After Losing Hope for Change, Top Left-wing Activists and Scholars Leave Israel Behind

They founded anti-occupation movements and fought for the soul of Israeli society, but ultimately decided to emigrate. The new exiles tell Haaretz how they were harassed and silenced, until they had almost no choice but to leave

Last December, when no one knew that the coronavirus was lurking around the corner, Eitan Bronstein Aparicio, 60, and his partner, Eléonore Merza, 40, left Israel for good. They are both well-known in circles of left-wing activists. He founded the organization Zochrot some 20 years ago, she is a political anthropologist, and they co-authored a book on the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe,” as Palestinians refer to the events surrounding the founding of Israel). Ideologically, politically and professionally, French-born Merza, the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Circassian father, simply could not bear the situation any longer. Although she was about to be granted permanent residency status in Israel, she found a job in Brussels and the couple moved there, with no plans to return.

In a phone conversation with Haaretz from the coronavirus lockdown in Belgium, Bronstein Aparicio says he still finds it difficult to believe that he left. “I look on it as a type of exile, a departure from the center of Israel,” he explains.

Born in Argentina, Bronstein Aparicio emigrated to Israel with his parents when he was 5, growing up in Kibbutz Bahan in central Israel. “My name was changed from Claudio to Eitan – I carry the Zionist revolution with me,” he laughs. He describes himself as a “regular Israeli” who did military service, like everyone else. A personal process that he terms the “decolonization of my Zionist identity” led him to establish Zochrot (“Remembering,” in Hebrew) in 2001, an NGO that aims to raise awareness of the Nakba and of the Palestinians’ right of return among the Jewish public. He has five children: Three of them live in Israel, one in Brazil, and the youngest, a boy who’s almost 4, lives with the couple in Brussels.

“There is one point on which I am completely in accord with the move – namely, the need to rescue my son from the nationalist, militaristic education system in Israel. I am glad I got him out of that,” he says, adding, “People with a similar political profile to mine have the feeling that we have been defeated and that we will no longer be able to exert a meaningful influence in Israel. In a profound sense, we do not see a horizon of repair, of true peace or a life of quality. A great many people understood this and looked for another place to live. There is something quite insane in Israel, so to look at it from a distance is at least a little saner.”

Indeed, many of those who belonged to what’s termed the radical left in Israel have left the country in the past decade. Among them were those who devoted their life to activism, founded political movements and headed some of the country’s most important left-wing organizations: Not only Zochrot, but B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Coalition of Women for Peace, 21st Year, Matzpen and others. The individuals include senior academics – some of whom were forced out of their jobs because of their political beliefs and activities – and also cultural figures or members of the liberal professions, who felt they could no longer express their views in Israel without fear. Many came from the heart of the Zionist left and then moved farther left, or looked on as the state abandoned principles that were important to them, to a point where they felt they no longer had a place in the Israeli public discourse.

They are scattered around the world, trying to build new lives with fewer internal and external conflicts, very often out of concern for their children’s future. Most of them shy away from terming themselves political exiles, but make it plain that opposition to the Israeli government is what drove them to leave, or at least not to return. Some declined to be interviewed, from a feeling of unease at leaving and because they do not want their private act to become a model for others. Those who spoke to Haaretz would be the first to admit to enjoying privileges that allowed them to move to a different country, as none of them faces an uncertain economic future or the prospect of engaging in menial labor. Still, a clear note of pain runs through all the conversations.

Among the well-known names no longer living in Israel are the curator and art theoretician Ariella Azoulay and her partner, philosopher Adi Ophir, who was among the founders of the 21st Year, an anti-occupation organization, and refused to serve in the territories; Anat Biletzki, a former chairwoman of B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories; Dana Golan, former executive director of the anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence; planner and architect Haim Yacobi, who founded Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights; literary scholar Hannan Hever, a cofounder of the 21st Year who was active in Yesh Gvul; Ilan Pappe, a one-time candidate from the Arab-Jewish party Hadash and a member of the group of “new historians,” who left the country over a decade ago and lives in London; and Yonatan Shapira, a former pilot in the Israeli air force who initiated the 2003 letter of the pilots who refused to participate in attacks in the occupied territories, and took part in protest flotillas to the Gaza Strip.

