Anti-overhaul activists protest against the government's judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, on July 29, 2023.(Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Anti-overhaul activists protest against the government's judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, on July 29, 2023.(Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
'We had an amazing life in Israel, but we lost it'

‘This is my red line’: Anguished Israelis talk relocation amid judicial overhaul push

Though experts believe economics are more likely to drive an exodus than ideology, services offering emigration assistance say calls have multiplied as legislation has advanced

Anti-overhaul activists protest against the government's judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, on July 29, 2023.(Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Two months is the length of time needed to completely wrap up the life of a family of five, sell the house and belongings, transfer all their money abroad and move 12,000 kilometers (7,500 miles) away to start a new life.

Ofek (not her real name) knows this firsthand because that’s exactly how long it took her, her husband and their three kids to tie up all their loose ends in a suburb north of Tel Aviv and move to California, after they decided in March that they couldn’t continue to live in Israel due to the government’s ongoing judicial overhaul.

“I’ve been active in the protest scene for about five years, and I was really against leaving,” said Ofek. Every time her husband’s tech job offered a relocation, she demurred, saying she wanted to stay and try to make a difference.

“When the reform talk started, I said to my husband, ‘This is my red line. The moment it switches from talk to action, that’s it, I don’t want to stay,’” she said, speaking to The Times of Israel by phone from their new home in San Jose, California.

Late last month the government passed the first of its judicial changes — a law barring judicial review of government and ministerial decisions on the grounds of their “reasonableness” — in a vote of 64 in favor and zero against, as the entire 56-member opposition boycotted the vote in protest.

Ofek and her family are part of a growing movement of Israelis talking about leaving the country because of the judicial overhaul, and in some cases turning the talk into action. Though some experts believe relatively few people are likely to end up relocating due to logistical hurdles, and that far more people relocate for economic rather than ideological reasons, even the growing discussion of the issue has struck a raw nerve in a fractured society.

“After you demonstrate for so long, you understand that even if you go out and block the roads all the time, you can’t change anything,” said Ofek. “I decided I’m not ready to sit on the side and go once a week or even three times a week to the demonstration and say ‘It’s gonna be okay.’”

“In March, I started having these anxiety attacks. Usually, I’m so optimistic, but suddenly my body said, ‘That’s it, I can’t do this anymore. Do something or I’m done.’” For Ofek, there were no questions, no moments of doubt after the panic attacks started.

“I had nothing else to think about, it was so clear in my body. I said ‘By July, I don’t want to be here.’ And that’s what happened.”

Her husband started talking to his boss about relocating, and his request was quickly approved. The family holds European passports, and they considered moving to Portugal. Her husband’s employer suggested the United States, where there would be more opportunities for their three children, aged 9, 13 and 16.

Activists protest against the government’s judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, on July 29, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The next two months were a complete whirlwind of opening foreign bank accounts, transferring money abroad, readying their home for sale and thinking about where they wanted to move. Once they decided to leave, her panic attacks disappeared and she felt like herself again, Ofek said.

After reaching out to a number of Israeli expat groups in the US on Facebook, Ofek was bowled over by the warm reception she received from the Israeli group in California’s Bay Area, where the booming tech scene has attracted thousands of Israelis.

Ofek, who previously worked in tech and is now a project manager, said she and her husband hadn’t realized how logistically challenging it would be to try to find a place to live without a local tax identification number, local phone number, or existing address. Complete strangers from the Israeli Facebook group helped them navigate real estate listings and even attended open houses for them, helping them find a house to rent before they arrived.

They’ve been living in their new house for two weeks, and so far Ofek has no regrets about making such a complete break from Israel.

“We came to an unequivocal decision,” she said. “At first, we didn’t even know where we would go, but we knew we wouldn’t be coming back.”

‘We said goodbye to our entire lives. They just took this from us’

“We had an amazing life in Israel, but we lost it. The moment I started feeling that way, I knew we had two options. We can look backward and think about what we once had, or we can look forward, with a lot of tears in our eyes, and say that life is not coming back,” Ofek said, starting to cry. “We said goodbye to our entire lives. They just took this from us.”

The economics of rushing for the exit

Over the past month, thousands of Israelis, especially in the tech and medical sectors, have started exploring relocation options, launching groups on WhatsApp and Facebook to share information and tips. A WhatsApp chat group for doctors seeking advice on relocating overseas opened a couple of weeks ago and has attracted at least 3,000 physicians.

Countries in the Gulf have started actively wooing Israeli doctors by promising salaries three times higher than they currently receive. Last week, the Health Ministry’s director general, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, held an emergency meeting with doctors urging them to not “give up” on Israel’s public health system.

