Israel’s far-right government goes all-in as secular Israelis seek a way out

Israel's far-right government goes all-in as secular Israelis seek a way out

Protesters confront police during a rally against the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv on 4 March 2023.

(Gili Yaari/NurPhoto via AFP)

When the final results of the Israeli legislative elections were announced on 3 November 2022, a striking thought immediately popped into Avital Chayat’s mind.

As the broadcaster declared that former prime minister and Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu had sealed his dramatic return to power – winning 64 seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, with the ultra-nationalist Religious Zionist Party obtaining 14 crucial seats to help form the most right-wing government in the country’s history – the 33-year-old teacher stood up and began rummaging through a closet in his parents’ house in Jerusalem.

In an old blue box in the back of the closet were the birth certificates of his Poland-born parents and grandparents who emigrated to the Jewish state in the aftermath of the 1948 Declaration of Independence. “Amidst the rise of an ultra-nationalist government in Israel, I couldn’t help but think about my family’s history,” Chayat recalls.

Under the disbelieving eyes of his father, he leafed through the old, yellowed photos and school diplomas, proving the existence of his family’s life in Poland. His next step was to contact an Israeli lawyer specialising in international citizenship law to help him gain a Polish passport, which would grant him the right to live and work in any country in the European Union without the need for a visa or work permit.

Chayat’s story is far from unique. Following the elections late last year and the debate about the contentious judicial overhaul that has caused uproar in Israel in recent months, his story reflects a broader trend of Israelis seeking citizenship in the United States and Europe.

Israel’s right-wing government’s draft law to weaken the power of the country’s judiciary, coupled with the Religious Zionism’s supporters’ project of a religious state promoting conservative family values and applying Jewish sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, is pushing the secular grandchildren of Holocaust survivors to seek EU citizenship and move back to the countries where their grandparents were once persecuted.

“The country I grew up in is becoming unrecognisable,” says 38-year-old lawyer Aya Shahar, referring to latent tensions between liberal and conservative Jews which erupted after the recent elections.

“Far-right and religious parties such as the Otzma Yehudit and the Religious Zionist Party are taking over. That’s why I want to secure the future of my children in Europe in case things in Israel go irrevocably south,” adds the mother of two during a recent demonstration in Tel Aviv, which prides itself of being a secular haven in a religious country.

She decided in February this year to act on her rights to acquire a German passport, since her parents have German citizenship: “It wasn’t an issue for me until recently. But the political instability and a sense of social claustrophobia pushed me to take action. I have dozens of friends following in my footsteps.”

A reverse Aliyah

Israeli voters have cast ballots five times in the last four years, with the longest-tenured prime minister in the country’s history, Benjamin Netanyahu, currently on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals.

With political fault lines becoming increasingly bitter and unstable, underlined by the never-ending conflict with Palestinians, secular Israelis fear a significant economic recession inflamed by what they consider a political apocalypse led by ultra-orthodox lawmakers. Foreign investors and companies are cautious about investing in the country, as the national currency has already weakened.

For many Israelis, gaining a second passport represents security in the form of an exit option, in what appears to be a reverse Aliyah that could potentially undermine the sense of national belonging at the core of the Jewish state.

Hard data is difficult to get since Israeli authorities and foreign embassies decline to provide information. However, industry stakeholders claim that demand has surged following the elections, with the United States and the countries of the European Union being the top destinations. The likelihood of emigrating to Europe is higher among Ashkenazi Jews, which one-third of Israeli Jews identify as and whose ancestors migrated to Israel from Central and Eastern Europe, and Sephardi Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, as their roots may provide them with easier access to European passports. Conversely, Ethiopian and Mizrahi Jews of Middle Eastern descent may encounter more difficulties in relocating to European countries.

“Israelis have always been interested in emigration. But the day after Netanyahu’s electoral victory, we noticed a spike in Google searches for keywords such as ‘foreign passport’ and ‘emigration from Israel’. Applications for foreign passports at our firm have increased by about 30 per cent since November last year,” Joshua Pex, an attorney specialising in immigration at the law firm Decker, Pex, Levi, Rosenberg & Co., tells Equal Times.

Israelis are investing significant amounts of money to acquire dual citizenship. Lawyers and companies specialising in international citizenship advertise their services online, charging €1,300 in straightforward cases, or double or triple that amount in complex ones. In a country where minimum wage is about €1,400, relocation may not be a viable option for all Israelis, particularly those from lower-income backgrounds. Income inequality in Israel has been a persistent issue, with the country ranking as one of the highest amongst OECD countries. As a result, emigration may be an attractive option primarily for those who have greater access to resources and opportunities.

Even though most families and individuals do not end up relocating immediately, they are initiating the process to secure a better future for their children, with German and Austrian passports being among the most widely sought, says Pex. Procedures can take as long as two or three years.

