with knowledge, not to mention fight BDS etc. with typical Israeli chutzpah, can only be a net plus for the State of Israel – and many in Israel understand this important function that Israelis overseas are serving.

A final note: from a historical perspective, the phenomenon of Yeridah is nothing new. Even in the U.S., historically approximately 20% of all immigrants eventually left, either returning to their homeland or moving on to other countries. Israel, of course, has been populated mostly by immigrants, so that if 10-20% have later left the country that’s still quite low by international standards. Not to mention that from Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses onwards, Jews have had a built-in wanderlust – always on the move. Yeridah, then, is but the other side of the Aliyah coin, and Israeli society has come to accept that historical fact for worse and for better.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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