An immigrant to Israel struggles to stay here

The social justice movement has started up just in time to offer middle class Israelis like Karen Kaufman hope that life in Israel might finally get better – and cheaper

By Karen Kaufman

Child at demo holding sign "Capitalism is dead! The people of Israel is alive!" (photo: Karen Kaufman)
Child at demo holding sign "Capitalism is dead! The people of Israel is alive!" (photo: Karen Kaufman)

I moved to Israel exactly 15 years ago. Almost immediately after finishing my last exam at high-school, I got on a plane, by myself, and left London. Initially I came on my “gap year” between high school and university, but pretty much certain that it would be for good. A year later, I made it official: went back to London, got all the paperwork done and made Aliyah. I couldn’t wait to start my life in Israel, as an Israeli citizen.

The problems started almost immediately. I showed up for the first day at Ulpan to learn Hebrew, only to be told that the Immigration Ministry hadn’t authorized payment to Tel Aviv University because there was some sort of problem with my papers. They wouldn’t let me into the class. Nothing prepared me for the Kafkaesque bureaucracy I experienced during my first months as an Israeli citizen. I spent days and days at the Immigration Ministry in Holon – where nobody spoke English, all the forms were either in Hebrew or Russian. It was at the tail-end of the mass immigration from the FSU and before Nefesh B’Nefesh, and they didn’t know how to deal with me. The clerk dealing with my case wanted to revoke all my rights because my mother had made Aliyah with her family in the 1960s and lived here for 18 months. Even though I had never been registered as a citizen, she insisted that I was a full Israeli citizen, and couldn’t even qualify as a returning citizen.

I was miserable. My parents urged me to come back to London – I still had a place at a good university, it wasn’t too late. But I was insistent. The woman who held the key to solving my case had just lost her mother, so I had to wait until she returned to work. She finally ruled: I was only a full citizen from the day I got my first passport – just a few weeks before I made Aliyah. Finally, I got my little Aliyah ‘pinkas’ (notebook). I was here to stay!

At university, people thought I was nuts for moving here. After a while, I learnt to shrug it off. After a while, you get used to people asking you why you’re still here if you have a second passport (and get used to people trying to exploit the fact you have a second passport). I would always give the same answer: I moved here for a better life, for the weather, the food, the people, and so that my kids could play outside and have a happier childhood. I was adamant: I would never leave.

Maybe I was very naïve, or maybe things really were easier back then. The last few years in Israel, have been particularly difficult for us: a young, middle-class family really struggling to make ends meet. And I’m really sad to confess that over the last few years, conversations about packing up shop and trying our luck overseas have become an almost daily occurrence.

Perhaps part of the reason was becoming parents. No matter how strong my love is for Israel, I struggle with the fact that a country that actively encourages you to have as many children as possible (in order to stave off the demographic threat) forces mothers to abandon their infants after three months to go back to work. We bring kids into this world, only to put them into the care of complete strangers. Nappies, formula, prams, bottles, clothes – almost everything you need to bring up a kid costs far more than it does in the real West.

With two kids and demanding jobs, there isn’t much time for luxuries. We rarely eat out (going to restaurants with our kids is not my idea of a fun night out), we go to the cinema perhaps twice a year, we rely on our parents for babysitting. It’s also simply impossible to get your head around the fact that Israeli products – including perishables like cheeses – cost less in the US and Europe than they do in Israel. Even after 15 years in Israel, there are two things I still get people to bring for me from the UK: Tetley’s tea (which you can’t buy in Israel) and deodorant, because I refuse to pay NIS 30 and more for something that costs about NIS 10 overseas.

The last time I saved any money was 2002 to go backpacking around the Far East. That was the last time I had any sort of disposable income that could be put aside. When we first moved to Tel Aviv in 1999, we paid $600 in rent for a tiny two-room apartment on Hayarkon Street with a little balcony. It was three flights up (no lift of course), and the bedroom was just wide enough for a double bed. We were in our last year at university, we both had jobs, and the NIS 2,500 in rent was just about manageable. A decade later, we were paying NIS 6,000 in rent for a three-room apartment in Tel Aviv (at least it had a lift!), but our income certainly hadn’t tripled.

We’ve tried living in the suburbs a couple of times: we had to buy a car when we moved to Givatayim because otherwise I had to take two buses to travel the 5 kilometers to work. In Kfar Saba, even though I was in walking distance of a train station – using public transport saved me zero time commuting. Door-to-door, it took about 50 minutes. Essentially the same as sitting in traffic.

We left Tel Aviv – for good – a year ago. Our landladies told us they were putting up the rent. There was no way we could pay NIS 6,500 in rent, plus another NIS 6,000 to put two kids in private daycare (because subsidized daycare isn’t available to all). And we both had relatively well-paying jobs, earning well above average wage. We were struggling, and living with a constant, ever-growing overdraft.

And so, here we are, two grown adults with two growing kids, still leaching off our parents. I’m now right back where I started 15 years ago: in my parents’ apartment in Bat Yam, sitting in my old room, at my old desk, surrounded by a décor that hasn’t been touched since 1980 (a very fetching avocado green bathroom, and lots of brown and beige in the kitchen). Hardly where I thought I would be after getting a university education, and working hard for over a decade.

We have no savings, no future. We don’t plan ahead. We can only dream about taking a family holiday. We’ve been driving the same (third-hand) car for seven years. Even now, even living in one of Israel’s poorest and most-crowded cities, we’re not putting any money aside.

We’ve thought about buying our own place several times. We’d need a huge amount of help from our parents, but given the exorbitant rent we were paying in Tel Aviv, we thought it would really make more sense to buy. We’d go and see endless projects – all NIS 1.5 million and up. Believe me, we’re not fussy – we’re not after designer kitchens or ‘suspended’ toilets. All we want is a decent neighbourhood to bring up our kids. We could never understand how young couples like us signed up for 30-year mortgages, paying thousands upon thousands to the bank every month – and often earning less than we do.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were missing something. God knows, we’ve made mistakes with our money in the past, but how could it be that everyone was buying a house? Projects in “exotic” places like Petah Tikva, Gadera, Even Yehuda, Kiryat Hasharon were all selling like hotcakes, and we were left scratching our heads, not managing to come to terms with the fact that we were being asked to pay half a million dollars, for a pokey apartment, at the end of nowhere, with no public transportation. And the more we deliberated, the more the prices kept rising.

And then, the tent revolution happened, and I realized we’re not alone. We’re not the only ones who have had enough. We are a generation without a future, without savings, a generation who will almost always have to rely on their parents. But we are trying to take back our futures and turn things around. Standing with a quarter of a million of my fellow citizens last night, I felt prouder than ever to be an Israeli, and for the first time in a long time, I didn’t regret my decision to fight for my rights to become an Israeli.

Karen Kaufman works in public relations