Far from being a new phenomenon, emigration has always been on the table for Jewish families. Known in Hebrew as Aliyah – meaning ‘ascent’ – Jewish emigration lies at the heart of the foundation of the State of Israel. Today however, emigration from Israel to Europe and the US – known in Hebrew as Yerida, meaning ‘descent’ – is taking a political twist rooted in time.

Democracy on thin ice

Throughout the last six-plus decades of statehood, Israeli administrations have consistently avowed the centrality of Jewish immigration and the Law of Return of all Jews to Israel for the safety and perpetuation of both the Jewish population and the nation. However, Jewish emigration has always been a challenging phenomenon for Israeli authorities.

As early as 30 years before David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the foundation of the State of Israel, some 60,000 Jews had already left the region during the British mandate era over Palestine (1923-1948), according to the Israeli researcher and writer Meir Margalit. In his book published in Hebrew in 2018, Returning in Tears – Emigration During the British Mandate Period, he argues that during the First and Second Aliyah (1882-1903 and 1904-1914), at least half of all new immigrants abandoned the Zionist project.

Ten per cent of the new Jewish immigrants who reached the shores of Israel in the aftermath of independence in 1948 chose to emigrate in the next few years, either questioning the settler-colonial project or becoming part of a stream of Jews seeking their fortune abroad.

In more recent years, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the number of Israelis leaving the country is higher than the number of those who are immigrating, an increasing trend since 2009 when a three-week war erupted between Gaza and Israel, with 2020 hitting slightly less than 21,000 departures against roughly 10,000 repatriating.

Around one million holders of an Israeli passport are estimated to live abroad, out of Israel’s total population of over nine million, 73.6 per cent of which is Jewish.

Critics say both the judicial reforms and the far-right government policies would put Israel’s democracy on thin ice in a country with no formal constitution or any other form of checks and balances other than the Supreme Court. Polls show that a majority of secular Israelis both question the bill and the government and expect increased emigration from the country in reaction to the hardline government.

“Every year Israel loses a few thousands young, highly educated and secular inhabitants, all concentrated in the higher part of the socio-economic ladder,” says Uzi Rebhun, a demographer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Despite this, Rebhun suggests that “figures are comparable to those of other Western countries and are not alarming”.

He continues: “Better economic opportunities overseas, the Israeli-Arab conflict and the increasing influence of the religious establishment over the state are all push factors in emigration from Israel. If negotiations between the opposition and the government fail, the judicial overhaul will definitely encourage young, secular Israelis to leave the country in the medium term,” Rebhun explains.

“There will be no room for liberals in Israel”

Forty-six-year-old entrepreneur Itamar Danieli moved to Italy four years ago and was the initiator of a recent demonstration against Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul in Rome. “This reform is encouraging relocation of the young, educated and secular middle-class. If leaders choose religion over democracy, there will be no room for liberals in Israel,” claims the import/export businessman, pointing out the demographic battle between secular Jews, who make up approximately 30 per cent of the population, and ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews, make up 13 per cent and are growing rapidly.

Around eight million Jews live outside Israel, including approximately six million in the US. Despite a growing flow of Israeli citizens choosing to relocate to one of the OECD countries, migration often comes with challenges and obstacles. The concomitant rise of the far-right and antisemitism in the US and in Europe represents a source of concern for both the Jewish diaspora and Israelis planning their future abroad.

“Fascist groups in Western societies are on the rise. We observe a growing antisemitism fuelled by uncertainty and fear of the Other. On a global scale, the same pattern as in the 1930s is now repeating itself both in liberal and illiberal democracies in the EU,” cultural anthropologist at the University of Warsaw Stanislaw Obirek tells Equal Times.

The Antisemitism Worldwide Report 2021, by the Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University claims that “a significant increase in various types of antisemitic incidents in most countries with large Jewish populations,” with the US recording twice as many incidents as the year before and France increasing by almost 75 per cent the number of antisemitic incidents compared with 2020.

But the resurgence of antisemitism globally won’t stop the Israelis that are considering leaving. “I feel resigned, as if there’s nothing I can do to ease this state of permanent social and political tensions. I want to open up my options,” says Mohar Rosenbaum, a 28-year-old architecture student from Jerusalem and a fervent defender of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Although her left-wing opinions are a minority in the Jewish state, she says that her pursuit of an American passport, through her parents’ American citizenship has not weakened her sense of belonging to Israel. “I still feel that Israel is a refuge for Jewish people from all over the world, even though my hopes for peace and security in the region aren’t as high as my parents and grandparents,’” she admits.

The growing disillusion of young Israelis with perspectives on political stability in their country also sparks familiar backlash between generations ignited by different approaches to being Israeli.

Despite joining the demonstrations and being committed to his country’s future, teacher Avital Chayat says he faced severe criticism from his parents over his decision to acquire a Polish passport: “They said their generation made countless sacrifices to build the country and secure my future. Now my generation is giving up at the first sign of trouble. They don’t like this far-right government either, but they said that we should resist. Perhaps, they’re right.”