Doctors holding Israeli flags and Israel Medical Association signs stating “We are healing the rifts in the nation” at an IMA-sponsored anti-judicial overhaul protest in Jerusalem, July 23, 2023. (Renee Ghert-Zand/Times of Israel)

Ocean Relocation, which assists people with both immigration to and emigration from Israel, has received more than 100 inquiries a day from people looking to leave since Justice Minister Yariv Levin first presented his proposal for radical judicial reform in early January. That’s four times the rate of inquiries the organization received last year, senior manager Shay Obazanek said in March. 

The people discussing the option of leaving most vociferously are the ones who can: mostly younger professionals with financial assets, possibly a foreign passport, and easily transferrable, highly trained skills for in-demand professions. But it may take a few years for a brain drain to occur, according to one demographer who has been tracking Israeli immigration and emigration for decades.

“My first consideration is that we be very cautious and consider the difference between intention and action,” said Prof. Sergio DellaPergola, a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who has written five books and over 300 papers on the history of migration in Israel. DellaPergola is also the former chair of the Hebrew University’s Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry.

‘The long-term social indicators show that the number of emigrants from Israel is absolutely connected to the economic situation in the country’

“The long-term social indicators show that the number of emigrants from Israel is absolutely connected to the economic situation in the country,” he said. The three biggest trends that impact emigration are unemployment, inflation and salary levels.

An “identification” crisis, in which people have ideological issues with the country that force them to emigrate, is secondary compared to economic issues, he said.

Unemployment is the single biggest indication of emigration, DellaPergola said, but Israel is currently experiencing a record-low unemployment level.

“I just looked the other day at the CBS [Central Bureau of Statistics] data and found to my surprise that the percentage of unemployment in June 2023 was 3.6 percent,” said DellaPergola. “This is a very low level of unemployment — for example, in Italy, it’s over 7%… So we’re not seeing, yet, the consequences of a serious economic crisis [in Israel].”

Prof. Sergio DellaPergola of Hebrew University (courtesy)

It’s very difficult to track emigration because Israelis don’t report that they are moving abroad when they get on a plane. An Israeli is considered “living abroad” when they are out of the country for a full calendar year, and there are about 600,000 Israelis abroad that meet this criterion. To track emigration trends, demographers compare the number of Israelis living abroad year to year. An increase in the number of Israelis living abroad means more Israelis are emigrating, while a decrease means more people are returning to Israel.

Over the past five years, mostly fueled by the coronavirus pandemic and the desire for socialized medical care, more Israelis returned to the country than left, said DellaPergola. At the same time, the economy is steadily growing and was more resilient to pandemic pitfalls than in many other places around the world.

“As long as the Israeli economy did well, it was a kind of magnet — keeping citizens home, and recalling citizens from abroad,” said DellaPergola. “At the end of the year, we’ll be in a better position to understand what has been the actual [economic] consequence of the judicial reforms.”

‘As long as the Israeli economy did well, it was a kind of magnet’

Historically, Israel’s largest emigration waves happened in the 1970s, a few years after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and in the 1980s, during a massive recession. DellaPergola said that while some people want to attribute the emigration wave after the Yom Kippur War to national trauma, he thinks it was more connected to the plummeting economy, soaring unemployment, and the 400% inflation the country experienced in the years after the 1973 war.

There can also be an “echo effect” of emigration directly after an immigration influx, said DellaPergola. In the 1990s, when 1 million Soviet Jews moved to Israel, there was a wave of emigration a few years later of people who didn’t integrate into Israeli society and left in search of opportunities in other countries.

DellaPergola immigrated to Israel from Italy in 1966 and taught for most of his career at Hebrew University. He doesn’t give a lot of weight to a recent poll that says 28% of Israelis are considering leaving the country as a result of the overhaul, because it’s a “completely theoretical number,” he said.

Medical staff from the Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv protest against the judicial overhaul during a two-hour strike in hospitals around Israel, July 19, 2023. The sign reads: “There’s no health without democracy.” (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

There are massive logistical challenges involved in relocating, mostly connected to the fact that few people can or do obtain work visas or additional passports that allow them to stay permanently in another country, not to mention the social issues of assimilation and integration.

Nonetheless, DellaPergola is exceptionally worried about the impact of the judicial overhaul on emigration and the economy in general.

“This is significant because it’s concentrated in specific sectors of the economy. Medicine and high-tech are two crucially important sectors,” he said. “Imagine a few thousand doctors leaving the country. The impact on the medical system would be catastrophic.”

Easier said than done

Israeli families thinking of relocating to Porto, Portugal, need not be worried that their children may forget Hebrew for lack of Israeli friends their age, according to Vital Erlich Lavie, who, along with her husband Omer, has run a relocation and real estate business there since 2019.

“One of our families said there are nine Israeli kids in their daughter’s class,” she said. In the past year, three Israeli restaurants opened in Porto, and another opened in Lisbon.

“It feels like the number of Israelis has doubled in the past year,” said Lavie. She said watching the progress of the judicial overhaul from abroad has been heartbreaking, but also brought a sense of relief.

