When Gary Bertini, the founder and conductor of the Israel Chamber Orchestra, decided to leave Israel in the early ’70s, an angry music lover wrote to the Jerusalem Post: ‘Does Bertini find the applause of the gentiles sweeter to his ears than that of the Israeli Jews?’
Such sentiments were commonplace at the time and reflected the derision heaped upon yordim, born-and-bred Israelis who fled (betrayed?) the Zionist dream; traitors to the cause.
Then prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, not one to mince words, dismissed them as ‘the leftovers of weaklings’, wimps, moral lepers and ‘drecks’. Two decades later, in 1991, he changed his mind: ‘The Israelis living abroad are an integral part of the Jewish community,’ he declared, ‘and there is no point talking about ostracism.’
And it is not only Rabin who changed his mind. Former speaker of the Knesset, Avram Burg, recently acquired French citizenship and called on other Israelis to follow suit. An opinion poll published early last year in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv showed that one-quarter of Israelis are considering leaving the country.
Between 18,000 and 21,000 Israelis clamour for the door each year. According to Israel’s daily Yediot, the number of Israelis living overseas tops the 800,000 figure – 12.5 per cent of the country’s population (as against Australia’s diaspora of 1 million, or 0.05 per cent of the population).
Of these, some 60 per cent live in North America, 25 per cent in Europe and 15 per cent in ‘other places’ – including Australia, an increasingly attractive destination for Israelis.
Estimates of the number of Israelis living here vary but settle around the 10,000 mark. According to Professor Suzanne Rutland, chair of the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the University of Sydney, around half of the Israeli population in Australia is located in Melbourne and another 35 per cent resides in Sydney.
What brings them here? Perhaps more aptly: what drove them away?
In March 2005, Rutland conducted a survey of the motivating factors for Israeli immigration to Australia. Among those fielded, 52 per cent attributed their emigration to the pursuit of a better quality of life. Another 44 per cent said that a dislike of the social and political life in Israel was the primary reason behind their departure.
Merav and Eyal (not their real name) are two forty-something Israelis living in Sydney with their two children. He owned a successful business in Israel which he sold before emigrating for the antipodes.
‘We left because we do not see a future for Israel,’ explains Merav, ‘and I wanted my children to have a future. It is a country in moral decline: characterised by endemic corruption and rampant racism. Decent Israelis, the type you’d describe as the salt of the earth, are leaving in hordes.’
By their own admission, their standard of living has plummeted and they do not have emotional, social or economic ties to Australia. ‘For us it is too late: although we have taken ourselves out of Israel, we cannot take Israel out of us. But for our children, we are willing to sacrifice our personal convenience. I want my children to have a choice. They are now Australian citizens and I would like to see them setting roots here.’
Unlike many other countries, successive Israel governments have not fostered good relations with their nationals overseas. In fact relations between Israel and their citizens abroad have traditionally been rather chilly. The point was beautifully demonstrated by former president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, during his visit to Australia in February 2005.
Yehuda Kaplan, head of SBS Radio’s Hebrew language program in Melbourne, was keen to interview Katsav and forwarded an official request. Katsav, however, refused.
‘When I contacted him,’ recalls Kaplan, ‘I was specifically told that he would not do interviews in Hebrew. He was happy to be interviewed by other, English-language, media outlets, but not us. He had come to speak to the local Jewish community, but had no intention of addressing the Israelis living here.’
It is perhaps a reflection of such a mindset that Israeli Ambassador Yuval Rotem failed to return several calls for his comments for this article.
One of his peers, Ehud Danoch, recently returned to Israel from a three-year assignment in Los Angeles, where he served as consul-general. He is neither surprised nor impressed by this supercilious approach.
‘The state should be embracing these Israelis and making them feel loved and welcome. Instead, all it is doing is calling for them to return home. This is counter-productive. Representatives of the country rarely make an effort to meet with them when they are on an official visit. We need to build a partnership with them and strengthen their ties to Israel.’
Israel’s Ministry of Absorption has launched a project aimed at luring Israelis back home by offering them tax breaks and other financial incentives.
