Israelis in Berlin

20th Jan 2015

The insidious, and mistaken, media meme around the irresistible story of Israelis choosing to live in Germany

Israelis in Berlin: Is anything cooler, more postmodern, more transgressive, more emblematic of our hip, new borderless world? In October, New York TimesJerusalem Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren wrote of an Israeli “Exodus” to Germany spurred by rising rents and prices of consumer goods in the Jewish State. Not to be outdone, the Washington Post chimed in the following week with a similar story about the “waves of young Israelis” bringing “the long-lost scent of freshly baked rugelach and hamantaschen cookies back to the streets of Berlin.” Meanwhile, the Economist asks , “Is Berlin the new Jerusalem?”

There’s not much new to report about Israelis in Berlin, which has been a “thing” for years. Fania Oz-Sulzberger, the daughter of Israeli novelist Amos Oz, wrote abook about the phenomenon, straightforwardly titled Israelis in Berlin, nearly 15 years ago. Modern Hebrew, she pointed out to me in a recent phone interview, was spoken in Berlin in the early 20th century, long before it became the official language of the Jewish State. In the 1960s, around the time that official diplomatic relations were established between the postwar Federal Republic and Israel, a “trickle of Israelis” began returning to West Germany, many of them German Jews “who couldn’t live with their longing,” for the land of their birth, as well as “hard-core socialists” who moved to the German Democratic Republic in the East.

“Israelis in Berlin” has all the components of a perfect media meme: a once oppressed people returning to, and thriving in, the country that attempted to exterminate them. And it’s one that Germans, hungry for any angle that reflects positively on their relationship to world Jewry, are eager to trumpet. In 2012, Der Spiegelpublished a long feature titled “Young Israel’s New Love Affair With Germany,” which heralded the Israeli millennials and Gen-Xers, now at least two generations removed from the Holocaust, flooding to the German capital for the cheap rent, pulsating nightlife, and world-renowned arts scene. “For them, Germany is not just a country like any other—it also happens to be one of their favorites,” the weekly boasted. The previous year, the magazine ran a story titled “UnKosher Nightlife and Holocaust Humor: Israelis Learn To Love the New Berlin.” You get the picture.

While Israelis partying it up in Europe’s cheapest big city is nothing new, what has changed is the political context in which the narrative of Israelis leaving the Jewish homeland for Germany is being told. The latest media frenzy (all the aforementioned stories shared a tone of guarded, if nodding, approval at the alleged Israeli flight to Europe), occurred in the aftermath of yet another Gaza war, an event which spurred increasing international isolation (especially from European capitals) of Israel and rising global anti-Semitism. For some critics of Israel, the supposed outflow of Israelis to Germany, of all places, is an irony so delicious that harping upon it is an opportunity too tempting to avoid. The Israel of today, they allege, is so “right-wing” and “uninterested in peace” that many young Jews would rather live in the country that murdered 6 million of their ancestors than remain citizens of the doomed Zionist project. And, unfortunately, there are many Israelis in Berlin who are all too happy to serve as living confirmation for this thesis.

***

As is so often the case these days, the provenance of the most recent flood of stories was a Facebook post that went viral. “We challenge somebody to buy the same [grocery items] wherever they choose in Israel,” read the Oct. 4 posting from an anonymous administrator of a Facebook group called “Olim LeBerlin,” a play on the Hebrew term (olim) for Jews who immigrate to Israel (aliyah, which means literally “to ascend”). Accompanying the message was a photograph of a Berlin grocery store receipt listing items totaling about $20. The same shopping list in Israel, the writer claimed, would cost more than twice as much. A separate Facebook post showing the cheaper price of a chocolate pudding soon gave way to a debate within Israel and its diaspora now known as “The Milky Revolution,” in tribute to a popular Israeli confection.

Cue the predictable outrage and ham-handed response from Israeli bureaucrats. “I pity the Israelis who no longer remember the Holocaust and abandoned Israel for a pudding” Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir told the Jerusalem Post. Former Finance Ministry Director General Doron Cohen called the Facebook page, “the lowest thing in the world.” These comments echoed those made by his former boss, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, in a widely publicized Facebook post last year. “Forgive me if I’m a bit impatient with people who are willing to throw the only state the Jews have into the garbage because it’s easier to live in Berlin,” Lapid wrote.