Others include political scientist Neve Gordon, who was director of Physicians for Human Rights and was active in the Ta’ayush Arab Jewish Partnership, a nonviolent, anti-occupation and civil equality movement ; Yael Lerer, who helped found Balad, the Arab-nationalist political party, and was founder of (the now-defunct) Andalus Publishing, which translated Arabic literature into Hebrew; Gila Svirsky, a founder of Coalition of Women for Peace; Jonathan Ben-Artzi, a nephew of Sara Netanyahu, who was jailed for a total of nearly two years for refusing to serve in the Israeli army; Haim Bereshit, a BDS activist, who headed the Media and Cinema School in Sapir College in Sderot and established the city’s cinematheque; Marcelo Svirsky, a founder of the Kol Aher BaGalil Arab-Jewish coexistence group and cofounder of the Jewish-Arab school in Galilee; and Ilana Bronstein, Niv Gal, Muhammad Jabali, Saar Sakali and Rozeen Bisharat, who sought to create a joint Palestinian-Jewish leisure and culture venue in the Anna Loulou Bar in Jaffa (which closed in January 2019).

The new “leavers” join those who left for political reasons many years ago, among them: Yigal Arens, a Matzpen activist and son of the late Moshe Arens, a longtime defense minister; Matzpen activists Moshe Machover, Akiva Orr and Shimon Tzabar, who left in the 1960s; as well as the filmmakers Eyal Sivan, Simone Bitton and Udi Aloni, who left in the 1980s and ‘90s.

The word that recurs time and again in when one speaks with these individuals is “despair.” Percolating despair, continuing for years.

“I remember vividly the period of the Oslo Accords, the euphoria – which I shared,” Bronstein Aparicio says. “I remember years when there was a feeling that maybe [the conflict] would be resolved and maybe there would be peace, but that feeling hasn’t existed for a long time. It’s a state of constant despair that keeps growing.”

Thus, after long years of activism, all the interviewees testified that they had lost hope for political change in Israel. Many of them are convinced that if change does occur, it will not come from within Israel. “I think it could come mainly from outside,” Bronstein Aparicio explains. “I have hopes for BDS, which is the only significant thing now happening in the field. From that point of view, political exile like this can have a meaningful role.”

Feeling of failure

Neve Gordon, 54, launched his political activity when he was 15, attending demonstrations held by Peace Now. He was wounded seriously during his military service as a combat soldier in the Paratroops. At the time of the first intifada (which began in December 1987), he served as the first executive director of Physicians for Human Rights Israel. Subsequently he was active in Ta’ayush, which pursues avenues of Jewish and Palestinian cooperation, and was a founder of the Jewish-Arab school in Be’er Sheva. During the second intifada he was part of the movement of refusal to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

Although his political activity has been extensive, Gordon may be best known to the general Israeli public primarily for an opinion piece he published in The Los Angeles Times in 2009, when he was head of the department of politics and government at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva. In the essay, Gordon stated his support for the boycott movement and termed Israel an apartheid state. An international furor erupted, and the university’s president at the time, Rivka Carmi, declared that “academics who feel that way about their country are invited to look for different professional and personal accommodation.”

In the years that followed, Gordon’s department at BGU became a target of systematic campaigns by right-wing organizations, notably Im Tirtzu, which demanded its closure because of the political views of a number of its faculty members. In 2012, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar (Likud) called for Gordon’s dismissal. At the end of that year, the Council for Higher Education recommended that the university consider shutting down the Gordon’s department if certain reforms weren’t undertaken, but its decision was ultimately revoked a few months later after a few changes were introduced.

In those tumultuous years, the professor says, he received a number of threats on his life. Three and a half years ago, he and his partner, Catherine Rottenberg, who was head of the university’s gender studies program, together with their two sons, moved to London after both received European Union research fellowships. Gordon is now a professor of international law and human rights at Queen Mary University of London.

