Israelis leave their land, forced out by a battered economy and years of violence

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The Independent Online

Jean Max emigrated from Britain to Israel in 1970 as a committed Zionist. Her three children were born and grew up in Israel. But since they reached adulthood, all three have left for new lives in the United States.

And Ms Max, now divorced, is planning to follow them. Her American visa has arrived, she is going to Boston, where her daughter lives, to look for work. If she finds it, she is leaving Israel after 33 years.

Ms Max and her family are part of a growing phenomenon that has the Israeli political establishment worried. New figures from the Immigration and Absorption Ministry stunned the establishment. Those figures show 760,000 Israeli citizens now live abroad. The ministry says its figures are an informal estimate, based on research by Israeli embassies around the world.

Even so, for a country of just 6,600,000, it is a large number. But the big surprise was the growth in the number of Israelis living abroad: in 2000, it was 550,000. That increase has undoubtedly been fuelled by the suicide bombings and other attacks by Palestinian militants over the past three years, and by the severe recession into which the Israeli economy has been plunged.

But in few countries in the world are immigration and emigration so politically charged as in Israel. At a recent conference of American-Jewish supporters of Israel in Jerusalem, Ariel Sharon made a speech that has become familiar during his three years as Prime Minister. "We need you," he told the American delegates, urging them to emigrate to Israel. He made the same appeal to visitors from the British-Jewish community last year, and he has made it repeatedly.

Israel is now said to be as crowded as India: those 6,600,000 people live in a small country. But the Israeli government continues to encourage Jewish immigration, offering generous financial incentives to new arrivals. The reason is that Israelis fear they are sitting on a demographic time bomb.

The results of a recent study by Israeli academics unnerved even the right-wing supporters of Mr Sharon. The study found that by the year 2020, in just 17 years, Palestinians will be the majority in the whole area of Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. That raises the possibility of the Israeli right's worst nightmare: that Palestinians might stop demanding a state of their own and start asking for the vote. That could spell the end of Israel's identity as a Jewish state, something most Israelis want to keep.

Israelis leave the country for many reasons. Ms Max says she and her family did not decide to go because of the violence. "I'm leaving because I've always wanted to," she says. "I came here as a Zionist but found Israeli culture was very different from what I was used to." She stayed, she says, first because she met her husband, then for her children.

But now her children have left, she wants to follow them. Her children went for their own reasons. Only her eldest son, Adam, might return if the suicide bombings stopped and the economic situation improved, she thinks.

But Ms Max's neighbours in Jerusalem did leave because of the suicide bombings. "They said they were too frightened for their children to stay here," Ms Max says. "They went back to Australia, where they had come from. But they said it was very difficult to start a new life."

Because Ms Max's former husband is American, her children have US citizenship. In Israel's immigrant society, many Israelis have second passports, and can leave the country easily. In the past year, embassies in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary have had long queues of second-generation Israelis claiming their right to their parents' old citizenship.

In the Nineties, a million immigrants arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union, swelling the population and slowing the rate at which the Palestinian population was overtaking it. But today, more Jewish people from the former Soviet Union are emigrating to Germany than Israel, and some who arrived in the Nineties have left, frustrated by not getting jobs to match their qualifications. In a country full of doctors, a medically qualified migrant from the former Soviet Union can end up a cleaner.

A new situation is beginning to emerge in which some Palestinians are suggesting demographics is their greatest weapon, and that they should use it against Israel. "Sharon is building the wall because he wants to squeeze Palestinians into cantons on half of the West Bank," Professor Ali Jirbawi, of the West Bank's Bir Zeit University, says. "They want to call half of the West Bank 'Palestine' so they can squeeze the Palestinians into as small a space as possible and allay their own fears of the demographic effect in the future."

Professor Jirbawi is advocating that the Palestinians should set a six-month time limit on negotiations for a two-state solution. "We should say we accept a two-state solution, but that it means going back to the 1967 borders, and a fully independent and sovereign Palestinian state. We should give them six months. If there is no decision, we should say Israel, by its own choice, doesn't want a two-state solution. If Israel wants a one-state solution we accept; but 20 years from now, we're going to ask for one person, one vote."

That is a nightmare scenario for many Israelis. Professor David Newman, of Ben Gurion University, says: "If you look at the drive for a two-state solution in the past, it was always to prevent conflict. What is becoming more prevalent is that people are saying we have to do it because if we don't we're going to end up with a bi-national state.

"If you look at all the surveys of public opinion, the one issue that unites the Jewish population of Israel is that more than 90 per cent say they want to retain a Jewish majority. The problem of the right wing is that they want a Greater Israel including the occupied territories, without any withdrawal. The irony is by doing that they invite a bi-national state."

The families who returned home

USA

Charles Lenchner realised how bad things had become in Israel when he asked his daughter, Esther, 8, what her favourite television show was. "She said her favourite programme was [the cartoon] Dexter's Lab," Mr Lenchner said. "When I asked why she said she would like to have a laboratory where she could make toys that were really bombs so that Arab children could take them home and blow up their families."

Mr Lenchner, his mother and his sistermoved to Tel Aviv from Pittsburgh in 1975 when he was aged six, a move spurred by his mother's Zionist views. He returned to the US 25 years later, confronted by evidence such as his daughter's comments of the hatred that exists in Israel and the occupied territories. "I was just so demoralised by the absence of hope," said Mr Lenchner, 34, who now lives in Washington.His daughter still lives in Israel with her mother. "I am now trying to get her to come to the US," he said.

Andrew Buncombe

RUSSIA

Anna Kozakova, a theatre producer, lived in Israel from 1991 to 1996 with her now-estranged husband, Mikhail Kozakov, who is one of Russia's leading theatrical actors.

The couple left Moscow because Russian theatre fell into total ruin as the Soviet Union collapsed. They also feared the rise of anti-Semitism in the new Russia, and went to find a better life in Israel, where they lived for five years.

Two factors convinced them to return: life in Russia grew much better and the Moscow theatre revived impressively. Also, life in Israel proved to be unsatisfactory.

She said: "Israel didn't offer any real chances for [my husband] to develop his creativity. The situation in Moscow improved greatly and Mikhail began receiving very attractive invitations to work. It was because of the work situation, not because of politics or anything else, that we decided to return. I have no regrets about that choice".

Fred Weir

BRITAIN

Gideon and Lynn Seligman abandoned the life they had built together in western Galilee and returned to Britain disillusioned with the lack of political and moral leadership on both sides of the conflict. "In the foreseeable future, I can see no resolution to the mess. The politics and nature of Israeli society are becoming more right wing and racist," said Mr Seligman, 40, from his new home in Stockport, Greater Manchester, yesterday. The couple moved from London in 1990 feeling optimistic and excited at the prospect of working on a kibbutz in northern Israel. During the 12 years they lived there the couple had two children, Ella, now aged 12, and Maya, eight. The decision to return home in June last year was made all the more difficult because their community was still growing and the family had made many friends. "Living in Israel you see the other side of the mountain, but my feelings of hope gradually gave way to despair," he said.

Genevieve Roberts

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