Before they settled on the cost of living disparity, journalists had difficulty resolving just what exactly it is about Berlin that draws so many Israelis to this cold, dark city haunted by the legacies of Communist and Fascist totalitarianism. Last February, before the latest brouhaha erupted over supermarket prices, a report from Public Radio International attributed Israelis’ new-found love for the German capital to its prevalence of disco balls. “Israelis have for years been drawn to Berlin’s cosmopolitan flair, vibrant arts scene and advanced public transportation,” the Times’ Rudoren wrote, as if the decision to up and move to another continent were predicated upon the extensiveness of the U-Bahn. Doron, the former Finance Ministry official, pointed out that the Facebook post that set off the debate was deceptive in that it attempted to hide the fact that the German store receipt was from Aldi, a worldwide chain of discount supermarkets. The anonymous Israeli Facebooker, Doron claimed, was a “liar” for stating that he had shopped at a local grocery and “not some supermarket with crazy discounts.”

It’s true that the cost of living in Israel has risen substantially over the past five years, spawning a frustration that found voice in a protest movement that swept Israeli streets in 2011. I happened to be in Tel Aviv at the onset of the “Cottage Cheese Uprising,” as the demonstrations were playfully called, and what struck me about the whole affair was its obvious and unabashed patriotism. Here were citizens fiercely proud of their conception of an Israel predicated on social solidarity. They were not the sort of people about to abandon their country over the price of cottage cheese. They were determined to stay and make it better.

“Does someone really need to inform them that groceries are just as cheap in a half a dozen other cities in Europe, including many that house erstwhile allies of the Jews, like Belgrade, or in Odessa, where actual Jewish communities are fighting for their lives, and where young people are having more fun now than they were in Berlin over a decade ago?” asks Adam Sacks, a doctoral candidate at Brown University who has spent significant chunks of time in the German capital.

The notion that food prices were causing an Israeli Exodus—a word denoting a mass, permanent migration—was punctured by none other than the Israeli whose Facebook post incited the controversy, in the very New York Times story that heralded the phenomenon. “I’m planning to stay here until I’ll save enough money to buy an apartment in Tel Aviv,” the 25-year-old mobile app designer—who later revealed himself to the Washington Post as Naor Narkis—told the Times. His relocation to Germany, moreover, was not from Israel, but France, which he had left because of rampant anti-Semitism—a decision rendered all the more poignant in light of the terror attack on a Jewish supermarket in Paris earlier this month. And so here was the instigator of countless newspaper and magazine trend pieces about a supposed mass Israeli migration to Germany, revealing that the country that he fled from was neighboring France and that he intends to return to the Zionist state as soon as he can. Israel is a first world nation that offers its young people better job opportunities than Europe’s no-growth economies. Food prices rise and fall. Disappointment over them can hardly be credited as the reason why so many young Israelis would decide to make a new life in Germany.

***

So, what is the reason Israelis go to Berlin? It’s impossible to specify just one rationale and thereby conflate the manifold motivations of tens of thousands of people; this is what the aforementioned writers for major publications have done. But missing in all the recent news reports has been any appraisal of the Israelis who form one of the most visible constituencies of the Berlin diaspora: yordim, emigrants, some of whom renounce their Israeli citizenship. In Hebrew, they are ones who have “descended” and are thus the opposite of olim.

Far be it from me, an American Jew who has never had to face military conscription, the threat of constant rocket attacks on his home, nor the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iranian regime, to tell Israelis how to live their lives. But I cannot help but feel unsettled at the notion of an Israeli who, having made the decision to live the rest of his or her life outside Israel, chooses to settle in Germany. My skepticism doesn’t apply to those who move there for love, or a unique job opportunity (say, as an opera singer in one of Germany’s world-renowned companies), but rather to those Israelis who have made a conscious decision to end their life in Israel (usually for some political reason emanating from a disillusionment with Zionism) and go somewhere else. These Israelis could venture to New York, Milan, or Sydney. But they move to Berlin. I believe they do so to make a particular point.