It wasn’t the threats on his life that prompted him to leave, Gordon says, nor the struggle against the higher education establishment. In the end, what tipped the scales was concern for the future of their children. “I don’t see a political horizon, and I have two sons, with all that’s entailed in raising sons in Israel.”

And you also landed an excellent job in London.

“True, but my job in Israel was better by a long shot. I really liked the Ben-Gurion department, I liked the students and also the faculty. I felt I had a community, and it was very hard to give that up. Even when we got to London, we didn’t plan to stay. If we’d been a young couple without children, I’m not sure we would have stayed.” Gordon adds, “It’s not the easiest thing, to get up and leave at the age of 50-something. There’s a feeling of personal failure and the failure of a [political] camp.”

Was there a particular moment when the impossibility of remaining in Israel became clear?

“There was no one moment. Over the years we experienced growing extremism. It reached the point where we felt uncomfortable taking our children to demonstrations, because of the violence. The day-to-day racism is creating a place where I don’t feel I belong.”

The final blow, says Gordon, came when he began to feel it was no longer possible to speak out freely against the racist situation he witnessed. “The dialogue within Israel, which used to be open and which I took pride in, changed. Things that people like me espouse – support for the boycott movement, or terming Israel an apartheid state – became illegitimate,” he says. “And then you are already not only outside the consensus, but outside the true public discussion. You become a curiosity. And then you say, ‘What do I need this for?’”

Did the country change, or did you change?

“To be fair, the change is undoubtedly both in me and in the country. I also underwent a certain process. What I understood was that the solution cannot be contained in Zionism.”

Haim Yacobi, Gordon’s colleague at BGU, and subsequently head of its politics and government department, also left Israel. One of the founders of Bimkom, which deals with issues of equality in spatial planning and housing in Israel, Yacobi, an architect by training who is today 55 years old, moved to England three years ago with his partner and their three children, when he received a professorship at University College London. Like Gordon, he says that he did not leave because of political harassment: “If you look at the political situation in Israel squarely, on top of the colonial project in the West Bank and Israel’s becoming an apartheid state, then the question that arises is what I want for myself and for my children.”

He adds, “For people like me – whose work is critical and political, and who were also involved as activists – the politics of hope or of despair is of very weighty significance,” he says. “To emigrate at my age and status is to say: I am in despair, I see no hope. That stems from my political analysis, based on how I view as a just state and society. It’s not a decision that’s made overnight. We didn’t leave Israel because of the price of cottage cheese. We were exactly at the stage in which good bourgeois folks start to see the fruits of their labors, and I feel that I was very successful in what I did in Israel. It’s very frightening to emigrate at a late age and to reinvent yourself.”

Yacobi notes that many of his colleagues in Israel, even among the radical left, viewed his leaving as a betrayal. That reaction came as a surprise, but didn’t make him change his mind. “The motivation to establish Bimkom was my belief that change was possible. I am less naive now,” he says, adding that the political violence in Israel led him to realize that getting out was the only option for him.

Although Yacobi says he felt wanted in Israeli academia, he agrees that academic freedom in the country has been downgraded. “I think that very problematic forces, politically, have entered and have effectively become the police of the academic world,” he says.

Bar-Ilan to Brown

Indeed, one of the disturbing things that emerged from the conversations with academics now living and working abroad is the decisive contribution of Israeli institutions of higher education in forcing out scholars who espouse a radical-left political outlook. The process was not always a blatant one, and even when it was, some of the interviewees adamantly refused to talk about what they underwent, for fear their former universities would react by trying to damage their professional reputations.

A clear-cut case, which was reported widely, was the refusal of Bar-Ilan University, in early 2011, to grant tenure and promotion to Ariella Azoulay, who had been teaching at the institution for 11 years. Dr. Azoulay, 58, a scholar of visual culture, curator, documentary filmmaker and one of Israel’s most influential interdisciplinary thinkers, was hired by Bar-Ilan five years after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, when the university had an image problem. This was an act with a pluralistic aroma: to employ a lecturer with well-known leftist views at a university with a religious, right-wing orientation where the prime minister’s assassin had been a student. A decade later, deep into the Netanyahu era, when right-wing organizations were compiling blacklists of scholars who criticized Israel, Azoulay’s radical approach apparently sat less well with the university’s directors.