Vital Erlich Lavie (right), with her husband Omer Katanov Lavie and their son, Rio in Porto, Portugal, where they have a relocation and real estate business. (courtesy)

“We feel like, what luck that we moved here when we did, and our lives are already built up here and we have a kid here who’s Portuguese,” she said. The couple moved to Porto in 2018 and now have a three-year-old son, Rio.

She and her husband field 10 to 30 requests for information a day from Israelis, double what it was a year ago. But she stressed that despite the uptick in interest, few actually end up making the leap to live abroad. Out of every 100 people that they talk to, fewer than three move to Portugal full-time, she said.

“If you don’t come here ready with an external income, it’s not the rosy dream everyone thinks about life in Portugal,” she said. “It’s important to know that relocation, anywhere in the world, is not easy.”

Gearing up to move, but deciding to stay

While the focus is on many Israelis who are leaving as a result of the judicial overhaul, the political situation has inspired 20-year-old Meir (also not his real name) to stay.

“For a while, Israel was very left-wing, and this isn’t the political setting or the morals I would want to live under,” said Meir, who moved from the US to Israel with his family when he was 13. “I was very strongly contemplating going back to the States, where I can have more liberty and personal rights.”

“Now, it feels like the right has a backbone,” he said. “Now, the right was finally able to stand up and say, ‘We were voted in… We are a majority, this is what the voters have voted for. We were elected and now we’re going to do the will of the people.’”

‘Now, it feels like the right has a backbone. Now, the right was finally able to stand up and say, ‘We were voted in… We are a majority’

Meir, who lived in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank after moving to Israel with his family, recently finished his army service and is working in marketing for a tech company near Tel Aviv. He got married during his army service and has a baby.

“I thought if this is the direction Israel is going in, where the right-wing sits on their hands and does nothing… I was gearing towards moving back to the States [after my army service],” he said.

When he hears people opposed to the overhaul talk in anguished terms about leaving their families and lives behind, he understands them.

“I understand the leftists, I was in your position a year ago,” he said. “If people want to leave, I think that’s 100 percent legitimate if they feel like this country doesn’t represent their values.”

‘This is not the country I made aliyah to’

Miri (also not her real name), a retired educator in her 60s living in Israel’s center, can’t believe that she’s entertaining thoughts of relocating at her age. She moved to Israel over 40 years ago from the United Kingdom, got married, had children and worked in education for decades.

After the rest of her family moved to Israel, she’s rarely been back to England. “I’d rather travel to places I haven’t been to yet,” she said.

But her thinking has changed dramatically in the past few months, as she seriously considers returning to a country she barely knows.

“We’re so shocked at how quickly everything has blown up, and when I think of my future, my family’s future, I’m horrified we can go backward so quickly,” she said. A deterioration in protections for women’s rights is her biggest concern.

“Even though political things happened that I didn’t agree with, it didn’t feel very personal before,” she said. “I didn’t expect in my old age I’d go out and demonstrate for 30 weeks in a row.”

Tech workers protest against the government’s judicial overhaul. The sign reads: ‘Time is running out for Israeli high-tech,’ in Tel Aviv, on March 23, 2023 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“I’ve been scared before, like when I had babies during the Gulf War, but it wasn’t like this, because I felt like I trusted the government,” she said. “However much I felt afraid, I felt like we’re in this together and we’re going to make it through, because the country is together.”

The logistics of picking up her life and moving to England, away from her children, is daunting, and Miri hasn’t decided about moving.

But she wants to make sure the public knows it’s not just young tech professionals who are thinking of leaving, but many people in her age group as well.

“I’ve spoken to other friends, and they say, ‘We can’t go because of health reasons, we can’t [relocate], but that’s what our heart is telling us we should be doing,’” she said.

“This is not the country I made aliyah to,” she said, using the Hebrew term for immigrating to Israel.  “There were always things that were not good, always things that people complained about. But we felt we were building a just and equal society. Now everything is falling apart, and I don’t trust this government to make the right decisions about anything. Actually, it’s not just trusting them to make the right decision, they’re making horrible decisions and destroying the basic values this country was built on.”

‘We felt we were building a just and equal society. Now everything is falling apart’

Back in San Jose, California, Ofek and her family are getting settled in their new home. Her children are enrolled in school starting in the fall, and they’ve been exploring the perks of California life. She is sad about their departure, and still sheds tears when she thinks about what they left behind, but is adamant it was the right decision.

“I’m normally a healthy person, but my body just got so sick, and the moment we started talking about leaving I got my strength back,” she said. “It was an insane amount of work to close up everything, sell our house and tie up everything we had to do. Everyone around us said ‘How are you doing this?’ But it didn’t feel complicated.

“It just felt so right, even necessary, in my mind. I knew this was the right thing to do right now, to protect our lives and our freedom,” she said.

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