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Faced with Intifada and Recession, Some Israelis Leave, Some Stay Put

November 19, 2001
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Yossi Cohen, a Tel Aviv taxi driver, is taking it easy these days. He has been slicing time from his usual ten-hour shifts because there just aren’t many clients out there.

At the same time, he wouldn’t consider leaving Israel for greener pastures.

“What, I need to be a cabbie in Queens?” asked Cohen, 47, shrugging his shoulders. “I’m right where I need to be, here, in my homeland, offering my bit of support.”

That’s one of the typical reactions offered by Israelis after more than a year of violence. They’re tired of the drive-by shootings, the suicide bombings, the endless cycle of death and destruction. But they’re hunkering down in Israel, because this is their homeland and they’re not leaving.

But there also is an opposite reaction — the Israelis who decide to leave because they can’t take it any longer. They want to feel safe and secure. They want good jobs and nice homes and safe futures for their children.

But they don’t leave without a certain amount of guilt over “abandoning” their homeland.

The Israelis who are emigrating are called yordim in Hebrew, which means “those who go down.” The term has a negative connotation in Hebrew, the opposite of the word for those who move to Israel — olim, or “those who go up” to Zion.

There were waves of yordim in the early 1960s, when large numbers of Israelis moved to the United States seeking better opportunities, and after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel’s self-confidence was gravely shaken. There hasn’t been a need during the last decade as the country underwent an economic boom, creating a generation of Israeli yuppies who drive SUVs and live in spacious suburban homes.

But the continuing Palestinian intifada, coupled with the global economic downturn — Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics announced this week that the country officially is in a recession — has forced more than a few Israelis to consider a temporary or permanent move.

Former New Yorker Susie Teschner and her husband Nathan Katz, an Australian, are moving to Australia for a few years. Teschner said she thinks of it as “rehabilitation for the soul.”

For Teschner, living in Israel was something of a disillusionment and a disappointment.

“When I came here, I was very optimistic,” she said. “My Zionism has dwindled by being here.”

Nevertheless, the decision to leave wasn’t easy. What makes it possible is “not thinking too far in the future,” she said.

“The decision to leave is very complex and usually comes about because of a number of factors,” said Danny Gordis, a well-known educator who made aliyah with his family from the United States shortly before the intifada began in September 2000. “People are out of work and they’re hurting financially. You can sense a general societal unhappiness.”

Yet being in Israel during the intifada forces Israelis to reexamine why they are here in the first place, Gordis pointed out.

“I think this has clarified for a lot of Israelis the degree to which they’re committed to the Jewish state,” he said. “It is about not being the first generation of Jews to run when the going gets rough.”

No statistics have been gathered by Israeli organizations or government ministries on the number of Israelis who have left since the intifada began. According to the Jewish Agency for Israel, aliyah from Western Europe and North America has been affected slightly since last fall.

There were 1,159 immigrants from North America between January and October 2001, an 11% drop from the previous year. Another 1,382 Western Europeans made aliyah during the same time period, a 19% drop from the same period in 2000.

“The reasons for the drop could include the intifada and the current economic situation,” said Yehuda Weinraub, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency. “But we can’t be certain.”

According to the World Council of Churches, Palestinian Christians also are leaving the Holy Land, at a rate of about three families a week. They make up about 3 percent of the population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but that number is steadily dropping as Christians seek to escape violence, economic depression and pressures from the Palestinian Muslim majority.

Yet despite depression over the continuing violence and the worsening economic situation, only a small minority of Israelis — both Arabs and Jews — are considering emigrating, according to the monthly Peace Index.

The survey, conducted by the Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University, asked 580 Israeli Jews and Arabs in August whether they have considered emigrating as a result of the situation.

Fully 80 percent of Jewish respondents said they had no plans to emigrate even if they could, and only 14 percent said they would leave due to the situation. Of the Arabs surveyed, 94 percent said they had no intention of emigrating.

“It would seem that neither pessimism about chances of attaining peace, nor uncertainty about the present state of affairs, have caused the public to change its daily way of life,” wrote Ephraim Ya’ar and Tamar Hermann, who run the center. “The ability to cope with the situation, as reflected in maintaining daily routine, is also reflected in the low numbers who announced that they were considering leaving the country, which is surprising.”

Yet everyone seems to know someone who is leaving. People often say they’re going away for a few years, just to take a break. Some call it a sabbatical, others a breath of fresh air from the tension of life in Israel.

For Sissy Block, an American who made aliyah nine years ago and is now heading to New York, it’s a matter of weighing opportunities.

“I came here in 1992, when all we heard about was making peace,” said Block, a writer who worked in high-tech for the last four years. “I came here because I liked it here. There were opportunities during those years, it was an exciting time to be here.”

The intifada, however, has shattered that reality.

“The decision to leave was agonizing, because I had an image of being a successful Zionist,” Block said. “I definitely leave Israel as an option, but I’m going. This was a thought-out decision.”

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