To the broad protest by senior academics who expressed concern that Azoulay was a victim of political persecution, Bar-Ilan University responded that its considerations had been strictly professional. Still, her achievements were enough for her to get a job offer from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island – an Ivy League university with a reputation as one of the world’s finest institutions of higher learning.

A year and a half after she was denied tenure, Azoulay left the country together with her partner, Adi Ophir, a philosophy scholar and lecturer at Tel Aviv University, and a leading figure in the Israeli left. Prof. Ophir was 61 at the time; Azoulay was 51. The offer she received from Brown included a teaching position for him as well. For the past seven years, the two have been living in Providence, teaching, conducting research and writing books that enjoy impressive international success.

Ophir is leery of the term “political exiles.” “Decisions of this kind are a combination of many things,” he says in a Zoom conversation from Rhode Island. “The trauma of [Azoulay’s] ejection from Bar-Ilan was an important part of it. Before that we had never looked for job opportunities abroad. Only when it became clear that they were going to throw her out for political reasons. And also the way the dismissal was received by academic colleagues – there was a respectable letter of support, but that was all. Other universities did not volunteer to hire her.

“But still, if she hadn’t received that incredible job offer [at Brown], it’s possible that we would not have had the determination or the strength to undertake such a dramatic move. The more significant political fact is that since we got here we haven’t considered returning. The moment a full life became possible in a different place, the political and moral compromises that life in Israel entails became intolerable.”

Is what happened to Azoulay typical of what’s going on in Israeli universities and colleges today?

Ophir: “A rift opened at the start of the second intifada [in 2000]. We saw ourselves become increasingly anathematized. I was never persecuted at Tel Aviv University, but there’s this constant feeling of something growing all around, a kind of encrustation and it signifies: These are the boundaries, you can’t cross them, those ideas can’t be voiced now, you can’t deal with those things. Because for anyone who does deal with them, it’s not clear whether his doctorate will be approved, or whether his article will be accepted, or whether his students will receive scholarships. In my case, at least, everything was very minor, but there was a growing feeling that we were simply no longer wanted in this place.”

From afar, he continues, “I started to see things I didn’t see from there. In Israel, I had many reservations about BDS. I thought about it from the viewpoint of my activity in academia, and I kept trying to tread between the raindrops, as it were: to recognize the legitimacy of the boycott movement without accepting its sweeping formulation. But I came to understand that what I was trying to do was protect myself and my space in the academic world.”

Ophir wasn’t always in that zone of consciousness. He grew up in a right-wing Revisionist home before becoming a devoted member of the socialist Zionist youth movement Hamahanot Ha’olim. In 1987, he cofounded the 21st Year together with Hannan Hever, who became a professor of Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is now living in the United States. Theirs was a protest movement that called for refusal to serve in the territories and for the boycott of products made in the settlements.

“Hannan and I spoke at the time about the refusal to serve in the army in terms of self-fulfillment,” he relates. “We thought that personal commitment to the State of Israel was to be expressed in a refusal to serve in the territories. I was totally a Zionist. It took me more time to understand what it means to be a Zionist.”

Ophir does not deny that the country he lives in, the United States, is responsible for horrific wrongs. “In that sense, the United States is a terrible place, and since Trump’s election it has become a lot more terrible,” he says. “But when you oppose the regime in the United States, you are not alone. You are part of a large mass, active and creative. I can talk about it with students with absolute freedom. In my last years in Israel I felt that when I talked politics at the university, I was looked at like a UFO.”

Do you also feel less alone in regard to your views about Israel?

“For the majority of my colleagues, Israel is a lost case. And most of the time, I am with them. A political exile is someone whose life remained in the place he left, and whose life in the new place is stamped in that context. I don’t feel that way. I feel a great deal of pain together with a deep sense of pointlessness. Occasionally I still do something on campus, small things. That is my ‘reserve duty.’ But the center of my attention and interest is no longer there. The whole world is going from bad to worse, possibly toward its end. The Zionist colonial project is a tiny blip within it.”

