Opinion: We Need To Stop Expecting Aliyah To Be ‘Immigrant Life Lite’

The Israeli English-speaking Facebook bubble is often full to the brim with those that have complaints about life in Israel. On occasion, I have joined the choir. On others I have led it.

The complaints about the difficulties of life in Israel are familiar to anybody who has spent a lot of time in the country.

It’s woefully expensive here. Israeli bureaucracy can be a handful at the best of times. Rude neighbors smoke carelessly on their mirpeset ensuring that it wafts into your apartment just when you’re trying to enjoy your morning coffee there in peace. Exploitative employers conveniently forget to provide the requisite benefits month after month or neglect to inform you of your rights. Not to mention getting on the property ladder which, for many young couples, seems downright impossible.

While life in Israel undoubtedly has its challenging aspects, increasingly, I believe that there is one central driver of all these complaints.

We Expect Israel To Be Different. But Should It Be?

Let’s look at aliyah in geographical terms for a moment.

I would venture to guess that the majority of modern olim — at least those participating in these Facebook communities — moved to Israel of their own volition.

Sure, Israel is the Jewish homeland, a global bulwark against anti-Semitism, and the place that any Jew can flee if facing religious persecution.

Undoubtedly, the State has absorbed many olim fleeing persecution in countries such as Russian, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. That continues to be an important driver of aliyah.

But I would imagine that for most English-speaking immigrants, at least these days, their migration to Israel has been voluntary. This, I contend, has created a dissonance between what people expect aliyah to be and what it ultimately ends up being for many. And when expectations are left unmet, disappointment is the inevitable result.

The Era Of Voluntary Migration to Israel

Today’s aliyah has entered a new phase in its evolution. In many cases (but needless to say not all), today’s olim face no significant push factors.

Perhaps — like me — they felt a vague sense of dis-ease living in a non-Jewish country, like a fish out of water.

But in most cases the pull of Zionism was the driving force behind their decision to come to Israel. Why live as a religious minority when you can be part of the mainstream? Especially when the place to do that is back where it all started for the Jewish people?

There are other factors at play that create the expectation that Jewish migration to Israel will be ‘different’ than other voluntary migrations (like an Englishman moving to Australia for better work opportunities).

For one, many Jews who grow up affiliated with Jewish communities have regular interactions with Israeli expats. In other instances, they take part in cultural exchange programs designed to forge connections between Israel and Jewish communities in the diaspora. Think summer camps; study abroad programs in Israel; gap years spent in yeshiva or seminary in Israel.

All these important activities serve to create a sense of connectedness but sometimes also create inflated expectations about what life in Israel will be like (as many reading this will probably know, expats sometimes see the world through a “grass is greener” mentality).

These interactions cement in our minds that Israel isn’t just some random country. It’s a country that Jews have a stake in, to which we belong. Often spurred on by emissaries from Israel, we make the move expecting, in a sense, to have an easy land. Feeling that we’re going to be immigrants but not really. Expecting aliyah to be immigrant life like. And too often those expectations prove to be false.

Why Don’t We Label Ourselves Immigrants?

I don’t know about you, but it’s relatively seldom that I hear Anglos refer to themselves as ‘immigrants’.

True, ‘new immigrant’ is often what dictionaries automatically translate ‘oleh hadash‘ to mean. But how many of us actually conceive of ourselves in those terms in the cold light of day?

Instead, English-speaking immigrants to Israel tend to refer to themselves as “Anglos” — a linguistic label that emphasizes the fact that they are English-speakers. People, of course, talk about “making aliyah.” The more ardent Zionists might speak of “coming home.”

But for some reason there remains a common dissonance between understanding what one has done — uprooted a life to come to move in Israel — and what the natural outcome of that process is: One is now a stranger in a new country responsible for building a new life from the ground up.

Conceiving Of Ourselves As Immigrants Lowers Expectations

I would argue that once we make the mental switch and begin actually thinking of ourselves as the immigrants that we are when we move to Israel, coming to terms with some of the unsavory facets of life here that many of us experience becomes far more bearable. In a sense, it’s to be expected.

Immigrants are inherently vulnerable. Particularly in a network-dominated society like Israel, our lack of connections can make it harder for us to find quality employment opportunities, particularly those that are circulated through word of mouth means and old boys (or girls) networks tied to army units.

Immigrants are at a competitive disadvantage in so many respects because they have to not only learn a new language — in many cases — but also to learn a new country and how it works. And in Israel, everything from how the postal system works to how to rent a car tends to be different.

These dynamics not only make life harder for olim, they also make them easy prey for opportunists.

It’s unsurprising, therefore, that some landlords will take advantage of the fact that immigrants are likely to be less versed in tenant law than native Israelis and less likely to have recourse to effective legal representation in the case that they need it.

Employers might count on immigrants not understanding the work culture in order to deny them benefits.

In so many respects, therefore, immigrant life is unsavory, at least in its beginnings.

Which is precisely why — all things being equal — many would rather stay put in their own country than chart such a rocky path in another country. But every oleh and olah signed onto the journey because they believed in the calling of Zionism and understood that, by moving to Israel, those that came after them wouldn’t have to.

Much good can come from internalizing our status as immigrants.

Accepting that we are liable to experience exploitation and the actions of opportunists doesn’t excuse the latter’s action. In fact it only emphasizes that we need better post-aliyah support and representation from interest groups. Currently, there is much work to be done in this field.

But equally, while it might be idealistic to think that making aliyah will be inherently different from any other voluntary migration pattern, it might be protective for us to drop that expectation. And to see us as olim: temporarily at the mercy of the societies around us, but seeking an integration that with leave us as equal stakeholders. True immigrants in every sense of the word.

Doing so can not only make us happier, but also help recalibrate our expectations towards a point from which we’re less likely to get emotionally maimed in the process.

Article ID: 264

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