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Monica Porter

Reverse Exodus

Jewish Chronicle, 9 August 2013

            Daniel Barenboim, celebrated musical genius and Israeli citizen, has admitted that he feels more at ease in Germany than in Israel. He has famously been running the Berlin Staatskapelle orchestra since 1992 and lives in a villa near the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, where the Nazis devised their Final Solution. What, you might ask, is this Jewish treasure playing at?

But Barenboim is merely the most high profile of a large number of Israelis (an estimated 15,000 – 20,000) who have been gradually relocating to Berlin. This ex-pat community, which boasts its own Hebrew radio station, is top-heavy with creative types – painters, writers, musicians, film-makers – who have taken advantage of the German state’s welcoming arms. They receive special ‘artist visas’, generous grants and subsidies, there is a lighter bureaucratic touch than in Israel, and the cost of living is far lower.

The ex-pats also cite Berlin’s prevailing atmosphere of respect for art and culture and creative activities generally. That’s not always the case in Israel, it seems. Add to this Germany’s now-engrained sensitivity towards racial minorities, and you begin to see why it has become a mecca (pardon the choice of word) for so many Jews.

They explain that they abandoned Israel because of bitter disappointment in the direction it’s taken – socially, politically, culturally. In short, Zionism ain’t what it used to be. Besides the seemingly insoluble Palestinian problem and continuing hostility from Muslim countries – a constant source of stress – it’s become tougher to have a decent standard of living in Israel, with high prices and shrinking job opportunities. And there’s the corruption, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who ‘bleed them dry’, and the ‘demographic time-bomb’ of the burgeoning Israeli-Arab population. They claim to feel safer and more valued in Germany.

Berlin’s Israeli influx even includes relatives of Holocaust victims. For example the actor/writer Nati Ornan, a Berlin resident since 2010. He thoughtfully waited until after the death of his grandfather before moving there, as his grandfather’s brother Natan (after whom he is named) was killed at Treblinka. ‘Now there are more Israeli artists in Berlin than in Israel,’ he said. ‘This is like the proverbial destruction of the Third Temple – the destruction of the Jewish spirit.’

Rabbi Walter Homolka, rector of Potsdam’s Abraham Geiger College, the first rabbinical seminary to open in Germany since the Holocaust, has publicly expressed his concern about the ‘brain drain’ from Israel, which has seen ever more of its citizens moving abroad, particularly to Germany. He said it was one of Israel’s biggest problems.

Well this is a fine state of affairs. A reverse ‘exodus’ – Jews seeking a better life by moving from their national homeland to the country that tried to annihilate them seventy years ago. Needless to say, today’s Germany is an exemplary democracy, it is capitalism tempered by compassion, an economic powerhouse, etc. And I have myself seen, during innumerable visits to my family in Munich, the extent of German contrition over the Holocaust. An impressive new Documentation and Education Centre focusing on the Hitler era has just arisen in Munich on the site of the Brown House, the former Nazi HQ. Germany now has arguably the toughest anti-racism laws in the world.

But it is not the Promised Land. That was meant to be Israel, which nowadays is more like the land of promises, many unfulfilled. The most basic promise – that of a sanctuary for Jews, a refuge from persecution – is of course intact. But that function has lost much of its practical value in the 21st century, in the era of the EU. So what more can it offer? That is the big question the Israeli government needs to address before it loses too many more of its creative, enterprising young people.

We all know in our heart of hearts that Israel will prevail in its conflict with the Arabs, because Israel cannot go down unless America goes down and America will never go down. But as to the PR war, I fear Israel might be losing that already.