It is the sort of point that the anti-Zionist Jewish writer Antony Loewenstein made in a 2013 piece for The Guardian. “My ostracism from mainstream Judaism,” he wrote, was “directly linked to Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians.” Judaism as a faith and the Jewish people, in Loewenstein’s mind, is inextricably linked to the actions of the Israeli government. This disaffection led him to obtain the German citizenship so cruelly revoked from his grandfather seven decades earlier (Germany’s postwar constitution allows the descendants of those dispossessed by the Nazis to reacquire a German passport). Loewenstein explicitly connects his estrangement from Jewish peoplehood and his acceptance of German citizenship as a rebuke to Jews, who, he says, worship “a God of intolerance,” and the Jewish State. Listing a series of complaints about the Israeli government, and citing Sept. 11 conspiracy theorist Richard Falk as a source, Loewenstein concludes that, “This is what my people are known for around the globe.” Not the wisdom of the Old Testament, nor the genius of Einstein, nor the literature of Isaac Bashevis Singer. No, it is the crimes of the Israeli government that hang upon the collective necks of the Jews. “It was hard to forgive the Nazis,” Loewenstein writes. Yet it was apparently much easier than forgiving the Jews.

This is the same moral asininity that led an Israeli acquaintance in Berlin to declare, when I told him I write for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, that it was “such a right-wing newspaper.” He went on to blame all of Israel’s problems on capitalists and in the next breath offered me his thoughts on Berlin’s hot real estate market.

To voice any sort of unease about this aspect of the Israeli presence in Berlin is to risk accusations of being a Holocaust-obsessed paranoiac smelling a Nazi under every bed. The Washington Post feature on Israelis in Berlin opened with an anecdote about a “tenacious 88-year-old” Israeli grandmother who, upon hearing of her grandson’s plans to emigrate to the former Nazi capital, whipped out a pistol she had used as a partisan during World War II. “Be careful in Germany,” the silly old Bubbe warned her kin. “The Holocaust is the most important pillar of Israeli education,” Ha’aretz editor Aluf Benn sniffed to the Times. “Going to Berlin is like, ‘Have you learned anything?’ It’s the ultimate failure of Zionism.” But it’s not the “going” to Berlin that strikes so many as perverse. It’s the very mindful decision to up and leave Israel and settle there permanently.

No sociological study of Israelis in Berlin has ever been conducted, and so I can only base my impression on anecdotal experience. But it is one shared by other Jews and Israelis who have spent time in Berlin and noticed an anti-Zionist current among many of the Israelis they encounter. “I discovered that there is a somewhat small, but very loud, community of Israelis living in Berlin who have made it their mission to publicly denounce Israel,” says Steven Blum, an American Jew who lived in Berlin for three years. For him, it was a conference organized by Israeli expats on “Pinkwashing,” the alleged campaign by Israel and its sympathizers to tout the country’s positive record on gay rights as a way to disguise its oppression of Palestinians, that irrevocably altered his perception of the city’s Israeli community. (Here it is worth mentioning that, as a worldwide destination for young gay people, in particular gay men, Berlin is especially popular with gay Israelis. The 2012 Spiegelarticle on Israelis in Berlin focused on a documentary film, I Shot My Love , about an Israeli who meets a German in the cavernous, hedonistic expanse of Berghain—a former East Berlin power plant that now operates as the city’s most exclusive night club—falls in love, and brings him to Tel Aviv.) After being shouted down by a group of Israelis as a “neoconservative Islamophobe,” Blum departed the event with his Israeli boyfriend. “We went to a Thai restaurant and sat there, shell-shocked, for what seemed like hours,” Blum recalls. “We barely even spoke. It was so disturbing to both of us that, in addition to the casual latent anti-Semitism in Germany, the anti-Semitism of the Turkish community and the anti-Zionism mixed with anti-Semitism in the leftist community, there was also a militantly anti-Zionist element to the Israeli community.”

Recent events in Paris reveal the fatuousness of last fall’s obsession with Israelis in Berlin; now the story is whether Jews have a future in Europe at all.

Blum’s boyfriend, Eyal Amitzur, says that he was “in awe” for the first few months after he moved to Berlin. “It is that forbidden garden we Israelis were raised to despise, planted with collective memories of horror and pain,” he told me. For a while, he even sympathized with those of his countrymen who, like the members of the controversial Facebook group, taunted Israelis back home about Berlin’s cheaper cost of living. Amidst “the bloody bidding wars landlords in Tel Aviv created for potential renters, a sort of ‘Hunger Games’ for Jews, I was glad to discover that not all societies treat their future generations like we do back home,” Amitzur told me. But soon he started to see many, if not most, of his fellow expatriates as “refugees.” Some, who had claimed German citizenship and were collecting welfare in lieu of finding actual work, suffered from a “disillusion” with the Zionist project that “turned into a raging hate.” In such a scenario, Berlin offers a toxic combination. Disenchanted and alienated Israelis meet leftist Germans keen on receiving absolution for their country’s historic sins while simultaneously confirming that it’s the Jews who are the real Nazis. “Only in Berlin … could [they] finally release the monster and tell everyone who would listen how it ‘really’ is: that comparing Israel to Nazi Germany is justified, that Israeli society is infested with militants who only know how to kill, that Israel is no place for individualists like them—smart and creative.”

