At Large

Unseemly Exodus

Why are young Israelis moving to Berlin?

By 9.15.10

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An AP story now going around the web is called "Young Israelis are moving to Berlin in droves." It says:

Nobody knows exactly how many Israelis have moved [to Berlin] in recent years; unofficial estimates suggest 9,000 to 15,000…. The Israelis who come to stay are looking to work, study, party and make art, and don't seem to care much about the Nazi past. They arrive on student visas, overstay tourist permits or have German or other European ancestry that entitles them to citizenship. Many start families with German partners, far from the tensions of the Middle East.

The article quotes some of these young Israeli "Ich bin ein Berliners," from a 26-year-old photography student who says Germany's past "doesn't affect [her] at all" to a 32-year-old radio announcer who says that whenever she has "sustained conversation[s] with Germans… it is a sure thing that at some point we will talk about the Holocaust."

Presumably those sustained conversations get interesting, considering that a report by Tel Aviv University's Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Antisemitism and Racism describes Germany's "anti-Zionist climate and… anti-Israel discourse" and cites a 2007 survey datum that "30 percent [of Germans] agreed strongly or partially that Israel's attitude toward the Palestinians was in principle no different from that of the Nazis toward the Jews and that Israel was waging a war of extermination against the Palestinians."

For these Berliner Israelis, it must be quite a trip discoursing with Germans who see Israelis as Nazis.

Yes, the young-Israelis-in-Berlin phenomenon is talked about in Israel, and yes, I relate to it judgmentally. Certainly Israelis and other Jews don't have to boycott Germany, and shouldn't blame the descendants of criminals for the crimes of their forebears. I have nothing against them going to Germany out of curiosity or for professional reasons. But for young Israelis to go to live there in any significant numbers constitutes a kind of failure. As the AP article notes: "Years ago, Israelis viewed emigration from their country as a betrayal of the Zionist cause, and moving to Germany was reviled as the worst betrayal of all."

If the failure is one of education, then it can be remedied. Our current education minister, Gideon Saar, thinks too many young Israelis have become detached from the country's core values, and is behind the launching of a new program in Israel's schools this year called "Israel's Culture and Tradition." As the Jerusalem Post described it in a favorable editorial, it will "boost the amount of time devoted to the study of Jewish texts."

In the Oslo era of the 1990s, much of Israel's intellectual elite believed that cutting back the "national" content of Israeli education was connected to achieving peace with our neighbors. School curricula were changed accordingly. What this meant in practice was, for instance, that in 2000 a bitter controversy broke out over a nine-grade history textbook, A World of Changes, that was so "universalist" in emphasis that it gave scant attention to such subjects as Zionism, the Holocaust, and even Israel itself.

The young Israelis now in Berlin went to Israeli schools in that era. Can one say for sure that the one led to the other? No. But at least one can say that in earlier eras, before the "national" part of the curriculum was slashed, there was no such phenomenon as a steady runoff to the German capital.

To keep things in perspective, the overall picture of young Israelis' values and devotion to their country remains good. Most serve in the army, stay in Israel, and start families. Rates of volunteering for combat units reached an all-time high this year. Still, we can do better, and there are damages from the Oslo era that still need to be repaired.

Minister Saar's constructive approach is one of the reasons I hope our current governing coalition stays in power and doesn't get rocked by dissension over the current talks with the Palestinians -- yet another problematic legacy of the Oslo past.

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About the Author

P. David Hornik is a writer and translator in Beersheva, Israel, blogging at PDavidHornik.typepad.com.