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Jews are leaving Israel in disillusion. They've been leaving for a long time

A new movement to leave Israel after the recent elections is part of a long tradition of disillusioned Jewish colonists departing the land
A man looks at a flight information board in the departures terminal at Ben Gurion International airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel on 10 March 2020 (Reuters)

The Israeli newspaper Maariv reported this week on a new movement whose goal is to facilitate the emigration of Israeli Jews to the United States following the recent Israeli elections, which, in their view, alters the Zionist state’s relationship to religion. 

The group, which calls itself “Leaving the country - together”, plans to move 10,000 Israeli Jews in the first stage of its plan. Leaders of the group include Israeli anti-Netanyahu activist Yaniv Gorelik and Israeli-American businessman Mordechai Kahana. 

The departure of Jewish colonists from Palestine is hardly a new phenomenon 

Kahana, who has historically been active in bringing Jewish colonists to Israel, told the newspaper: “After years of smuggling Jews from war zones in Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, and Ukraine to Israel, I decided to help Israelis make Aliyah to the US… it is time to offer the Zionist movement an alternative in case things in Israel keep getting worse.”

Kahana added: “I saw people in WhatsApp groups talking about the immigration of Israelis to Romania or Greece, but I personally think that it will be a lot easier for them to immigrate to the US.

"I have a huge farm in New Jersey, and I offered Israelis to join in order to turn my farm into a kibbutz… with such a government in Israel, the American government should let every Israeli who owns a company or has a sought-after profession in the US such as doctors and pilots, immigrate to the US."

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Kahana is not the first Jewish businessman to own a huge farm in New Jersey with plans to turn it into a Jewish settler colony. 

Jewish settlement in the US

In the midst of massive Jewish migration from 1882 to 1914, which brought about two million Russian Jewish immigrants to the US to escape increasing poverty and the rise of antisemitism, the German-French Jewish financier and philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch was the forerunner of such efforts. De Hirsch founded the Jewish Colonisation Association (JCA) which was incorporated in London in 1891. 

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Its aim was to fund Jewish agricultural colonies for Russian Jews inside Russia and around the world, but especially in the Americas. The JCA’s first agricultural colony in the US was Woodbine Colony, founded in 1891 in southern New Jersey. 

In 1890, Hirsch founded the Jewish Agricultural Society, which helped move Jewish colonists from the East Coast of the US inland.

It lasted until 1972. In 1892, he founded the Woodbine Agricultural School to educate and fund Jewish colonists in farming methods. The Woodbine Colony prospered in the 1920s and 1930s and after 1948 received hundreds of Holocaust survivors as new colonists. 

Aside from the JCA’s agricultural colony in New Jersey, the Jewish Territorial Organisation, an offshoot of the Zionist Organisation, which was established in 1901, helped to fund the “Galveston Plan” for Jewish colonisation of the western US through Galveston, Texas in 1907. 

The plan succeeded in sending 10,000 Jewish immigrants to the US Southwest by 1914. Today, Kahana seems interested in similar schemes.

Jewish colonists depart

In Israel, a country steeped in Zionist religious and colonial ideology, Jewish emigration to Palestine as colonists is historically referred to as "aliyah", a positive term meaning “ascent” (to Heaven?). However, Jewish colonists’ spurning this colonisation effort by emigrating to Europe or its white settler colonies (mainly the US, Canada, and Australia, but also South America) is referred to as "yeridah", a pejorative term meaning “descent” (from Heaven?). 

Some Zionists claim the terms have biblical origins, although the Zionist rendering has little to do with their original meaning. 

It is instructive in this regard that Kahana, pace the Zionist movement, describes Israeli Jewish emigration to the US as "aliyah". He explains that “I made aliyah to the US in 1991…I raised my standard of living and I’ve raised the level of my own and my children’s education.”  

The departure of Jewish colonists from Palestine is hardly a new phenomenon and is in fact as old as the Zionist Jewish colonisation of the country, which started in the 1880s. 

At the time, Jewish colonists from Ukraine, members of the Kharkov- and Odessa-based Bilu movement, left Palestine, after being disillusioned with the results of their colonial efforts, to the US and back to Russia. 

