Going Down From Heaven—or Israel
Everyone knows what it means to make aliyah, but the opposite, to make yerida, is nowhere near as familiar—or as positive. Aliyah means ascension, either literally or spiritually; if you move to Israel, or if you are called to the Torah for a blessing, you “go up” to a higher place than before. Yerida—“descent”—carries a similar but spikier double meaning, best expressed by a 1990s joke, when large numbers of Israelis were working in New York:
A recently arrived Israeli is waiting for the elevator in an office building in Lower Manhattan. When the elevator arrives, it’s full of Israelis employed at the various companies in the building. He asks: “Yerida?” (“Going down?”) All the Israelis in the elevator quickly respond, “No, no, we’re just here temporarily!”
As this suggests, the feelings of those labeled yordim, those who have “gone down” from Israel to live permanently elsewhere, are charged with ambivalence. Yerida is a loaded term for out-migration, and the weight of the load fluctuates depending on the speaker’s Zionist sensibilities, socioeconomic class and political leanings. It also varies with the situation in Israel. Anxiety about yerida peaks at times when Israel is either stagnating economically, as in the 1970s, or facing an extra dose of danger, as during the second intifada.
“I don’t hear the denunciation of yerida or the preoccupation with it that I remember from five or ten years ago,” says Paul Scham, director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland. “To call someone a yored is still a put-down, but it doesn’t have that sting of betrayal, that implication that you’re a quitter. But then Israel is doing better economically. So there aren’t as many reasons to leave.”
Biblically speaking, the first yored was Abraham, who “goes down” to Egypt in Genesis, as do Joseph and Jacob after him. While Egypt is geographically lower, classical Torah commentators inferred that Abraham was lowering himself morally; in fact, after he and Sarah are ejected by Pharaoh, they “go up” to the Negev. Following this concept, later rabbis identify a principle of yerida letsorech aliyah, “to sink in order to rise,” roughly corresponding to the Alcoholics Anonymous insight about the value of hitting bottom.
Estimates of the actual number of present-day yordim vary wildly, partly for reasons of definition. (Who’s to say whether those New York elevator riders were really going back?) Some 230,000 Israeli-born Jews lived outside Israel in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center Global Religion and Migration Database. A decade ago, the Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption put the number at 330,000, though other demographers argued the figure was too high. In 2007 the Israeli government announced it would spend 19 million shekels (about $5.3 million) on a campaign to persuade yordim to return home, offering a package of inducements ranging from unemployment benefits to discounted airfare. The following year, the government reported, the rate of hazara, or return from living abroad, spiked 58 percent, from about 5,000 to 8,000—though this may have had more to do with the concurrent collapse of the American job market. (The government had less success—and sparked considerable outrage—with a 2012 campaign showing purported emigres on missing-person posters, urging Israelis to locate these “lost” Jews before they succumbed to the “strategic national threat” of assimilation.)
Even the simplest discussion of yerida taps into long-running debates about the meaning of Zionism. Do all Jews need to live in Israel? And has the Zionist vision failed if they do not? For early purists, successful Zionism required the ingathering of all exiles and “negation of the diaspora.” To use the word yerida in this context was to point to a moral failing in the Jewish people. Yitzhak Rabin famously derided yordim as “leftover weaklings,” and prime minister Menachem Begin wrote in a 1980 letter to Moment, “I know the shortcomings of our people—its petulance, the dropouts, the yerida, its penchant for undeserved hatred…which has pursued it from ancient times until today.” (Editor Leonard Fein responded that “the disturbing data on emigration from Israel” were only one part of “an internal Jewish malady. . . [a]ssimilation in this community, apathy and ignorance, fatigue and demoralization.”)
Despite the cultural preoccupation with yerida, statistics kept by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development indicate that Israel’s “migration index” is 2.9 per thousand, about average for developed countries. “Every survey shows it’s fairly modest,” says Pini Herman, a demographer who has followed the issue for decades. “What’s remarkable is Israel’s resiliency, its ability to retain its people. When there’s a security situation, what you see is a bump in the number of hits on Wikipedia’s yerida site.” That fits with what sociologist Joseph Eaton has described as “territorial therapy,” in which people use “ideation about emigration” to ease their anxieties about the country’s future. A 2008 survey showed that 59 percent of Israelis had visited an embassy or consulate to inquire about obtaining a second passport, though only 22 percent said they would consider actually leaving the country.
One reason for the cooling-off of yerida debates lately may be the new global lifestyle, in which one can live in two places at once or move back and forth, working or collecting advanced degrees, to the economic advantage of both the home country and the temporary residence.
Today’s relative prosperity and residential fluidity also may reduce the urgency people feel about whether other people are planning to leave. The maverick intellectual and former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg caused a stir in 2004 by telling an interviewer that he had a French passport and that “whoever can” should likewise seek a second citizenship. A newspaper headline joked that “Mr. Aliyah has become Mr. Yerida”—a reference to Burg’s earlier stint chairing the Jewish Agency. Burg, however, remains in Israel.—Amy E. Schwartz