Israel judicial crisis: Citizens plan their exit as unrest prompts growing exodus
Over recent weeks, a growing number of Israelis are considering relocation or are already actively involved in the process. Not to a different neighbourhood, city, or suburb, but out of Israel altogether.
At the same time, a growing number of Israelis are flocking to the streets in mass protest, carrying Israeli flags and chanting the national anthem - two symbols that have for decades been associated with right-wingers and have now been reclaimed by those on the left.
You’ll likely find the very same people doing both: fighting for the version of Israel they fear losing, but also growing tired of that fight and preparing for a worst-case scenario.
As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government pushes through dramatic judicial reforms set to fundamentally change Israel's governance, the natural, unconditioned bond they had with their state has now been undermined, probably for good.
For Israelis, Giora Shalgi’s radio interview was a stunning event. The 84-year-old served as head of Rafael Advanced Defense Systems (formerly Rafael Armament Development Authority) for the Israeli military between 1998 and 2004.
But despite dedicating his life to Israel’s military machine through several governments of various types, three months into this latest administration he told an interviewer he was no longer dedicated to remaining in Israel.
“Over the years, I’ve been offered lucrative salaries abroad; so were my colleagues. I did not even listen,” he said. So now, Shalgi added, when people like him begin to entertain such thoughts and start wondering “why am I here?” something must be profoundly wrong.
“I am 84 years old, and thus the question is irrelevant for me, but it is relevant for my grandchildren. One of my granddaughters already decided to immigrate to Spain; the other one is considering Canada. They don’t want to raise their children here.”
The interview made headlines as Shalgi is by Israeli standards an icon of Zionist commitment.
Many others now considering leaving do not make headlines, they just get on with it. While many more still play along with the idea of leaving. Some of them talk about it openly in defiance, for others it is still a private decision that they are not proud to make in public.
After all, even just a decade ago leaving Israel was perceived as an act that bordered on betrayal. In 1976, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called emigres “a cascade of wimps”, the closest translation for a more offensive term in Hebrew. The prominent Israeli writer AB Yehoshua said they were infected with a virus.
Over the years, this attitude has changed, and so has the terminology. The negative term used to describe those leaving Israel has been substituted by another that is more neutral: “relocation”.
The reforms and furious rhetoric of today’s government and the huge protests they have prompted have even legitimised wantaway feelings within what was left of the old “Israel only” brigade.
“Relocation”, or even just talking about it, has become an act of resistance to the changing face of Israel. The number of those considering “relocation” or actively involved in the process is growing.
The phenomenon is not entirely new. It began to gain momentum after the mass demonstrations in 2011 when hundreds of thousands of Israelis, the majority between 20-40 years old, took to the streets to protest against the high cost of living in a demanding country that they felt they served for little in return.
Back then, the focus was only on the economy. Nobody dared to refer to the deeper underlying motivation: the re-evaluation of the meaning of Zionism in the 21st century.
For all involved, it was an explosive material, and still is.
Over the decade between those protests and the current ones, which are unprecedented in scope and anger, “relocation” grew deeper roots and a different justification: “the situation”.
“Due to the situation my wife and I plan relocation,” is an opening line in many posts in Facebook groups dedicated to leaving Israel.
The nature of the “situation” remains open to interpretation. A couple considering relocation to Ireland expressed concern about the often-critical Irish attitude towards Israel. A member of the group replied: “If you consider relocation, you probably share the same sentiment with Ireland." That’s the discourse.
Twenty-five different groups dealing with “relocation” can be found on Facebook in Hebrew. They share tips on relocating everywhere, from America to Thailand, though the majority are directed toward Western Europe.
Dubai is the most recent newcomer to a growing list of alternative locations. Already some Israeli celebrities and businesspeople have made the city and emirate their home, though that has little to do with the government or the protests and more to do with the lifestyle it offers. Still, Israelis tend to follow existing Israeli communities, and the less rich and famous now see Dubai as an option.
Some of the groups provide information, while others act more like support groups for those new to the process. Some have over 20,000 members. And the groups keep growing. An admin of one with high traffic recently posted: “Over recent weeks we experience rapid growth and many questions repeat themselves. I suggest we move to live discussions.”
Some of the posts are from anonymous users. The shame of abandoning Israel is too great for many, while others just don’t want to be spotted by their employers.
