How to stay aﬂoat in Israel — one man’s aliyah story
After being the victim of two assaults, 26-year-old Jonathan Josephs moved to Tel Aviv to feel safe, and ended up in a bomb shelter
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Jonathan Josephs at the Dead Sea. He says at first he felt like a tourist
It was over breakfast that I made the decision that was to change my life. A wet April morning in Montpellier, the TV news was reporting the latest polls for the French presidential elections. Francois Hollande was widely tipped to win by the tightest of margins.
The announcement I was about to make to my parents was not one I had seriously thought through. Truth be told, I had only considered the idea a mere 10 minutes earlier. I had always been impulsive, but what I was about to say took impulsivity to a new level.
“Mum, dad, I’m going to move to Israel and make aliyah.”
The ensuing silence lasted less than a couple of seconds but it felt like a lifetime. How would my parents react? My dad stood up and hugged me. My mum, holding back tears, promptly joined him. In the background, the newsreader reported that the trial of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik had just commenced. My parents were still hugging me, and I had to gently disengage them to get back to my breakfast — baguette spread with Marmite. Born in England but raised in France, my identity has always been somewhat confused.
The next week, I was in contact with the Jewish Agency in Marseille, and started the official process required for aliyah. Hollande was elected French president, and the images of the victory celebrations going on in Paris were of Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian flags flying high over the Place de la Bastille.
A few weeks before, I had been beaten up by a gang of youths in the street in a completely unprovoked attack. I sustained facial injuries. The gang leader was jailed for violent aggravated assault. A few days later, while waiting for a tram, I got assaulted again, by a gang of youths from the bad part of town.
I’m happy to say I made a full recovery from both attacks but my thoughts did turn to those poor children who were murdered a couple of months earlier in a Jewish school in Toulouse, for the simple fact that they were Jewish. I am not optimistic for the future of France, nor for the rest of Europe for that matter. I no longer feel safe walking around the streets of France.
By the following month, I had gathered all the necessary documents, gone for the official interview and had my aliyah approved. Then the “is this really happening?” stage kicked in. Did I unthinkingly rush into this process? Definitely. Was I ready for the realities of life in Israel? Probably not. Was I willing to give it the best possible shot? Absolutely.
I said goodbye to my parents, and went through airport security without looking back. The flight was uneventful. I read the papers (the elections in Egypt were in full swing; Greece was collapsing) and tried to learn a few words of Hebrew. I arrived at Ben Gurion late in the evening, as a new immigrant with nothing but three bags and my guitar to my name. The process that began at that momentous breakfast and culminated with my arrival in Tel Aviv had taken a mere three months.
There was nobody to greet me at the airport, nor was I expecting anybody. A large group of well-wishers was waiting to celebrate the arrival of a nice French family who made aliyah on the same flight as me. As they saw me walking past, alone, they grabbed my hands and included me in their party, dancing and hoisting me up and down on a chair.
The taxi driver dropped me off at my friend’s apartment in central Tel Aviv. I was to stay on his couch until I found a suitable place to live. The driver barely had time to unload my bags before my friend whisked me off to the nearest pub.
Josephs (first left standing) among immigrants meeting Israel President Shimon Peres
The barman said that the first drink was on the house for all new Israelis. Unwittingly or not, he forgot and charged us anyway. Did I feel guilty buying beer with the grant the government gives to all new immigrants? Not one bit.
My first couple of weeks as an Israeli flashed by. Which was odd given I spent most of my time in drab offices, sorted out my national security ID, my health insurance, my bank account, my registration at the ministry of integration, my driving licence…). The process was relatively painless and I was relieved not to encounter any of the red-tape-related horrors Israeli bureaucracy is famous for. There was plenty of time for that to come, I thought.
At my local falafel stall, upon hearing that I just made aliyah, the person next in the queue said he would buy me lunch. This time I didn’t have to spend my government money on falafel — the man kept his promise.
Tel Aviv was bustling with tourists, and I felt like one of them. My first month in Israel felt more like an extended holiday than the beginning of a new life. By day, I wondered the streets of Tel Aviv, soaking up the atmosphere. In France, I would have been constantly looking over my shoulder — here, I didn’t have to.
One moment particularly stood out. I saw a pensioner struggling to walk down the street on a hot summer afternoon. A man rushed out of a hair salon and invited him in to sit down and have a glass of water. For some reason, I found the gesture deeply moving — as if that one small kindness revealed the spirit of solidarity that exists between Israelis.
Other gestures were less impressive, such as the constant elbow-shoving I experienced whenever I was waiting patiently in line, like a good Englishman is trained to do. Apparently, solidarity does not extend to queueing.
