J14 gets Israeli expats to take another look at homeland

Israelis abroad are watching the unfolding events in their homeland with awe, hope – and skepticism. Some of them have left for studies, some for work – and some have left for good because life was just too hard here. Have events changed the way the perceive the country they left?

By Roi Ben Yehuda and Ami Kaufman

Last Saturday, as I watched the throngs of people taking over Tel Aviv, I was jealous. My wife and I are taking turns babysitting during the demos, and I felt it was a shame I wasn’t there. Which got me to thinking about the other people who were not there – the Israelis living and travelling abroad, those who are witnessing this amazing event from afar. How are they feeling today? I pitched the question to my well-connected friend Roi Ben Yehuda, a graduate student at Columbia, who gathered up some great, honest reactions from Israelis watching these events unfold from thousands of miles away.

Dan Ariely – “It’s sad that I live in a country where people don’t care”
Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University (North Carolina)

“I look at what is happening in Israel and what is happening in other countries, say the U.S. for example, and I’m rather proud there are demonstrations in Israel. What is known as Gini coefficient, which is the difference in wealth between the rich and the poor, is very bad in Israel. But it’s also bad in the U.S., and in the U.S. it’s very hard for me to imagine any kind of real protest.

In general, I think back about the number of protests I was involved with in my youth and the protests that are happening now in Israel, and it saddens me that I live in a country where the people don’t really care. I’m really moved by the social camaraderie and concern in Israel.

On the other hand, I’m really sorry that I’m not around. I wish I could take part and help in the social process, which is something very important. From the perspective of social science, we don’t exactly understand how social movements fully develop and become so big; but the moment that it happens, it seems to me, the momentum is very important.  It’s very important not to miss this opportunity.

I’m sorry I’m not around to experience it personally, to participate, to support, and maybe even to help. I have no doubt that the potential for change and the possibilities available now are amazing. And I hope these protests will not be wasted on a confused vision, overreaching, or that they weaken and disappear with time.”


Natasha Mozgovaya –  “A feeling of being left out of a great carnival”
Haaretz Correspondent (Washington, D.C.)

“Talking about home is a sensitive issue for Israelis living abroad – after all, many of those once tagged derogatory “yordim” (“those who go down”, as opposed to “olim”, those “ascending” to Zion), even after 30 years in the U.S. still talking with other Israelis about “going back in a year or so”.

Immediate communications and social networks have further exasperated this confusion. When you receive Facebook notifications about yet another dozen of friends joining the social revolution – and you click on “not attending” – you feel kind of left out of this great carnival of social justice or whatever it is about. How can you not identify with the protests – you know every tree in Rotschild boulevard! You spent the best years of your life complaining about the rent!

Some, trying to get involved, got a cynical virtual retort from their former compatriots: ‘Isn’t it why they left in the first place, looking for more opportunities, to escape the threats, the heat, the nerves, the prices, the rifts, the politicking, the feeling of helplessness, the inability to influence your own government? So would you please shut up with your casserole of meat in your nice suburban house. You gave up – you don’t have the right to tell the tent-dwellers what they can or cannot demand.’

To be sure, one friend of mine, of the rare Israelis who declare unequivocally they have no plans to go back, told me: “The only thing these protests made me feel is that I am glad I am not there anymore”. But many others – as one said, similar to the Second Lebanese war, “feel the urge to go back and support the country”. How? I pressed. With one more tent and one more stroller at the demonstrations of protest? He shrugged. “Something IS happening there. It feels as if the country IS changing this time”. Are you ready to pack? I asked. “Well”, he said. “I’ll wait until the ultra-orthodox men will go to work. Then I’ll know for sure I won’t have to sponsor their 10 kids”. So not yet, I guess.


Alon Ben-Meir – “It was about time the people rise”
Professor of International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies at New York University (New York)

“When I read about and saw some footage of the demonstrations, which included a larger percentage of young people, I felt elated and extremely excited. I thought it was about time the Israeli public rise against the Netanyahu government’s policies, both domestic and foreign, that have not only failed to advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but also created a major socio-economic gap within the Israeli society.

The protests are a welcomed change, as I have been extremely concerned about the general complacency that has engulfed the Israeli public in the past. It is about time that the Netanyahu government realize that it has miserably failed at improving the socioeconomic and political conditions in Israel, thereby creating two Israeli societies: the very poor and the very rich. It is absurd that the wealth of the country is concentrated in the hands of a dozen families. One can expect this phenomenon to exist in many Arab countries, but not in Israel. A country that was created as the last refuge for the Jews must ensure equality for all of its citizens to secure its future as the true Jewish haven it was intended to be.”


Roi Ben Yehuda – “Amazing and disconcerting at the same time”
Graduate student at Columbia and George Mason University (New York)

“Personally, watching events in Israel unfold from a distance is both an amazing and somewhat disconcerting experience. On the one hand there is an undeniable pride and joy stirring in my heart when I see thousands of Israelis – a new generation – who have mobilized and taken to the streets calling for a fundamental pro-social transformation of society. On the other hand, watching your country bloom from afar – as a witness and not as a participant – is disheartening. I can’t help but feel as if I missed one of those historical moments that turn people who live in Israel into “Yisra’elim.”


Noa Baum –  “Excited and moved to tears”
Storyteller (Washington DC)

“I have lived in the US since 1990. I feel excited, moved to tears, relieved and proud to be an Israeli. I still remember standing in the square, being part of the big demonstrations against the war in Lebanon and the biggest one after Sabra and Shatila but I have never seen anything like this!!! I am glued to Youtube, +972 Magazine and Ynet, I am ecstatic to be hearing these amazing young people saying what desperately needs to be heard, not just in Israel but everywhere: in our little planet of finite resources, the current competitive-limitless- growth-eat-or-be-eaten-system is not working.

