What’s it really like to live in Israel — you ask?
Well, you didn’t.
Although I do seem to get asked this question — or why I moved here — roughly once a week lately.
It’s also pouring rain and that means Israel comes to a sort of standstill so … I figured I’d let you know. Like most of the country, I imagine, my Sunday is off to a slow start (and yes, Israel’s on a Sunday to Thursday workweek).
Living in Israel is — first and foremost — a big fat bundle of contradictions.
I live here because I’m Jewish — and only for that reason. I’ve written at length about that subject before.
I was born far far away in Ireland although most fellow immigrants — and Israelis — assume that I’m an American. That’s the default assumption for any English speaker here, by the way. It’s what people are familiar with.
If it weren’t for my religion and the pull I feel towards living here because of that I would probably have zero interest in relocating to the Middle East. That’s not me being negative about Israel. It’s just me being honest.
Now for some terminology:
In the Jewish world, this insane process of uprooting yourself from peaceful plains to the war-torn Middle East is called aliyah.
It’s called that because aliyah means ‘ascension’ and we — Jews — believe that moving to Israel represents a spiritual ascension of sorts.
From the four corners of the earth to the land from which our faith and tradition originated.
You can take whatever stand you like about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but most non-conspiracy-theorists will at least respect our origin story and the impetus that drives our migration here.
The religious fundamentalists who make this transition — in other words folks like me — are called olim or oleh (male) and olah (female) in the singulars.
We’ve been arriving in waves since — actually before — the foundation of the state. That’s about all the Hebrew terminology you need to follow the basics of this story.
My decision to live in Israel, therefore, isn’t predicated on logic. That’s very important to understand as otherwise — from a non-Jewish perspective — the decision of many Diaspora-born Jews to live here appears to defy good reason.
Why not live in Spain or the US or Canada? It does defy logic. At least of a certain secular kind.
So I can put it like this:
Living in Israel has some strengths and some minuses but those are overrided — for me — by the knowledge that I’m participating in something much larger than myself; namely, the process of homecoming of the Jewish people, something with few, if any, historical parallels.
It’s also the only country on earth in which I don’t have to be an ethnic minority. There are major pluses to being part of the consensus too. Diasporan Jews are accustomed to living as small minorities — though few as small as Irish Jews. It’s a process that takes some getting used to.
Now onto practicalities.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a (prodigiously) long post comparing living in Israel and Ireland. It’s somewhere here on Medium. But I’ll spare you the somewhat inane comparisons of climatic factors.
In some respects, Israel is a truly exceptional place to live.
In others, it’s a pretty mediocre or even lousy one.
And here’s a reality that pains me.
By simply affirming that, many will judge me anti-Israel.
Others will say I’m being overly praiseful.
If you want to get used to ticking people off — a worthwhile habit to get into for creatives — write any assemblage of words on the topic of Israel.
Trust me: if you do that, you’ll find that it’s impossible not to cause offence. Israel’s supporters and detractors tend to both see things through a uniquely black and white lens. After a while, that prism gets exhausting.
But let’s start with the good. And leave the Jewish stuff to one side because I’ve already explained that pretty clearly (I hope).
Healthcare here is utterly fantastic. It’s also cheap — and I can say that about very few other things here. No complaints of any substance on that front. If we’re comparing countries — a dubiously useful activity, but whatever — then here, Israel runs rings around Ireland.
Overall, Israel is a developed first world country. GDP per capita is high for this part of the world. That’s the first thing that smacks many visitors. There are camels here, yes. But also skyscrapers. (But if you want to really get a feel for how developed Israel is, visit Afula — in the periphery — as well as Tel Aviv. Like most economic nuclei, and especially politically, Tel Aviv isn’t representative of the whole.)
The weather is good, as is well known. The food is tasty. That’s pretty notorious too.
The conflict looms perpetually in the background of life. The trappings of militarism are nowadays somewhat reserved. You’ll seem them when close to the border on the north.
You’ll periodically hear sirens and have to rush yourself into a bomb shelter when Hamas lobs rockets over your city. But in my time living here, that’s happened infrequently enough that it hasn’t been a defining feature of my aliyah. Just a jarring one.
Thanks to Israel’s advances in the field of homeland security in recent years, it mostly — thankfully I should add — stays that way.
When foreigners criticize Israel’s decision to install a security barrier between itself and the West Bank, they fail to remember that before Israel did that restaurants and buses were routinely blowing up due to suicide bombers detonating explosives (and themselves).
