BERLIN — Dan, an Israeli in his 30s, lives on welfare in Berlin — and feels, all told, quite good about it. While traveling through Europe, he decided to settle here, and found he could easily obtain a local passport through one of his grandparents. “I didn’t plan it,” he said recently. “I just examined my options, realized what was possible and got myself German citizenship.”
From that point on, Dan’s transition into Germany’s public support system was smooth and efficient. The Israeli, who asked that his real name and other identifying information not be used, now receives about 300 euros a month in unemployment money, and roughly the same amount toward his monthly rent. In Berlin, a city where it’s tough to find a job even for highly skilled workers, Dan has stayed in this situation for about five years, living modestly but comfortably with government support.
As the Israeli community in Berlin grows, topics that were once discussed privately are now getting more attention within the population of expats. One hot-button issue centers on the fact that many young Israelis equipped with German passports are moving here and relying on public assistance from day one. The question being discussed is: How legitimate is their behavior?
‘Fellow Israelis now tell us, “You never paid taxes. Your parents never paid taxes. Who are you to get support from the German government?”‘
“Fellow Israelis now tell us, ‘You never paid taxes. Your parents never paid taxes. Who are you to get support from the German government?’ ” Dan says. “They say, ‘What right do you have to exploit the system? You’re hurting all of us.’
“I tell them,” he goes on, “it’s Germany itself which offers us these options. I am not using the system. It’s here exactly for people like me.”
“People like me,” in this case, refers to the tens of thousands of Israelis descended from German citizens — in most cases German Jews who were murdered or fled during the Holocaust. In accordance with German naturalization laws, many are eligible for citizenship, regardless of whether they know German or are capable of being part of German society. Germany’s embassy in Israel estimates that it issues 3,000 new passports to Israelis each year, adding to the more than 80,000 existing passport holders in the country.
Despite these figures, it’s hard to estimate just how many Israelis are moving to Germany and taking advantage of the country’s welfare programs. Germany’s federal employment agency “does not ask our customers about their place of birth,” a spokesperson wrote in an e-mail. The Israeli embassy claims that about 10,000 Israelis call Berlin home, while others estimate that the real number may be higher than 15,000. In any case, the community’s growth is evident: Two Israeli-owned hummus restaurants have opened recently, and a real-estate event for local Israelis took place last month. There’s even an Israeli magazine, the first of its kind, that began printing in Berlin this summer. The community is clearly expanding, and controversy along with it.
“It’s a hot potato,” says Tal Alon, a blogger and the editor of Spitz, the local Israeli magazine. “I have seen some heated discussion on Facebook about it, and can see it stirs up powerful emotions. On the one hand, you have those who say, ‘We have a German passport. We simply deserve it.’ On the other, you have people saying, ‘You never contributed — you’re trying to milk the system for all it’s worth, and this will come back to us and discredit the whole Israeli community here.’“
From Alon’s perspective, “It’s tough to see this Israeli mentality of ‘getting as much as you can’ … but of course not everyone is doing it. If someone wants to build a new life in Germany, and is offered a free German language course and a little bit of money for the beginning, then why not, really? Life is tough in Israel; they have a better option, so why not take it?”
‘You have people saying, “You never contributed . . . this will come back to us and discredit the whole Israeli community here”‘
The most active and heated debates are taking place online, within the hyperactive “Israelis in Berlin” group on Facebook. The group has become the community’s virtual meeting spot — a place for political and personal discussions, as well as for ad-hoc questions about cheap deals, temporary apartments and navigating the German bureaucracy.
“Why should you get an apartment in a central neighborhood paid for by the German taxpayer?” one commenter wrote, chastising another for his perceived sense of entitlement. When another participant asked for advice on how to trick authorities into giving him a 1,000-euro grant for poor Germans who need furniture, another advised him to “hide your furniture in your neighbor’s place and split the money,” drawing wall-to-wall condemnations.
“Many of my friends have followed this path,” says Ela Schechter, a young Israeli who has studied German in Berlin for the past year, and hopes to enroll in a German university despite not having a coveted passport. “If you have citizenship, you simply go [to the German unemployment office]. They give you some ‘getting-along money,’ you can study German for free, which saves a lot of money, and then get monthly unemployment money and [assistance with] the rent. But in order to get all that, you really have to show yourself a lot in those centers. And you’re not allowed to leave Berlin, except on weekends, and you have to actually try the jobs they find for you. But overall, it gives my friends what doesn’t exist in Israel: a social support system to start your life from.”
“It’s just a community in change,” she says of the heated recent discussions. “Those who came here first — let’s say around a decade ago — were looking for a refuge, personal or political, from Israel. Now Berlin is mainstream; instead of moving from Petah Tikva to Tel Aviv, Israelis move to Berlin. A new crowd is coming, and people feel threatened for some reason.”
“I think it’s pure jealousy,” says Dan, who can continue to receive government assistance as long as he‘s unemployed. “It hurts Israelis to feel others are getting something they cannot. Besides, I have many German, Spanish and other foreigner friends who are doing it. Nobody says a word to them.”