Oz-Salzberger offers a much more positive spin. According to her, “the vast majority of [Israelis] in Berlin have not cut off their ties to Tel Aviv.” She calls these “transnational” Israelis “Ben-Gurion people,” after the intersecting moving walkways ferrying travelers to and from customs control at Ben Gurion Airport. This tableau of transience, she says, is a “metaphor” for the experience of most Israelis living in Berlin. The city, she insists, “is not a nature reserve of the disappointed Israeli left.”

***

I don’t doubt Salzberger, who has studied and lived this issue more closely than I have for a far longer stretch of time. And there is something genuinely heartening about the vibrancy of Israeli life in Berlin, particularly at a time when anti-Semitism is driving so many European Jews off the continent entirely. Moreover, this community is “the first intellectual, artistic, Israeli diaspora in the world,” an achievement for such a young nation. The impetus for this diaspora is not the cost of living back home, Salzberger says, nor is it disenchantment with Zionism. Rather, its existence can be attributed to a curiosity about, and engagement with, the country that once hosted the apex of Jewish civilization. “I think the main point is that a new set of Israeli voices are going to become able to speak about Israel in Hebrew and other languages from outside Israel, to write Israeli novels outside Israel, to write Israeli poetry outside Israel. … People are living in Berlin and creating in Hebrew out of their Israeli experience and out of their new German experience.” Much as contemporary English literature has been enriched by the many voices across the British Commonwealth, so too will Israelis gain a diasporic culture, with its origins in the “global city” of Berlin. But whether this positive characterization accurately describes many or even most of the Israelis living in Berlin, it does not negate the fact of the post-Zionist contingent, nor its (literal) feeding off the German state and disconcerting relationship with Germany’s far-left.

As with so many newspaper trend stories, however, the ostensible phenomenon of Israelis heading toward the exits for Berlin is wildly overblown and misses the bigger picture of global Jewish migration patters. Official Israeli government statistics show a drop in emigration among Israeli-born Jews from 19,400 in 2001 to 6,700 in 2011. The very same Times article employing biblical language to describe the purported flight of Israeli Jews to Germany quoted an Israeli demographer, who “said emigration was actually lower now than at any time in Israel’s 66-year history and also lower than in comparably developed countries.” Secular birthrates, as good an indicator of societal optimism as any statistic, also put the lie to the notion that Israelis are tired of their society and want to move out. Secular Israeli couples have, on average, at least three children, significantly more than can be said for ethnic Europeans, who are depopulating.

On the contrary, it is not Israeli Jews who want to leave Israel for Europe, but European Jews who want to leave Europe for Israel. More and more Jews are leaving the continent for precisely the same reasons so many tried (and tragically failed) to leave over 70 years ago: anti-Semitism. Even Germany, where a highly sensitive political culture and stringent laws forbidding anti-Semitic hate speech and symbols have put a lid on the sort of crude bigotry so prevalent in other European countries, has not been immune from such outrages. Recent events in Paris reveal the fatuousness of last fall’s obsession with Israelis in Berlin; now the story is whether Jews have a future in Europe at all.

Viewed in this light, the media sensation of Israelis in Berlin seems to be driven by a set of disgruntled Israelis determined to score political points against a country they perceive as having failed them, and a group of outside observers intent on assisting them in that task. Amitzur, who eventually grew exasperated with Berlin’s Israeli expat community (never mind its weather) and decamped with Blum to Los Angeles, identifies a sense of bitterness prevalent among the Israelis he left behind. He detected not just disappointment with Israel as a country, but a resentment born from an inability to make it in their homeland. “Sometimes [I] imagine them, still there, sitting close to the drain’s edge and complaining about their mother(land) to anyone who would listen,” he says. He used the word lost to describe Israelis in Berlin, a word that fits many of the expats of all nationalities and religions who find themselves in this city, which is alternately the most exciting and most depressing place on earth, a city that, like so many of its inhabitants, exists in a state of permanent adolescence.

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