I had found a job as an in-house lawyer for a technology firm — which was fortunate because I had been spending far too much of my grant on partying, and by the end of the first month I was more or less broke.
On my first day at the office I turned up in my newly pressed suit, crisp white shirt and neatly knotted tie, and quickly realised I was disastrously over-dressed. Israelis wear jeans and polo-shirts at work usually — definitely no ties. Luckily my new colleagues were willing to overlook my sartorial blunder and I was welcomed into the company.
But not by everyone. I had barely been shown to my desk when a man approached, shook my hand, and proceeded to shout at me. I had no idea who he was or what he was going on about. My fairly basic Hebrew wasn’t up to the task, but I could definitely tell he wasn’t inviting me out to lunch. What could I have done wrong?
Just when I thought he had finished, he went off on another, even louder, shouting bout. I glanced at the administrative assistants who were struggling to hide their giggles. Eventually, they interrupted him, and explained that he had got the wrong guy. Apparently he was supposed to be giving the ear-bashing to another new immigrant in the office. A simple, terrifying case of mistaken identity.
I soon learned that, unlike in England or France, where shouting at someone means that you have probably done something pretty bad, in Israel this isn’t the case. People seem to relish being shouted at. To reply, you simply shout back in return, only a few decibels louder. Even now I am amazed when I go to a meeting and hear people bawling at each other as if they were the bitterest enemies, and see them five minutes later, laughing over a joke at lunch.
The other famed custom of Israelis is their impatience at traffic lights. Israelis have an astute sense of timing and can correctly predict the precise moment the light will turn green. If you do not drive off within the next millisecond, make no mistake, you will get honked.
I was loving life in Tel Aviv, but one event brought me crashing back to reality. It was the news that a suicide bomber got on a bus in Bulgaria and killed seven Israelis. Somehow, I felt personally attacked.
I wanted to share my anger and sadness with my colleagues and expected them to be as outraged as I was. But they didn’t seem to be affected. “These things happen” was the normal reply, accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders. Have the sheer number of these attacks over the year desensitised Israelis? Sad songs played on the radio, and life went on.
One month later, I was due to speak at a conference in Berlin on legal measures to combat online antisemitism and Holocaust denial. It was my first trip abroad since I’d made aliyah. When the speaker introduced me as “Jonathan Josephs, from Israel” I felt an intense moment of pride.
To be able to speak on efforts to combat antisemitism in Germany was one thing; doing so as a new citizen of the state of Israel was quite another.
Many immigrants say they can’t recall when they started to feel like a proper Israeli. I can. It was in my fourth month. I was behind a car at a traffic light. The light went green. The car in front didn’t immediately drive off. You guessed it. I honked. Israelis up and down the country would have been proud of me.
Soon after there was the watershed moment when I ordered a beer in Hebrew, and the waitress answered me in Hebrew, instead of English.
I was speaking and understanding more of the language, and at the office, I felt confident enough to give a legal presentation. I wasn’t sure whether my colleagues understood me or were just being polite, until I remembered that Israelis aren’t known for being polite.
The next evening, as I was driving back from work on the Ayalon motorway, the traffic suddenly screeched to a halt. People were getting out of their cars and lying on the ground. The first rocket attack on Tel Aviv since the Gulf War was in progress.
But I didn’t know that. I had turned up the CD player and missed the warning. By that point I wanted to show everyone what an integrated Israeli I had become. So I proceeded to honk my horn and continued weaving between the stopped cars. It was only when I arrived home and saw my flat-mates sheltering in the stairway that I understood what was happening.
Waiting for the all-clear in the bomb shelter was one of my less pleasant Israeli experiences. The elderly woman sheltering next to me saw that I wasn’t coping well with the stress and reassured me with a friendly smile and a few kind words. The fact that she was a Holocaust survivor helped put the danger into perspective.
Later, I went down to the grocery store across the street. A few locals from the neighbourhood were sitting outside, listening to music, sharing jokes and drinking beers. I joined them. I realised that, bombs notwithstanding, I didn’t want to be anywhere else.
Returning to my flat, I saw that I parked my car on a yellow line. But I knew I wouldn’t get a ticket — the authorities had more important things to deal with and, besides, we were all united by having survived the rocket attack.
Just before falling asleep, a friend from England phoned. He had heard about the attack. Israel was too dangerous, he told me. I should come back to Europe immediately. I told him, no. This beautiful, vibrant and lively country had welcomed me with open arms. I was happy to be in Israel.
Next morning, I found a 250 shekel parking ticket stuck under my windscreen wiper. I couldn’t help laughing. That’s when I realised I was home.