Brian Blum
October 15, 2006, Updated September 14, 2012

What would Israel be without its immigrants? Half the size for starters.I’m still not sure how the fight broke out. Eight-year-old Aviv and I were out in the courtyard in front of our apartment on Shabbat afternoon, throwing a ball around, when this man who I don’t know started yelling at our neighbor Yossi – something about an altercation between their kids.

Yossi tried to calm his enraged combatant down but to no avail. The volume rose as did the tension in the courtyard as neighbors began to stream out of their houses to see what all the commotion was about. Yossi and the man alternated between Hebrew and English, with the man I didn’t know – an Israeli – mostly speaking in broken English, and Yossi – a recent immigrant – speaking mostly in accented Hebrew.

Finally, as the argument reached his most feverish pitch, the Israeli yelled at the top of his lungs – in English – “Go back to Brooklyn!” He then ascended his stairs in a huff and slammed the door.

Yossi returned to the assembled crowd, looking both flustered and furious. “No one here is even from Brooklyn,” he muttered, but that wasn’t the point. The invective uttered is one of the most hurtful anyone who has made the move to Israel can hear. It’s even tougher at this time of year, during hol ha moed Sukkot, when the country is crowded with tourists from all over the world, many of whom could be potential new immigrants. It’s saying: “This is our home, you don’t belong, and we don’t want you here.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard such an attitude. Usually it’s couched more in disbelief than fury. “Why would you move to Israel?” the sabra will ask, the subtext being “we’re all trying to get out of here and emigrate to America, why would someone willingly choose to come here?”

With other immigrants, such as those from the former Soviet Union or Ethiopia, it’s still possible to suspend that disbelief – Israel can be seen as a step up the socio-economic ladder in those cases – but even still, there’s no more sense of welcome.

Why all the vitrol? Do those veteran Israelis who think like this fear that we’ve come to take jobs away from them? Do they believe we’re somehow getting a better deal – special privileges and I’m not sure what else – that turns them into freiers, the Hebrew for suckers, and about the worst thing that could happen to an Israeli.

I’d like to tell our Israeli accusers that being an immigrant is no cakewalk. Yes, immigrants who arrive these days on Nefesh b’Nefesh flights get a nice wad of cash when they hop off the plane. But we ultimately have to endure far more hardships than any government-sponsored benefits we receive might offset.

For many of us, our Hebrew sucks, putting us at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to just about any form of communication, both oral and written. Read the fine print of a service contract? Hurry up and give me a pen so I can sign my life away. Chat with your child’s homeroom teacher? Forget about it. We nod our head as the teacher tells us our kids are failing six subjects, have terrible head lice and are about to be expelled for dressing inappropriately. No problem. Just let this meeting be over soon, please.

Immigrants don’t go through the same army training as those raised here which, while that may not sound like a bad thing, takes us out of the great social melting pot that the armed services provides. We don’t know the system, so it’s easy to take advantage of us. We are doomed to be perennial outsiders. Our children snigger behind our backs at our essential immigrant-ness and our clumsy, mildly quaint accents.

And as far as jobs go, we give up a whole lot more than we gain. We pay higher taxes and earn lower salaries than we did before we came. For many of us, we could have achieved much greater success had we stayed back in Brooklyn or Berkeley or Boston. Coming to Israel severely limits our opportunities – we may eventually rise to be bigger fish in a more compact pot, but there’s no getting around the fact that, at the end of the day, the pot is smaller.

Why do we do it? The usual reasons. For our kids. For idealism. For religious conviction. For everything I’ve written about over the past four years in This Normal Life. We give up what’s comfortable to throw our lot in with a bunch of third world whiners, in a country missing much of the raw natural beauty we grew up with (especially for those of us who hail from picturesque geographies like California), and what do we receive in return?

“Go back to Brooklyn.”

And oh, by the way, where are you from, I’d like to ask our accusers. Were you born here? Were your parents? Israel, like the US is a nation of immigrants; Israel even more so, given that daily actively-promoted immigration is not just a memory but part and parcel of our contemporary reality. You’d think that such a country would be even more welcoming to more of its own.

Maybe my expectations are too high. The US has not always embraced newcomers and immigration issues still loom high on the national agenda. Why should Israel, which emulates America in so many ways, be any different?

“Go back to Brooklyn” is even worse than it sounds, though. It’s a code term for “coercive religious fanatic.” That’s who comes from Brooklyn, in the mind of those Israelis with a religious chip on their shoulders. Brooklyn is the homeland of all those crazy Americans who’s aim it is to turn all of Israel into one big yeshiva?or one big settlement depending on where you stand in the political divide.

“Go back to New York” or “Go back to Chicago” would mean something entirely different. But Brooklyn… that’s for the black hat kooks. Is this what Israelis are really afraid of? That North American immigrants will import some “foreign” religious values they essentially disagree with?

When I heard this epithet being hurled in my own courtyard, I thought for a moment, “OK, you don’t want us here, fine, we’ll go, you win. I can take a hint.” But that would be disastrous – not only for us but for Israel as a whole.

What would Israel be without its immigrants? Half the size for starters. The Russian aliyah alone contributed a million citizens in the last decade or so. Then there’s all the immigrants from Iraq and Iran and Morocco and Yemen.

Israel without its immigrants would also be considerably more provincial and backward than it at times already is. Immigrants bring different perspectives, not to mention invaluable expertise in everything from medicine to music (pop stars Rami Kleinstein, Noa and Danny Sanderson all grew up in the US) Would Israel have even the modicum of the recycling and environmental sensitivity that exists today without a push from the immigrant community? I think not.

Immigrants have been leaders in business and hi-tech, bringing innovation to every corner of the country. Immigrants have also made it to the top of politics. It’s been awhile since we had any prominent Anglo leaders, but let’s not forget that Golda Meir was from the US, Chaim Weitzman grew up in England, and although officially an Israeli, Bibi Netanyahu was strongly influenced by his US education. These days, Miri Eisen, Israel’s top government spokesperson, hails from overseas.

Not every English-speaking immigrant is a boon to the country of course: Meir Kahane and Baruch Goldstein were certainly rotten eggs. But that’s no reason to take your wrath out at an entire community.

My friend Mick says I’m taking the wrong approach entirely. Rather than positing a defensive posture about my fellow immigrants, I should just call the guy in the courtyard what he is – a bully – and recognize that his antagonism is not the norm. Most Israelis are above that.

And deep down, I know that’s true; I know that we’re wanted here and that, at least some of the time, the Israel I’ve come to love embraces all of its far-flung populations.

Even those of us from “Brooklyn.”

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