Why do LGBT Israelis leave the country?

Whether because of growing homophobia or their criticism of the occupation, some queer Israelis are leaving and say they’re not coming back.

By Hila Amit

Rainbow and Israeli flags at the Tel Aviv Pride Parade, June 8, 2012. (US Embassy/State Dept. photo)
Rainbow and Israeli flags at the Tel Aviv Pride Parade, June 8, 2012. (US Embassy/State Dept. photo)

Most academic literature on the issue of emigration from Israel is written from a Zionist perspective, thus telling a one-sided story. According to the story, Israeli emigrants feel a strong connection to Israel; they left the country mainly for economic reasons; they are sad to have left; and they wish to return to their homeland. The literature on the topic addresses a very narrow group of participants, who seem to pop up in most studies. The focus is usually on emigrants to the U.S., mostly married couples, all of whom served in the Israeli army (army service is sometimes even a mandatory criterion for participation in the study), and are heterosexuals. In addition, these academic works did not provide a voice to Israeli emigrants who are critical of Israeli society or policies, and describe this criticism as the main reason (or part of the reason) for leaving the country.

Upon starting my research I asked to investigate these gaps in the literature, which did not include socio-political-based critiques of the State of Israel, antagonism toward Zionism and the sexual orientation of emigrants, or the connection between these complex identifications and emigration from Israel. I discussed some of the findings in a recent academic article, which included 42 interviews with queer Israeli emigrants who left for London, Berlin and New York City.

The decision to interview queers who do not feel a strong connection to Israel — those who left and do not necessarily think of returning — is interesting because of the way the Israeli collective already questions their very belonging. Homophobia in Israeli society cannot be denied. Moreover, the Israeli queer community faces violent attacks on a regular basis (including in the “gay bubble” of Tel Aviv), such that even the most Zionist members of the LGBT community must admit that our rights cannot be compared to the rights of the heterosexual citizens of the state. Even when the Knesset organizes a Pride Day in the parliament, proposals to support the gay community are rejected by Knesset members on both sides of the political spectrum.

Youth mourn the death of Shira Banki, 16, who died earlier of her wounds in a Jerusalem hospital, Tel Aviv, August 2nd, 2015. Shira was stabbed on Friday during an attack by an Orthodox Jew in the annual Gay Pride Parade march in Jerusalem. Another five marchers were stabbed. (Activestills.org)
Youth mourn the death of Shira Banki, 16, who died earlier of her wounds in a Jerusalem hospital, Tel Aviv, August 2nd, 2015. Shira was stabbed on Friday during an attack by an Orthodox Jew in the annual Gay Pride Parade march in Jerusalem. Another five marchers were stabbed. (Activestills.org)

Indeed it is interesting to see that queer Israeli emigrants criticize the way Israeli society cherishes markers of a heteronormative paradigm. Their narratives express a desire for an alternative lifestyle beyond the confines of heteronormative conventions, which are taken for granted by the Israeli collective. For these individuals, heteronormative markers can be seen in reproduction; monogamous relationships (in a country where being single is viewed as failure); settling down in one permanent location; buying a house, and more. Choosing to live in New York City or Berlin, for example, means escaping the never-ending criticism they would need to endure had they stayed in Israel:

I couldn’t deal with the gay guys there. Everybody is looking for a relationship. Why are you running and looking for a relationship? What are you, stupid? Looking for a relationship at the age of 20. Live a little, see the world, fuck, have fun. You know, they run directly from their parent’s prison, to the army, to a relationship, it’s completely perverse. My parents still call me, even today, asking ‘so, what about a boyfriend?’ I tell them, ‘Listen, I have a boyfriend every day! Every day I have a new boyfriend.’ And then the question is of course, ‘Do you want to be alone?’ And this is another reason why it is better to live in this country, where being alone is not the Mark of Cain (Natan, 39 years old, living in Berlin).

Social pressure in Israel does not only have a personal dimension. Jewish citizens of Israel are encouraged to take part in the Israeli experience, which includes serving in the Israel army as well as reserve service — not to mention supporting the IDF’s activities in the occupied territories. Taking part in a violent, racist public discourse is mandatory, while left-wingers who only hoped to form a different opinion fear violent attacks by right-wing activists backed by the police — as we saw in the summer of 2014. The Women I interviewed mentioned that they chose to start a family outside of Israel, precisely in order to enable their children to decide as adults if they wish to serve in the army or not. Furthermore, interviewees said they feel there is more chance they will raise a pacifist child if their children are educated abroad. These are the words of Ruthi, a mother of two, who decided not to register her children as citizens of the State of Israel:

We made a very conscious decision to start a family somewhere else. I don’t want my children to be part of that culture. I don’t want my children to join the army; I don’t want them to be part of the Israeli ethos.

The Israeli government spends large amounts of taxpayer money on various attempts to bring back those who chose to emigrate, as well as to push Jews to immigrate to the Jewish state. Needless to say, while Israel pours funds into the American Jewish community, it is more likely that the residents of impoverished cities like Dimona or Lod have a greater need than the Jews of Los Angeles for money to live or study.

It was interesting to discover what kind of discourse these emigrants adopt, and the discussions they have among themselves and on various online platforms. Queer thinking enables one to critically examine the ways in which Zionist ideology functions, as well as the unequivocal demand that sits at the heart of the Zionist project – remaining in Israel (as well as encouraging aliyah). Examples of undermining Zionist ideology and its conventions can be found in visual texts the emigrants create. One of the emigrants chose to show her criticism towards this madness and created her own parody.

In my article I attempted to show how Israeli emigration breaks the Israeli national temporality. Most of the queer Israeli emigrants interviewed for this study view their departure as a complete disconnection, not just from the territory of Israel and the current political regime, but also as a departure from the future of the homeland. Not being in Israel enables them not to be part of the temporal moments that construct national Israeli identity. The most extreme examples of this are the Israeli mothers who disconnect their offspring from the homeland, by undertaking the symbolic — yet also very much material — act of not registering the children as Israeli citizens.

While my research only included a small number of emigrants who have no wish to return to Israel, this is not a recent phenomenon. As I showed in my dissertation, Jews left Palestine prior to the founding of the State of Israel, and even more left after its establishment. It is commonly argued that a large number of Jews left after the Yom Kippur War and during the two intifadas, but the truth is that Jews leave Israel all the time for various reasons. Moreover, there are many forms of emigration and lifestyles that do not fall under the categories used by the state in order to indicate who is an emigrant. Many people work in other countries, yet have permanent residence in Israel, while others go abroad to study or work, only to return several years later. The numbers Israel presents to the public do not reflect the current reality. However, this is not the main problem.

The State of Israel chooses to address the “demographic” issue as an existential matter. But in reality, the Jewish diaspora contributes so much money to the state (and to public opinion in the United States), that it is almost absurd to think that Israel truly wants all of them in Israel. And even if they succeeded in bringing all of them to Israel – where exactly would these millions of people live? And how will the non-functioning state ministries take care of them? Instead of putting forth efforts and funds toward making the present situation better for those who are already in the country (most pro-LGBT legislation today does not require budget allocation), Israel chooses to spend money and energy on either bringing more Jews to Israel, or bringing back the Jews who chose to leave. Instead of allocating funds to the periphery, Israel allocates funds to Birthright.

If life in Israel could be a little more livable, perhaps people would choose to move or return to Israel of their own accord. The The Ministry of Absorption and its various offices should be closed, and its funds should be re-allocated to support those who have been in Israel for more than 30 years, yet are still fighting for equal rights.

Hila Amit is a doctoral student researching gender at SOAS, University of London. This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.