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Time and distance shift Israeli migrant attitudes

By Hagar Cohen - posted Thursday, 30 June 2005

The crowds at Ben Gurion Airport's departure lounge are worrying some people in Israel. Everyone seems to be leaving. Teary mums farewell newly released soldiers heading off on the backpacker trail to India or Thailand, lovers break up as one heads for greener economic pastures on a “temporary” journey that might last forever.

Israeli citizen Ilana Burstein, 25, went backpacking in Australia three years ago. She is now studying business at Sydney's University of Technology, and a temporary resident in Australia. “I wasn’t satisfied with my life in Israel and decided to broaden my horizons and travel … unconsciously I stayed to find a better life.”

Many Israelis like Burstein are imigrating. Hebrew can be heard increasingly in the streets of Los Angeles, Berlin, Sydney and Melbourne. But sometimes Israeli migrants find they don’t fit in with local Jewish communities, whose long distance patriotism is at odds with the immigrants’ own experience.


People searching for individual fulfilment and a more normal life are not the image of present-day Israelis we see in the media. The image we see is one of militant nationalists protesting against the imminent evacuation from the Gaza Strip, or of course soldiers.

Jewish immigration to the region now known as Israel increased during World War II because of the persecution of Jews in Europe. There were constant clashes between the local Palestinian population and the Jewish community. Since the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948 the two communities created a battleground that attracted worldwide attention. Israel's ongoing commitment to accepting Jews from the diaspora has broadened the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Roi Smith, 28, came to Australia with his family 13 years ago, from the northern Israeli city of Haifa. Life in Israel has now become a distant memory, but he still recalls a vibrant city which accommodated both Muslims and Jews. Haifa is one of the few cities in Israel where the two religious groups manage to live together in relative harmony.

While he identifies as an Israeli, Smith keeps himself distanced from the realities in Israel. “It’s who I am, Israeli, but never emotionally involved with Israeli affairs, I wouldn’t go into the army either,” he explains. His childhood friends from Israel had a turbulent time while serving in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). One claimed he was suicidal. Another joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Smith’s says his friends' experiences led him to his decision to stay detached. “The army brought those problems to the surface, I’m sure … Here it’s always “she’ll be right mate”. It’s no wonder when front page news is about koalas stuck up a tree!”

Living in a country 351 times the size of Israel can affect the way in which Australian-resident Israelis view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to University of Western Sydney PhD student Barbara Bloch. She surveyed a number of Israeli immigrants for her thesis, Unsettling Zionism. A number of them had been quite strong Zionists when in Israel, but found their perception of the conflict changed once they moved to Australia. “Here they become critical," she says, "probably on the far end of critical”.

Ilana Burstein comes from a family with a long tradition of supporting the Israeli conservative party, Likud. She describes her family as “radical” in their opinions. She now differentiates herself from her family, seeing her political views as “leaning towards the centre”.


In Israel, the ongoing conflict and the loss of hope for a resolution left Burstein with a sense of despair. She had always believed that Israel should fight against all of those who oppose Zionist ideology or challenge the current borders in order to accommodate two nations - Israel and Palestine. But today the concept of two states makes more sense to her.

Barbara Bloch thinks perspective shifts are inevitable, and part of the adjustment to a new culture. She argues that living outside a familiar cultural zone can make people see things with more distance, and give them more access to critical views. This has been especially so since the beginning of the second Intifada, when more pro-Palestinian news became available in the mainstream media.

Yonit Oakley, 29, a Sydney-based company director, immigrated to Australia in 1998. She says living in Australia gave her a more mature perspective on the conflict. The everyday reality of life in her hometown, the southern Israeli city of Yavne’, made it harder for her to consider the views of her Palestinian neighbours. “When I was there, as much as I wanted the Palestinians to have a country of their own I couldn’t emotionally remove myself from what happened to Israelis, and the life under fear … especially when you watch television news 24-7, it’s in your face,” she recalls.

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About the Author

Hagar Cohen is a journalism student at UTS, and a current affairs radio reporter at the sydney based community radio station 2SER FM. She arrived in Australia from Israel two years ago.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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