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Exodus: Cost of living and poverty drive young and educated to quit Israel

Many highly educated and moderate-minded Israelis are leaving the country, with no prospect of coming home

In the period between July and August 2011, thousands of Israelis participated in non-violent mass demonstrations across the country with the aim of reducing the high cost of living in Israel. They demanded social justice, or a fair relation between the individual and the society he or she is part of.

The Israeli public was angry . The price of cottage cheese, a staple on Israeli tables, had increased by more than 40 percent in the last three years, and rental prices in Tel Aviv had risen more than 40 percent between 2005–2011. Middle-class salaries no longer sufficed for a decent living.

I myself participated in one demonstration held in the southern city of Be’er Sheva on 14 August, 2011. I accompanied my Israeli friends while they demanded something that I had, until then, taken for granted: a welfare state.

I was a 22-year-old international student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. To my surprise, the cost of living in Israel was higher than the cost of living in Spain, my home country. For example, I was paying almost double for my morning cereal.

According to Numbeo, the largest database of user-contributed data about cities and countries worldwide, my cost of living in Israel was 33 percent higher than Spain's.

“The situation has gotten worse. There has been a decline in the purchasing power of Israelis,” my Israeli flat-mate explained to me. “There has been a rise in the prices of food and housing, but salaries stay the same. You, yourself, have compared the prices here in Israel to those in Spain. Life in Israel is more expensive than life in an EU country. We pay more than you guys, and we live worse.” 

Now, my former flatmate is a teacher assistant at a university in the United States, and she is not planning on returning to Israel. 

Like her, many highly educated and moderate-minded Israelis are leaving the country, and have no prospect of returning back home.

Also, some new immigrants or olim hadashim are emigrating back to their home countries after experiencing difficulties upon arrival to Israel. In addition to the hustle of moving to a new country, they face specific challenges that are forcing them to abandon their dream of settling down in the holy land.

If this phenomenon continues, and emigration from Israel eventually outpaces immigration to Israel, the future of the Jewish majority in Israel will be at stake.

Israel-born Israelis emigrating to Europe and US

On the eve of the New Year 2016, Israel's population stood at a record 8,462,000, of which 6,335,000 (74.9 percent) are Jewish, 1,757,000 (20.7 percent) are Arab, and 370,000 (4.4 percent) are identified as “others.”

How many of these almost 8 million and a half Israelis are expatriates is uncertain. Most estimates say that over 700,000 Israeli citizens live abroad. That is to say, according to these estimates, almost 10 percent of Israel’s population does not live in Israel. 

Also, estimates emphasise that the main reason why Israeli expatriates do not live in their home country is not the political situation, but the fact that, in Israel, prices are too high and salaries are too low.

This should not come as a surprise. According to the latest report of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Israel ranks as the country with the highest rates of poverty among OECD members. About 21 per cent of Israelis are living under the poverty line – more than in countries such as Mexico, Turkey, and Chile.

In the mid-1990s, Israel's poverty rate stood at just 14 percent. This means that there are more people in Israel living under the poverty line today than 10years ago.

The ramifications of this scenario are multiple. One of them is a net brain drain for Israel, as many young and educated professionals leave the country with the aim of finding better opportunities in Europe and the United States.

Almost two years ago, Sarah, an Israeli who works in the information technology industry, moved to Berlin, Germany, with her beautiful dog. “I wanted a change in my life,” she told me. “Emigrating from Israel to Germany was not related to the political situation in my country. My decision was mainly based on financial considerations. Although, it should be noted, this was not the only reason behind my decision to emigrate to Europe.”

Her quality of life has since improved. “My quality of life is better in Germany. I have a big and renovated apartment for my dog and myself. This type of housing option is very expensive in Tel Aviv. I would not be able to afford this type of housing there.”

Adam, a 32-year-old computer engineer, also emigrated to Berlin from Tel Aviv two years ago. “I wanted to develop myself professionally. My then-girlfriend encouraged me to move to Berlin, where I could acquire valuable professional experience and enjoy a relatively cheap cost of living. So I did.”

“My salary is lower in Berlin, though. I do have a better job, yes, but my salary is lower. Nevertheless, the price of housing here in Berlin is lower than the price of housing in Tel Aviv, so that compensates,” he added.

Adam is planning on moving back to Tel Aviv in the future. “I will return home at some point. When depends on my current girlfriend.” For the moment, he will continue to be part of Berlin’s growing community of Israeli expatriates.

New Israelis leaving Israel

Between 2015 and 2016, the State of Israel welcomed approximately 28,000 new immigrants. Most of them were from France (25 percent), Ukraine (24 percent), Russia (23 percent), and the United States (9 percent). 

Most of them will become part of Israel’s society as planned, but some will not succeed in doing so, particularly those with no previous ties to the country.

Alex Lasky, a new Jewish immigrant or olah hadasha from the US who emigrated to Israel in summer 2012, identifies three obstacles new immigrants or olim hadashim face upon arrival to the holy land. “First, we need to find proper housing in Israel, and we do so remotely. We olim are not able to visit the apartments ourselves since we are not in Israel yet, and we might need to hire an Israeli real estate agent to find a place to live.” This service is often expensive.

“Another obstacle we face upon arriving is setting up the bills for this newfound place to live. Not all landlords assist olim with the household bills, so olim must navigate through the shaky Israeli customer service in English – if there is any. After the balagan [Hebrew word for “mess”] with the bills, finding the right bank to have money withdrawn from every month can be a hassle, too.”

After experiencing these difficulties herself, Alex decided to become an independent consultant who specialises in helping new Israelis from the US settle down in Israel.

“I help olim feel like they are not drowning in the deep end of a pool,” she explained to me. “Before they arrive in Israel, I assist with searching for apartments for them, assist with setting up bills upon arrival, explaining the benefits they receive from the State along with other resources they have at their fingertips. I help life flow a bit more easily, you can say”.

Her objective is to help others like her feel at home. “I do not want olim to fall and want to leave Israel because they immediately had to struggle finding their footing in this country. I want them to welcome Israel into their hearts and lives just as Israel has taken them in.”

High cost of living

The Israeli government spends large amounts of Israeli taxpayer’s money on various attempts to bring back those who chose to emigrate, as well as to push non-Israeli Jews to migrate to the Jewish state. Needless to say, while Israel pours funds into the international Jewish community, the residents of impoverished cities like Dimona or Lod suffer a lack of investment.

However, by the end of the day, it is not the Israeli government, but people like Alex who help olim to stay in Israel.

In few countries in the world are immigration and emigration so politically charged as in Israel. The reason: Jewish Israelis fear that they are sitting on a demographic time bomb.

Nevertheless, while the government continues to encourage Jewish immigration, offering generous financial incentives to new arrivals, it is doing little to nothing to deter Israelis and olim from leaving their impoverished country.

Reducing the high cost of living and investing in development is key to guarantee that both Israelis and new Jewish immigrants stay in Israel.

- Tania Ildefonso Ocampos is a Spanish political analyst who specialises in EU strategy in the Middle East. She is a former Schuman trainee (Euro-Med and Middle East Unit of the European Parliament's Directorate-General for External Policies), and holds an MA in Middle Eastern History from Tel Aviv University, Israel.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.  

Photo: Passengers wait for their flights at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on 18 September, 2014 (AFP).