While Israel is in some respects sophisticated and advanced — that system to thwart rocket attacks, for instance, is world leading — in others it’s also oddly backward.
This is the part of the narrative that pro-Israel literature — which depicts the country as gloriously as possible to counter the avalanche of misinformation and lies strewn towards it — gets hopelessly wrong (in my opinion).
It’s also something it’s easy to miss if you only spend a week or two in the country on a selectively guided tour. Or even spend a more extended period of time here living in a comfortable expat bubble.
Bizarrely it’s usually those who don’t actually live here who are the most insistent that this country is a utopia it simply isn’t. At least right now.
Some pedestrian examples:
In the field of secondhand smoke prevention, Ireland has the obvious lead over Israel. Enforcement here is poor. Ditto with dog leashing laws. I once received a birthday card almost a full year after it was dispatched.
Much more pertinently, everything in Israel appears to be insanely overpriced and many enterprises that should be straightforward — running a small business, cancelling an internet subscription — seem to, for whatever reason, be rendered into trying endeavors that require Herculean perseverance to pull off.
For the 90% of the population who don’t work in high tech — a term Israelis use mostly to refer to the IT sector — salaries simply don’t keep up.
Shocking statistics have been collated about the proportion of Israelis living in perpetual overdraft, which is termed minus here (pronounced mee-noos). If you need a quick and tidy rebuttal to the “Jews are good with money” stereotype, look up that coverage and those numbers.
To get on the property market here, you essentially need to come up with more than a quarter of a million dollars in capital. I exaggerate not.
Israel has gone from poor socialist backwater to hyper-capitalist first world country with rampant income inequality in the blink of an eye. As anybody who visits here will witness, not all Jews are oil barons or tycoons — in fact few are. The global generational crunch exists in Israel and has a healthy dose of steroids in its sails.
But more about the strange disparities evident even in daily life.
Is Israel a leader in FinTech?
Perhaps. But contactless credit card payments arrived here belatedly, years after the technology was rolled out in some European countries. You can’t get Revolut here without fibbing about where you live.
Renting here is a surprisingly affordable — relative to the cost of living — but also a bit of a Wild West with minimal legislative oversight. Today, our heating broke down. On Friday, our internet and power also did.
The cause? A mild winter rainstorm. My wife and I rent a reasonably comfortable apartment, towards the upper end of what most 30-somethings spend on rent, in an upscale neighborhood in Jerusalem. These are the moments when the punctures begin to leak through Israel’s carefully manicured image of high-tech prowess and success.
Immigrants to Israel commonly complain that Israel feels “second world.” By economic measures, they are indisputably wrong. But whether it’s shoddy infrastructure or the often hopeless postal service or the sometimes appalling bureaucracy any immigrant to Israel knows exactly what they’re talking about.
Most people are pleasant, though some can be shockingly rude (manners are changing as Israel internationalizes but it’s a salient enough feature of culture to make an impression).
Israelis aren’t in the habit of thanking those who hold open doors for them. This is something which I and countless immigrants from more mannerly cultures simply never adjust to. Rather, we contain our irritation into manageable chunks knowing that expending too much of it at once would be futile. Sometimes we spill it out when in the company of other expats.
Overall, I enjoy living here. Although I’m clearly not without my grievances (I forgot the maniacal driving. I’ve become an avid supporter of public transport partially just to avoid it!).
When I think about others’ accounts of living in Israel, I think mostly about a series of fictions.
There’s the mistruth of unstinting Middle Eastern backwardness — though that seems to have fallen out of fashion as more Israeli startups launch on American stock indices.
And then there’s the polar opposite of that. The one that depicts Israel as an exemplary success in every field that it touches. This one is often crafted and told by official Israel itself. However, as a long term expat, neither have the ring of much truth to me.
There are some things that I think come very close to being objective truths — things which are in perpetual short supply in this part of the world.
Israel is a young and highly ambitious country.
Given its age and security challenges, I think it is doing extraordinarily well.
Equally, there are many challenges that the country still has to solve.
Ranging from the meta — the conflict, for one — to the more pedestrian. Like how to do customer service properly.
In some respects, it is the dysfunctional Middle Eastern country its detractors imagine it to be.
In others, it’s truly extraordinarily and sometimes even world-leading in spite of its diminutive size.
Perplexingly, it’s all these things at the same time.
For Jews, it’s homely.
For almost everyone, it’s a strange and sometimes perplexing place.