The biggest group is “Israelis in Portugal”. It’s popular because Israelis - especially those of Sephardic roots or a proven history that links them to the Spanish expulsion of Jews in 1492 - can quite easily obtain a Portuguese passport. And they have, in numbers.
Recently Portugal made it less easy, though still doable. In between, a thriving Israeli community was established in the country. In 2020 alone, over 20,000 Israelis obtained citizenship, second only to Brazilians, just 65 more of which became Portuguese.
Portugal is still a sought-after destination, as Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish missionary movement, knows all too well. Its Portuguese branch recently reached out to Israelis planning to move there to happily announce the opening of a new kindergarten.
Those now considering Portugal turn to Israelis already established there for help and advice. And to make it a more tempting prospect, ads for Hebrew speakers to events such as Passover ceremonies and Israeli independence parties can be seen posted by various organisations. The use of language is crucial here: the ads apply to Israelis - not to the local Jewish community.
In 2023, Cyprus is also a prominent destination. Probably due to the island's close proximity to Israel - just a 45-minute flight away - and the existence of a small but already well-established Israeli community to make the move less scary. The most recent posts on Facebook ask about the schooling system, work permits, real estate prices, and even which services are provided to pregnant women. The very practical nature of these questions attests to the genuine intention of those posting them.
Even nation-states are getting in on the act. Last week, Greek authorities approached Israeli tech companies and invited them to move to Greece, providing tempting incentives. Tech will be one of the first sectors to be affected by the economic implications of the judicial overhaul. Already many of these companies have started transferring money to foreign banks or diverted their investments to projects outside of Israel, and we could ultimately see the transfer of entire companies and their workers, removing a key pillar of the Israeli economy in the process.
The temptations to leave are found all over: agile lawyers advertise help in obtaining German passports to the descendants of German Jews and Israelis originating from Romania or Moldova. Others praise the assets of an Austrian passport, now supposedly more sought after and more easily obtained.
In the 25-45 age group many already know somebody who has already left or is in the process of leaving. An academic in a much-sought-after field planning his exit spoke to Middle East Eye on condition of anonymity as he’s yet to divulge his plans with relatives or employers.
“It’s not me leaving the country, my country left me,” the academic bemoaned. He is 38 years old, and the father of four. His destination is Canada, and he’s looking for immigrants like him.
“I was offered a job there a few years ago and rejected it. It felt wrong. Now it feels perfectly right. I’m not leaving Israel - I’m leaving a different country,” he said.
That’s a prevailing sentiment: the state violated the tacit social contract; the contract does not oblige anymore.
The full numbers leaving are not yet known, but the increasing shift towards emigration is obvious. Over one million Israelis already own some kind of second passport, mostly US or from countries in the EU.
A source in Poland’s embassy in Israel told MEE that demand for a Polish passport for the children or grandchildren of Polish Jews has recently grown by around 20 percent. Although the ultimate goal is not life in Poland, it's the access to the EU that a Polish passport provides.
'It’s not me leaving the country, my country left me'
- Israeli academic
For most, a second passport is at this point some kind of insurance for the days to come. Whether or not to actually leave is still conditioned by “if” - if Israel becomes a dictatorship, if the economic situation becomes unbearable, if unemployment follows, if they lose the kind of Israel they have been fighting for and were ready to make sacrifices for.
Last week saw a mass “day of disruption” across Israel. For the first time, protesters said “we won’t live in a country with different sets of laws for different sectors”. They mean different laws for secular and orthodox, for Jews and Palestinian citizens, men and women, straight people and the LGBTQ+ community.
If the proposed judicial reforms do materialise, Israel will become a very different country in many respects. Those who will leave - or can afford to - are the liberal, better-educated, mainly middle-class Israelis, meaning a brain drain is an imminent threat. Orthodox Jews and messianic Zionists who want to resettle the Gaza Strip or long-abandoned West Bank settlements are bound to stay.
The question remains: what happens now that the judicial overhaul has been put on hold until May? The next few weeks might not be enough time to heal the deep wound that has now been opened in the country. The breach of trust is too profound. Some might postpone their relocation plans, but still leaving will remain an open option for weeks to come.
The old social contract between the state and its citizens has collapsed and no one knows at this point how to rewrite a new one. The minister of immigration and absorption, Likud’s Ofir Sofer, is responsible for both newcomers and those choosing “relocation”.
He refused to give any of MEE’s questions about the matter an answer. He may not have any.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.