(photo: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters, The New York Times 28/07/2023)
Unhappy With Right-Wing Leaders, Some Israelis Hatch Escape Plans
The New York Times 28/07/2023
Reacting to efforts by the government to take greater control of the judiciary, some people are transferring money overseas and applying for other passports if they are eligible.
Naama Levin and her partner had always dreamed about taking a break from Israel and going on an extended vacation abroad. But they did not start making concrete plans until late last year, when Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power and formed a coalition with extreme right-wing and religiously conservative partners.
“We didn’t have the nerve to make the move; we had to muster it,” said Ms. Levin, 46, who has two young children and has lived in Tel Aviv for most of her adult life. “Bibi definitely helped us,” she added, referring to the prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu, by a nickname.
In recent months, Mr. Netanyahu has put an ultranationalist who has been convicted of inciting anti-Arab racism in charge of national security, taken steps to expand settlements in the occupied West Bank and initiated an overhaul of the judicial system, angering secular Israeli Jews like Ms. Levin and setting off months of protests across the country.
Since Ms. Levin and her family arrived on the lush tropical island of Ko Pha Ngan in Thailand about a week ago, the situation in Israel has only gotten worse, from her perspective. Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition passed a contentious law this week that weakens the power of the Supreme Court to serve as a check on the government.
“Now I don’t know if we’ll go back,” Ms. Levin said in a phone interview, adding that her partner can work remotely from anywhere in the world. “I don’t want to be part of it anymore.” They do not know where they will eventually end up, but would like it to be somewhere closer to Israel because they have family there.
The passage of the new law was the last straw for some Israelis, who have been struggling with a high cost of living and underfunded schools. Hundreds of thousands have demonstrated against the legislation for over six months, saying the proposed changes would effectively end the independence of the judiciary and put civil rights in danger.
Some say they have started hatching escape plans, transferring money abroad and applying for other passports if they are eligible for them — including German ones that descendants of Holocaust survivors can seek — even as the protest movement strengthens its commitment to keep the pressure on the government.
Several WhatsApp groups for professionals who want to emigrate have sprung up this week, including one called “Physician Relocation” that has gathered thousands of members.
Businesses that help relocate corporations and families have seen a sharp uptick in demand in recent days, according to Shay Obazanek, a manager for Ocean Group, a company that helps people and companies moving to and from Israel. Financial advisers say they are being flooded with questions about how to move assets overseas and how to establish bank accounts abroad.
- A Somber Mood: The government’s success in passing the first stage of a judicial overhaul plan that limits the power of the Supreme Court was a gut punch to the largely liberal and secular opposition.
- A Defiant Tone: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sought to play down concerns about the plan, while also making it clear he would not be backing down in the face of criticism.
- Hatching Escape Plans: Reacting to the government’s bid to take greater control of the judiciary, some people are transferring money overseas and applying for foreign passports.
- A Turbulent Relationship: Netanyahu’s quest to rein in the judiciary has become the latest point of contention between Israel and the United States.
Ilan Viskin, a financial consultant, said he had helped private individuals transfer large sums of money to Europe and the United States from Israel in recent months. He said he had sold his apartment in the greater Tel Aviv area, and converted half of the proceeds into dollars.
“I have quite a lot of friends who recently bought houses and apartments in Cyprus and Greece,” he said. “Everyone is playing with the idea — ‘Where could we go?’”
But there is also deep ambivalence. Israelis like Ms. Levin were raised on the Zionist dream of a Jewish democratic state.
They fought for it, often literally, and they have mixed feelings about abandoning it, especially in the middle of what they see as a battle for its soul. There is a stigma attached to leaving Israel: While people who immigrate to Israel are called “olim,” which means “moving up,” people who leave are called “yordim” — people who move down.
And even though many people in Israel say they feel deeply betrayed by their government, they also are deeply attached to their country and its language, music, food, and, perhaps most important, its sense of intimacy and community. Many who are considering emigrating say they want to take their friends with them.
That desire motivated an entrepreneur, Yosi Taguri, to start Noah’s Ark 2.0, an initiative to create communities “that will preserve the thing called Israeli” outside the country. The group is open to anyone who identifies as Israeli and shares its liberal values, including those who identify as orthodox, Druse or Arab citizens of Israel. Some 1,500 families have already expressed interest, said Mr. Taguri, 49, who lives in the greater Tel Aviv area.
“The idea is to plant a stake for an Israeli community with all her different shades and colors, to live according to the values that we were raised on,” Mr. Taguri said. Ultimately, he said, “The aim is to return to Israel at some point — we have no other country.”
He does not advocate lifting the pressure on the government for even a moment, however. “We will go on fighting in the streets as if we have no other option,” he said, “but at the same time, we are quietly preparing an alternative.”
Mr. Obazanek, the relocation company manager, said his clients used to be evenly divided between those immigrating to and emigrating from the country. Now over 90 percent are interested in leaving Israel, he said.
Since the law passed this week, the number of people contacting the company to request its services jumped to about 100 a day from about 20, he said.
“There is extreme demand — it is extraordinary,” Mr. Obazanek said, adding that many of those seeking to leave are young professionals in their 30s or early 40s who are in critical professions that drive economic development, such as those in the high-tech industry who can work anywhere in the world, as well as doctors and lawyers.
And, he said, the motivations for leaving are different than before. “It used to be people would go for a personal experience — ‘I got a job offer,’ ‘It can advance me financially,’ ‘We’ll go as a family for two to three years and come back.’ Now they talk about leaving, and going only in one direction,” he said.
“The motivation is so high that people are willing to compromise and leave even if they don’t have a job offer,” Mr. Obazanek said. “They’re willing to accept a drop in their standard of living because they’re so worried that their freedom of movement will be curtailed. In a word, they’re scared of a dictatorship, and they worry that if they wait, it may be too late.”
Among those seeking foreign passports as an escape valve are members of the L.G.B.T. community, like Shimi Keller, 43, of Tel Aviv, who just started the process of applying for a German passport, which he may be eligible for because his grandfather was born in Germany.
No laws have been passed yet that will change life for the vibrant gay community in Israel, he said, but, “We understand there is a version of this script where we won’t be able to stay here.” Some members of the coalition government have a long history of homophobia, and L.G.B.T.Q. activists say there has been an increase in anti-gay abuse and violence in the country in recent months.
Gal Barkan, 54, who lives in Tel Aviv with her husband and daughters, is applying for Polish citizenship (her mother was born in Poland).
She also would prefer to stay in Israel. “Israel is more than a country to me; it’s true love,” she said. “But I’m heartbroken. It’s like when you find out your true love has gone insane, and the relationship doesn’t work anymore.”
If the government imposes religious restrictions that infringe on her personal freedoms, like requiring her to adhere to a kosher diet, change the way she dresses, or not drive or use electricity on the Sabbath, she said, she will not stay.
“I always say, half-jokingly, that if I can no longer go outside without a bra on, I’m leaving,” Ms. Barkan said. “The minute people tell me how to eat, what to eat, how to dress, or when not to drive my car — that’s it. We’re not there yet, and I’m optimistic. But I am very, very afraid, and I am not a fearful person.”