Danoch remains unimpressed. ‘The government has not really understood the issues and has no long-term vision or strategy. The ministry absorbs immigrants, but there is a host of other ministries who could benefit from closer relations with Israelis abroad. We have senior scientists, academics, high-tech and business people who live abroad. They may not return to Israel, but they can become involved and support Israel in a myriad of ways.’
Having made the decision to leave Israel and settle in Australia, have Israelis integrated into the local Jewish community? Or do those unflattering – and unpublishable – acronyms deriding Israelis still linger?
Vast numbers of Jews around the world view Israel as the culmination of the Zionist ideal. The growing Israeli diaspora, on the other hand, is seen as undermining this ideal. While Jewish organisations promote aliyah and raise funds for Israeli causes, they find the swelling number of Israelis who have forsaken their homeland an imposition.
‘We are their embarrassment,’ sums up Ilana who left Israel five years ago and now lives in Melbourne. ‘As they see it, there is a division of labour: their job is to support Israel, raise money for the country and defend it against hostile media; my job is to live there and defend it with my body. Israelis are now saying: let’s swap sides.’
These tensions have kept the two communities apart. Israelis rarely attend communal events and maintain a separate social network. They have set up their own newspaper, E-ton, frequent Israeli-based eateries and retain close ties to their family overseas. For the past eight years, Hamerkaz Haisraeli has formed the social centre for Israelis living in Melbourne. In Sydney, the main Israeli cultural group is Kesher, established through the JNF.
Israeli-born Dr Dvir Abramovich is the director of Hebrew-Jewish studies at the University of Melbourne. Two years ago, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, he used his column in the Australian Jewish News to urge the Jewish community to do more to integrate Israelis living in Australia. ‘Because of a lack of genuine integration, Israelis live here and at the same time they don’t live here, caught in state of uncertainty and rootlessness.’
Two years on, the situation remains unchanged. NSW Jewish Board of Deputies CEO Vic Alhadeff says that the small number of Israelis who have become involved in the Jewish community have made a significant contribution and they are definitely most welcome. The numbers, however, speak for themselves: there is not a single Israeli on the executive of his office; on the executive of the State Zionist Council of NSW there is one Israeli. And this, out of an estimated 10,000 Israelis living in Australia.
Says Ilana: ‘We sing different songs, eat different foods, read different literature and speak different languages; we are two shtetls living side by side.’
"She is factually right," says Philip Chester, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, "but the reasons are often complex. Like any immigrant community, [Israelis] are trying to establish themselves first and do not get involved in the community. As a community leader, I want to say to them that they can do both. It’s fair to say that thirty – even twenty – years ago the attitude towards yordim was negative. Nowadays I don’t think it’s the same at all. We are trying to include them, not criticise them"
Chester is in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, his office’s stated aim is to promote Zionism of which Aliyah is the highest ideal. On the other hand, he wants to make Israelis feel welcome in Australia.
And while it’s a struggle, Chester says he has been making inroads. Two years ago, when he took office as president of the ZFA, he noted with dismay how Israelis in Melbourne were making their own arrangements to mark Yom Hazikaron, to the exclusion of the larger community. Consequently, he instigated an integrated function in conjunction with Hamerkaz haisraeli which brought together the two communities in Israel’s hour of grief. From a modest attendance of 350, the numbers now reach 1500.
Whether in time, the Israeli emigré community will take a more active role in the Jewish community remains to be seen. Rutland calls for a greater involvement of Israeli expats in Australia, "else they will not only be lost to Israel, but also to Judaism".
With its 60th anniversary looming, Israel is facing a serious challenge: keeping its citizens at home. This comes amid political upheavals, economic uncertainties and new opportunities in a globalised world. Many Israelis now consider themselves post-Zionists and view Israel as another country in which Jews live; a country where Jews should feel free to come and go without being congratulated or made to feel guilty.
Australia has been a destination of choice for many Israeli backpackers in their post-army meanderings. More recently, a steady stream of middle-class educated Israelis, disillusioned and seeking a brighter future, have begun arriving here.
As a land of immigrants, it offers these Israelis a ‘fair go’ and they, in turn, embrace the opportunity. They are bright, ambitious and determined.
As for Merav and Eyal, however, they have no plans to mesh into the Jewish community any time soon. Says Ilana: ‘I will continue eating falafel and singing Israeli songs.’