We are interdependent and our future must include more sharing and an allocation of resources that will benefit all members of society. This was the vision of Israel’s founders and the core of the Israel that I grew up in. I have no idea where this mass protest will go or what it will morph into, (I hope the connection will be made with the need for peace and the disproportionate resources thrown into the settlements) but no matter what happens next – the shield of apathy and cynicism is finally cracking – and that is huge! There is no turning back. I only wish I could be there.”


Kobi Skolnick – “Checked to see if I have enough money to come back”
Director of Leadership Development at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University (Brooklyn, NY)

“My first instinct was to look at my bank account to see if I had enough money to return. I wanted to fly to Israel to take part in this wonderful and fascinating civil engagement. A fresh sense of hope and inspiration had penetrated my being, and I was readjusting to this possibility of a new future in Israel.

Every night since that 150,000 person protest last Saturday, I have been dreaming of walking in the streets of Israel, among the people and among friends, shouting “the nation wants social justice!” When I stop to think about it throughout the day, or revisit the images, tears of joy come to my eyes. For the first time I want to go back, and breath in the new air of harmony, even if it’s still looking for ways to manifest itself.

I am excited to see that despite the complexities of Israeli society, a new voice for social justice is emerging. I’m grateful that a new generation is increasingly more participatory and socially conscious. I’m eager to take part in shaping our future. I’m yearning to contribute to this awakening as part of large new force in history, where people from all walks of life engage in creating new spaces for true dialogue, and help to find common ground for a pragmatic, peaceful, and sustainable future. Not only locally, but regionally and globally.”


Joel Schalit – “I can’t tell you how inspired I am”
Co-editor in Chief of Souciant magazine (Berlin, Germany)

“I can’t tell you how inspired I am by the current wave of social protests sweeping Israel. Its timing could not have been more perfect, as I think the world had largely forgotten that there was anything complex about Israeli politics.

Convinced that the country’s reflexes had been flattened into an especially predictable kind of authoritarianism, as an editor, I would hope that the political complexity and size of the protests would help inspire foreign media to dig a bit deeper, and not assume that the political status quo of the last two years is permanent. That would be to take the government at its word that it is indeed representative of the aspirations of the Israeli people, and that there is some kind of organic symmetry between the political establishment and working Israelis. In Israel, class matters as much as religion and race. It is impossible to talk about one without the other.”


Ronit Muszkatblit – “My body aches to walk in the streets of Tel Aviv”
Laba Fellow and playwright (New York)

“I remember walking from my home to Kikar Malchey Israel, the main square in Tel Aviv in front of City Hall countless times, excited to be joining a stream of people, joining fellow humans who believe together in a cause. Today it is named Rabin square. I missed the demonstration which changed the name of the square and the face of Israel forever. At that time I was living in Paris and couldn’t follow or believe the events that took place.

Now I am far again, living in NYC, but still aching in my body to walk in the streets of Tel Aviv and stride with the energy of hope, energy of the other Israel, the one that seemed to fade more and more and has suddenly gotten a resuscitation.

I watch the different clips online, talk to my sister, my cousins, uncles and aunts. The older generation is even more excited: “Finally they stood up for their future” is what everybody says. And me, I am torn. I wish an uprising would happen here in NYC, in America, where it seems my kids future will be. On the other hand, what I care about is the uprising there, where my past lies. I guess that’s what an Israeli abroad feels.”


Dima Shimelfarb – “I don’t believe the protests will change a thing”
Relationship manager at Jewish Agency’s International Development and MS student in Negotiation at Columbia University (New York)

Although I currently reside in New York, I sympathize with the broad protests in Israel. I understand the protesters and their feelings resonate in my heart. My parents, 64 and 66 years old, live in Israel and they still need to work in order to be able to sustain themselves. Like many other Olim they have lost their social status and have no pension in Israel. But they accepted that because they wanted to make sure that their children, my sister and I, will have a chance for a better future. As they watch the protests on the streets of Tel Aviv, they become sad. They don’t believe these protests will change anything. They don’t believe the protesters think of my parents or people like them. They see political “dealers” take advantage of the social movement and use it to get media exposure for their agendas.

I don’t believe either. I don’t believe the current government wants or is capable of making changes. From my personal experience I know that this government is bad at listening. As you close the door – they don’t remember what you said a second ago. The protest is an attempt to force the government to listen, and they will listen as long as the protests grow or at least continue. But as the forceful action stops and the door closes – Israeli officials will forget what the people have asked for. They will forget what they have said.

But what makes me more concerned is that the protesters themselves don’t listen. They don’t listen to each other and they don’t think of people like my parents. The major problem, which existed before the current economical system was created, is the problem of a broken social fabric in Israel. All the rest are just symptoms.


Koby Hayon – “I would pitch a tent if I was there”
Musician (New York)

“When the conflict started I was in Tel Aviv, and I saw the first tents in Rothschild blvd. In this first encounter, I didn’t know what it was, so, I just stood by and listened.

I’m obviously very happy it’s taking place, and I’m thrilled those few tents turned out to be much more, in every city. I am so relieved to see people refuse to live with the situation, saying “no more!” and getting out of their apathetic mode. The only doubt I had was whether it would last long (it did); and whether the manipulative government will be able to split the group (by offering separate deals, or even start a war).

The only issue I have is with the goals. I think the goal should be equal rights (and obligations) for all, and not focus on the exact prices of cheese or rent. This is the core of the problem.

Even here in NY, I feel as though I am part of it, even though the geographical distance makes it tricky. I would definitely pitch a tent if I was there (almost feeling guilty for not pitching one here…)”