Chaim HerzogA meeting dealing with an issue of great import to the future of Israel recently took place here. The very fact that this gathering occurred at all seemed to contradict the charges which the meeting was to consider.

Labor Alignment Knesset member Chaim Herzog, a former Ambassador to the United Nations, told several hundred high school students, their teachers and their parents that one of the key causes for yerida (emigration of Israelis) was the lack of public interest in Israel and Zionism and Judaism.

On the surface, it seemed that Herzog was addressing the wrong audience. Wasn’t the very fact that several hundred Israelis had gathered for an entire evening to discuss yerida proof that Israelis did care?

The occasion was a “public trial on yerida.” The “courtroom” was the Histadrut building here, and the participants were 11th graders at Herzliya municipal high school. Any such gathering on an evening when Israeli TV shows “The Boston Strangler” would signify some interest on the subject of yerida.

Indications Of The Validity Of The Charges

However, there were at least two indications that there was some validity to Herzog’s charge. One, the strong and angry reactions to the “defense witnesses,” those courageous Israelis who tried to present a logical explanation of why some Israelis can no longer live in this country. The audience was quite impatient with some of the arguments advanced. When journalist Idit Ne’eman tried to present her arguments for the defense, the young audience interrupted her with angry interjections.

The other indication that Herzog was apparently on the right track in charging that the subject of yerida was not a priority issue for Israelis, was that the initiative for the meeting did not come from the students nor even from the school administration. It took place as part of an ongoing drive by the Zionist Council to promote Zionist issues among young people.

Such “public trials” are now taking place at least twice a month in various parts of the country. Young people are encouraged to attend and to give thought to an issue which will very much determine the future of Israel.

Once involved with the issue of yerida, on a “game” basis — a courtroom setting, with a judge, prosecution, defense and witnesses — the young people attending the public “trials” enjoy them and deal with the issue with seriousness and devotion.

Painful Reality Of Emigration

The attitude at the meeting in Herzliya was symptomatic of the public’s attitude in general. Israelis do not like to think about other Israelis leaving them behind. The figures explain why. Only 12,000 immigrants arrived in Israel last year. Figures on Israelis leaving the country permanently vary from 13,000 to 24,000. The discrepancy in these figures depends how one defines leaving the country permanently, because very few Israelis actually declare that they are emigrating.

Whatever the real figures are, one fact is definite- in the last two years, for the first time since the establishment of the State, there were more emigrants than immigrants.

Witness For The Prosecution

The prosecution at the meeting in Herzliya argued that there was no real reason for emigration- the general economic situation in the country was good, and, contrary to the situation in Western countries, there was hardly any unemployment. The emigrant, the prosecutor charged, was not only acting against Zionism and contrary to his national duties, he was also acting against himself and his family.

The defense raised a moral issue- “Does anyone have the right to compel others to live in a place in which they are unhappy?” The defense stressed that it did not want to defend yerida as a phenomenon, but rather a person’s right to emigrate. “Yerida is a symptom of an illness in our society,” the defense said. “It is not the illness itself.”

The key witness for the prosecution was Herzog. He recalled that during the United Nations General Assembly debate on Zionism in November 1975 one of the arguments raised by Israel’s enemies was that if Zionism was a positive solution for the Jewish people, why was it that so many Israelis were leaving?

Herzog charged that the yored (emigrant) had a negative effect on the Jewish communities in the diaspora because the emigrant tended to slander Israel in order to rationalize his leaving. Furthermore, he charged, many of the emigrants have not improved their economic status, and would have lived just as well had they stayed in Israel.

However, despite his strong criticism, Herzog said he did not share a comment made once by the previous Premier, Yitzhak Rabin, that the emigrants were “weaklings” who had “fallen by the wayside.” Herzog said an effort should be made to bring the emigrants back to Israel.

Witness For The Defense

Shinui Knesset member Mordechai Virshubsky was the key witness for the defense. He said that the issue is the illness of Israeli society and not yerida. If society functioned properly, he said, there would be no problem of yerida and many olim would come to Israel. “We had known emigration in the past, but it was always overshadowed by progress in the country,” Virshubsky said. Only in recent years, he noted, has the problem of yerida grown acute.

He ruled out taking any legal measures against emigration because this would only increase the number of yordim. He said that ever since Rabin attacked yerida, the number of yordim grew. “Israelis will cease to look for their fortunes overseas if they feel more at home in Israel,” Virshubsky stated.

Gadi Nu of Herzliya, who recently returned from a nine-year stay in Canada, had very few good words to say about the Israeli community in Toronto. “I hardly know one Israeli who is really happy there, he said. “They all dream of returning to Israel. The trouble is that some of them get tied down to the place, and they never fulfill their dreams. When I left for Canada I felt like a deserter, but there was a family problem that I had to solve. As soon as I did, I returned.”

Value Of The Public ‘Trials’

The “trial” ended with no verdict. The issue was too complex to try to reach a court consensus. The main point of the “trial” was to raise the issue, and indeed it was thoroughly discussed. How much do public “trials” like this one in Herzliya and others around the country contribute to raising the consciousness of young Israelis about the issue of yerida? How many of them will still live in Israel 10 years from now? These are questions with no answers, at least at this time. The public “trials” dealing with this issue are really the minimum that is being done to place the issue of yerida on the national agenda.