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You Can Leave Israel, but It Will Always Haunt You

You Can Leave Israel, but It Will Always Haunt You

You can drag your body abroad, like an unwieldy suitcase, but it’s impossible to leave Israel. You can silence and boycott it, but it will always resurface

February 10th, 02AM February 10th, 03AM

The departure begins long before the departure. Like the occupation, it creeps. Long before the first Google search for information about apartment prices in Lisbon (relatively cheap) or the medical system in Montreal (decent), the departure is engendered by a gradual erosion of all the mechanisms that keep a person in his place and country – family, livelihood, feelings of belonging and, above all, inertia. You’re still here now and your daughter is already registered in preschool.

Those are strong anchors, and history shows that people break away from them mainly in situations of no-choice – a pandemic, war or the timeless Jewish favorite: persecution. But relentless daily attrition can also loosen our connection to them. The astonishment at being ripped off every time we go to the supermarket, the hours swallowed up every day in traffic jams, the clerk who treats your very existence as a nuisance, the fear that rocket alarms will go off again, the “education” system that’s barely more than a preparatory course for the army.

Day by day, hour by hour, life in Israel presents those who live here with amazingly persuasive arguments to try their luck elsewhere, to offer their offspring something better, until the anchors that hold the ship in place rattle and emit a grinding screech as they detach.

And then there’s the election. For anyone who needed a last push, it arrived in the form of the Knesset falling into the hands of a racist-nationalist-religious majority whose symbols – Ben-Gvir the hangman-clown, and Smotrich the hangman-gravedigger – are leaders of the type that eventually end up in the International Court of Justice in The Hague. They hide their racist doctrine behind prattle about “governance” and national resilience, a costume about as effective as a sheet worn over your head so no one will know you’re Ku Klux Klan.

The push came in the form of the “judicial reform,” aka the right wing’s glorious suicide attack of revenge against the left. It came in the person of a prime minister who disparages everything that a decent person believes is good and worthy – he’s contemptuous of the truth, despises humility, scorns solidarity, deplores justice. It is impossible to look at what the new government did in the short time since its creation, impossible to listen to those who support it, and not feel genuine repulsion, unmitigated shame vis-a-vis those who are ostensibly your compatriots, your brothers and sisters. Until the point where all that remains is to say, enough, it’s impossible to live here any longer, the time has come to go.

* * *

Leaving is an existential situation in its own right. It is a word that supposedly represents a process bookended by a beginning and an end, but it’s actually a whole world. A house to live in. From the moment the decision is made, the heavy weight that pressed down on your chest melts away, the possibilities look limitless. Suddenly the world is not a vacation destination, but a potential future.

There is no place on earth more beautiful than Rome’s Piazza Navona on a spring day; in London every paving stone has a history that reaches back to William the Conqueror at least; in Marseille you can eat fresh shellfish straight from fishermen’s nets; Montreal is as beautiful as Paris; in Germany education is free, medicine is free, love is free; in Copenhagen no honking of cars is heard in the streets, no music from kiosks, no loudspeakers blaring “Nachman from Uman,” and no people talking at the top of their lungs; in the United States you can land on Sunday and by Thursday already be a millionaire – why the hell didn’t I think of this before?

And so, even before the physical act of leaving, the soul guarantees itself a rebirth. But not every soul. Because despite the despair, the longed-for voluntary leaving of those disappointed in the election results and those seared by life in Israel, is a first-class escape. There will be no stacks of dusty suitcases in some stuffy train station, nor a tidal wave of starving people who hope that the border crossing will be opened just for them.

No. Voluntary leaving includes within it the economic, cultural and social ability to choose it: the eligibility for a passport that Grandpa bequeathed you, the job that makes relocation possible, the fluent English, the family safety net, the fearlessness in the face of the unknown, the “I’m sure the children will get used to it after a few months.” Riki Cohen from Hadera, a Hebrew teacher and a single parent of four, isn’t going anywhere. But the employees of Papaya Global in Herzliya – that’s another story.

* * *

But as the justifiably worried high-techies and other leavers will discover, leaving is not really possible. The body can wander, it can be dragged like an unwieldy suitcase from place to place as it makes its way as far as Yokohama or Reykjavik, but it is impossible to leave behind the Israel you’re branded with. You can silence, stifle or boycott it, flagellate it out of you like a medieval monk, but it will resurface, unharmed.

It will raise its head at the sound of a few sentences in Hebrew on the street, at a news item about an antisemitic attack, at the familiar face of the person selling cosmetics in a kiosk in the mall – the son of Eli from the reserve unit! And there is nothing magical or heartwarming here. Israelis’ absolute identification with their country is not a matter of “Hava Nagila.” Of “I have no other country.” Of Paratroopers at the Western Wall. Of “the people of Israel lives.” This identification is a trap, a weight placed there intentionally, a cruel form of conditioning that leaves the image of the country unharmed but imprisons its inhabitants.

And therefore the majority returns. Because, although it’s easy to be captivated by the charm of a year or two in New York, when you start to think about decades, things get complicated. There’s something unsettling about the thought of some future morning coffee on a balcony overlooking a monument to Don Pedro IV, with a Portuguese child suddenly sitting down next to you. Your daughter, who just a moment ago was an Israeli, is now a girl from a foreign culture who speaks and thinks in a different language.

And also, you’re compelled to admit to yourself, it won’t help you to escape the fascists, the reactionaries, the pagan-religious folk, the Judeo-Nazis, the homophobes. They will come with you. Even when you are standing in line for a Frappucino Grande and news alerts on your phone will caution about another “inevitable” terrorist attack in Jerusalem, or about an entire Palestinian family being deported to the Gaza Strip, or that from today it’s prohibited to turn on the TV on Shabbat – even then you will still feel that you are part of the disgrace, to paraphrase South African writer J.M. Coetzee.

Because you have already been part of 100,000 plus another 100,000 previous disgraces, disgraces of silence, disgraces of turning a blind eye, disgraces of “what am I supposed to do about this.” So it’s possible to flee, to start anew, to drink the Frappucino, erect a high wall of separation, but the stain remains on the wall.

* * *

So you decide to stay. Despite the grumbling and the gloomy forecasts, you discovered that things aren’t yet bad enough here. From the rented apartment in the center of the country it’s easy to ignore the violence in the south, the apartheid in the east, the pollution in the north. At least the sea is lovely in the west. But even so, something has changed. The choice between fighting and turning away is easy: Inadvertently, you have armed yourself to the teeth with indifference.

You hear that a judge that ruled against the opinion of the masses was fired, that the Defense Ministry sold advanced weapons to some dictatorship, that money was taken again from members of the public who work and given to young men who will never work – but you no longer care. Because in the deepest sense of existing in a place – feeling that you belong to it – you are no longer really here.

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