I’ve just read the latest claim about hordes of Jews wanting to leave Israel. It’s by Franklin Lamb and is a useful article, since it contains the entire gamut of reasons for Israeli Jews to leave: ambient fear, lack of roots, religious fanatics taking over, corrupt leaders, centripetal forces in Israeli society, Russians returning home, Jewish values being corrupted, guilt over colonialism and so on. The article has been eagerly circulated around the web and is clearly something many pro-Palestine activists would like to be true. However it’s not true. More than that, if we see the claim as a form of wish fulfilment, it hides a host of ideological positions, some benign and others malign, but all unhelpful.
First let’s deal with the factual accuracy of the claim. There is a kernel of truth in that Israel’s victimhood ideology has created a sense of fearfulness and insecurity among Israelis. Also, Israel is becoming a nastier place for Jews as well as non-Jews, something that has an effect on migration. Since the year 2000, net emigration (i.e. the total of emigration over immigration) is about 10,000 a year, give or take. That figure includes Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, pushed out of the country. It also includes many leftist Israelis, many ordinary folks only too ready to aver how crazy Israel is and so on.
It is indeed useful to note that Israel is no longer a country of immigration. There is a real story here which undercuts Zionism – the fact that diaspora Jews are less likely to commit aliyah, another indication of their gradual distancing from Israel. But this lack of immigration does not mean that emigration is central for Israel. I speak as someone coming from a country (Ireland) where emigration is running at over three times the rate of Israel’s and yet nobody predicts that Ireland will internally implode (or rather, emigration won’t cause this implosion).
The two statistics that are regularly raised to show how little Israelis like Israel are the figures for multiple passports and Russian return migration. According to a survey Lamb quotes, 70% of Israelis have applied for or are considering applying for a foreign passport. Let’s leave aside how much this sounds like the type of forced question one asks in order to show that yes, there really is a crisis. For even if we accept that many Israelis do hold multiple passports – so what? In an era of increasing globalisation and growing border controls, a second passport makes sense and doesn’t necessarily indicate detachment.
The second issue is Russian-Jewish return migration to Russia from Israel, which is apparently about 22%. This sounds about right – that is, slightly above average for the usual rate of return migration. For instance, nineteenth century return migration from US to Europe was between ten and twenty percent. The combination of limited opportunities in Israel and an improving Russian economy adds to the usual migrant difficulties in moving to produce this not hugely noteworthy figure. In other words, there really isn’t much to see here.
And yet the Lamb article is only the latest one to circulate around pro-Palestine circles, asserting pending mass Jewish emigration from Israel. Since this doesn’t seem hugely likely, the question then moves to why do we wish this claim to be true.
One can’t help recalling, being delicate about it, the unoriginality of this particular wish. We can all, if we cast our minds back, recall a movement which said that the inhabitants of Palestine didn’t belong there and didn’t have proper roots in the Land. They were as sand across the desert and all they’d need was the gentlest puff of wind for them to leave and make way for the rightful inhabitants of the Land.
However, the veiled ethnic cleansing element to the claim that Jews are leaving – insofar as it exists - remains secondary. It is more plausible to see these claims of Israeli Jews voting with their feet as a way of demonstrating how bad Israel is and how wrong Zionism is, while at the same time absolving ordinary Israelis for the situation. After all, they’re leaving. This is not so much an anti-Israeli stance as a pro-Israeli-and-anti-Israel position. Or rather is a means of reconciling the two elements in this position.
I’ve a lot of sympathy with this attitude. We've probably all made the claim that Israeli society is so messed up that even Israeli Jews are rejecting it. Whenever we trumpet the occasional voices of Israeli resistance as being the voice of ‘real’ Israel, we’re doing this. This is nothing more than the necessary over-optimism of people seeking change. Equally, pointing out that the edifice of Israeli racism is collapsing gives people hope to continue the struggle.
Mass emigration would indicate both what a mess Israel is and also undermine a central tenet of Zionism - the solidity of Israeli love of the Land. Since Zionists defend any landgrab, dispossession and exclusion of non-Jews by referring to this ‘natural’ link between Israeli Jews and the Land, there is something delightful in pointing out the tenuousness of this link. I certainly feel a smug and ironic sense of satisfaction in seeing how Israeli Jews are becoming more and more like other diaspora Jews with their multiple passports and so on. Yet even though it is useful to undermine the ‘blood and soil’ narratives of Zionism by noting how unattached to Israel Israelis actually are, it remains nonsense to claim that Israelis are going to en masse up sticks and go. It gives false hope.
As a claim, it also does what Gabriel has accused activists of often doing – wishfully talking about how unsustainable oppression is and waiting for the future to happen, rather than bringing it about themselves. Really, if Israel is so terrible that even the racial elite are leaving, we can just wait for the process to play itself out. A counter-argument is that this fantasy may lead to intensifying boycott actions as much as to quietism. However, building our work on such glaringly false claims discredits this work and is a recipe for future disillusionment. This remains true whether the claim appeals to base hopes – that the Other just leaves; or romanticised hopes – that Israelis are so good that uniquely among colonising people they realise what they are doing is bad, and so will go.
So let’s say it now. Israelis are going to stay in Israel/Palestine. No doubt some will leave should Israel/Palestine become a democratic state, but the present sickness of the Israeli state should not, cannot be measured in wishful hopes that the racial elite will sicken of it all and leave. It should rather be countered by offering a vision where along with refugee return, all can stay in equality.