Indeed, between the 1880s and World War I, a majority of the Jewish colonists who had arrived in Palestine in the interim left the country. As much as 10 percent, about 60,000, would leave between the 1920s and 1948, in addition to the 30,000 who left prior to the British conquest. 

According to Israeli researcher Meir Margalit, thousands more colonists wanted to emigrate but did not have the means to leave. Thousands more appealed to the United Nations after World War II “to be included on the lists of refugees entitled to return to their homeland in Europe – similar to the displaced persons scattered throughout Europe”. 

The Palestine-based Organisation of Returning German Immigrants demanded that the UN help them go back to Austria and Czechoslovakia.

In 1947, Jewish colonists submitted 485 requests for an Austrian passport, while the Polish consul in Tel Aviv reported that 14,500 Polish Jewish colonists requested visas to return to their homeland, although Zionist leaders would conspire with the Poles to create endless delays in processing requests to dissuade would-be emigrants. 

After Israel was established, emigration was still a feature of the Jewish colonists’ experience in the country. But between 1948 and the mid-1950s, 10 percent of the new colonists had also left the country.  

The settler-colonial project fails

Concerned about the failure of its settler-colonial project to keep the Jewish colonists in the country, the Israeli government introduced severe restrictions on their emigration from 1948 until 1961 by requiring an exit visa, which was often denied.

Despite such restrictions, by the tenth anniversary of the founding of Israel in 1958, 100,000 colonists had left. By 1967, more than 180,000 Israelis, most of them Jews, emigrated. Obstacles continued to be placed in their way by the Israeli government in the 1960s and beyond. 

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Still, by 1980, as many as half a million Israelis were already emigrants in the US alone. By the end of 2003, the Israeli government estimated that more than 750,000 Israelis were living outside the country permanently, the majority in the US and Canada.

In more recent years, it is estimated that of the 600,000-750,000 Israelis living in the US, 230,000 were Israel-born Jews (meaning children of Jewish immigrant-colonists). Between 1948 and 2015, the Israeli government claims, 720,000 Israelis emigrated and never returned. 

The Palestinian population has already been a majority in the land between the river and the sea for a number of years, outstripping the number of Jewish colonists who live in the country. In the meantime, more than one million Israeli Jews have obtained dual nationalities in the last two decades, with the second nationality being invariably European or American, in preparation to leave the settler colony if and when it goes under. 

That the disillusioned Jewish colonists want to opt-out of their settler colony and move to another, where white privilege is also secured, is hardly anomalous.

White colonists across the settler-colonial world have opted to either go back to the European mother countries, as French colonists in North Africa, Portuguese colonists in Angola and Mozambique (although a good number went to Brazil), and British colonists in Kenya, had done.

Others moved to Australia, Canada, and the United States (white Rhodesians moved after 1980 mostly to apartheid South Africa), as South African whites had done. Already in 2016, it was estimated that up to about 30 percent of French Jews who emigrated to Israel ended up returning home to France, despite intense efforts by Israel and Zionist groups to attract them and keep them in the settler colony.

The significance of the new movement "Leaving the country – together" is that it is the immediate outcome of the most recent accession to power of a new Israeli government. 

For the Palestinians, the new Israeli government is likely to differ from its predecessors only in its open rhetoric about Jewish supremacy

That so many Israeli Jews and their liberal supporters abroad are appalled by the nature of the forthcoming Netanyahu government is mostly motivated by concern over the fate of the allegedly "secular-democratic" Jewish colonial society being transformed into a religious and racist state, and not necessarily on account of its anti-Palestinian racism and commitments to deepen Jewish colonisation.

The latter, however, remains a concern in so far as it could lead to the undoing of "the Jewish state" altogether. 

For the Palestinians, Israel has been, since its founding, a religious and racist state, and most importantly, a settler-colonial one. 

Unlike Israeli Jewish liberals and their international supporters, for the Palestinians, the new Israeli government is likely to differ from its predecessors only in its open rhetoric about Jewish supremacy and Jewish colonisation, but not in its actual racist and colonial policies against the Palestinian people.

Nonetheless, most Palestinians certainly hope that the “Leaving the country—together” group is a good harbinger for the final decolonisation of their country in the near future.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York. He is the author of many books and academic and journalistic articles. His books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism. His books and articles have been translated into a dozen languages.
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