He continues, “It was a long process of separation. My mother died after many years of dementia. The parting from her lasted 15 years. The parting from Israel somewhat resembles that. Israel is something that is becoming alien and remote. In large measure I replaced my interest in political Israel with a growing interest in Jewish thought and history. I found myself a small patch that replaces the house in Tel Aviv. I’m enjoying being a Diaspora Jew.”

Were there people who felt you were abandoning ship?

“Yes – a good many, I think. Some said so openly. I thought they should be leaving, too. But that’s easy to say: Not everyone gets a golden parachute for relocating. Obviously there is an egoistical element in what we did.”

Are there things you miss about Israel?

“Hummus?” Ophir laughs. “Just kidding. I miss my children and my grandchildren. Very much. Sometimes I miss Tel Aviv. Sometimes I miss traveling around the country – going to the desert in winter. But there is hardly a place that I would walk across today and not feel that I was walking on someone else’s land.”

Ariella Azoulay declined to be interviewed, but sent a written statement: “I don’t trust the press and I don’t want to be represented by it; I support the boycott and have no interest in being interviewed for a Zionist newspaper. What I have to say about the fact that I was born to be an ‘Israeli’ as a form of control by the state over the body and mind of its subjects and citizens, and about my refusal to identify myself in the ‘Israeli’ category, I wrote in the introduction to my new book and I have nothing to add to that.

“And in addition, emigration out of a feeling of the impossibility of living in the place where you were born, because you serve to keep out those who were expelled from it, is painful, and I have no interest in sharing that pain with a Zionist audience that denies the pain and the loss that the State of Israel inflicted and is continuing to inflict, above all on its Palestinian inhabitants, and in a different way on its Jewish citizens.” (Azoulay’s most recent book is “Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism,” published last year.)

Once is enough

Hagar Kotef, 43, found herself in an even more disturbing situation with regard to an Israeli university. Dr. Kotef, who was active in Machsom Watch and other left-wing movements, completed her doctoral studies in philosophy at Tel Aviv University and at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2012, she had an opportunity to come back to Israel as part of a plan to integrate returning academics. She was offered a teaching job in a prestigious program at one of the country’s universities.

On the evening before her contract was approved, a right-wing NGO launched a campaign against her employment by the university. As a result, the rector refused to sign the contract, and the university put forward new conditions for the appointment, notably a demand that she sign a commitment relating to her political activity: Kotef was required to undertake not to attend demonstrations, not to sign petitions and not to speak publicly – or in the classroom – about any subject not related to her academic research.

It was the summer of 2014. When Operation Protective Edge broke out, in the Gaza Strip, Kotef signed an internet petition calling for Israel to negotiate with Hamas. Minutes later, she received a phone call from the university informing her that her employment was terminated. Kotef took the case to the Labor Court and was reinstated. “I started to work, but my job contract never arrived.”

Kotef and her partner, a physicist and brain scientist, started to look for jobs in England. “It was clear that staying there [at the university] wasn’t an option, and also that I wouldn’t find a job anywhere else in Israel,” she says.

Kotef later found employment as a senior lecturer in politics and political theory in the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. After teaching a semester there, she and her family left Israel permanently: “The combination of what happened in the university, the war, the violence in the streets, the fear to speak out, the racism and the hatred simply broke me.”

Even today, six years later, Kotef is still clearly shaken by the memories of that period. “Exile is too highly charged a concept: I don’t categorize myself as a political exile, because all in all we left for a good job and a good place. But at the same time, we did not leave by choice and it wasn’t a relocation.” Kotef admits frankly that she did not find a way to continue her political activity in London.

“I’m not capable of being an activist [regarding Israel or other issues] here,” she adds. “A few years ago, my partner scolded me for going to a demonstration: ‘We’ve already been expelled from one country because of you, we don’t want to be expelled from another.’”

Do you feel guilty about leaving?

Kotef: “No. I lost hope that it’s possible to change things from within, so I don’t feel I could be doing something if I were [in Israel]. If anything, I feel guilty toward my family, toward my parents, who were separated from their granddaughters, and toward my daughters, whom I moved to this place. Sometimes I look and say it’s lucky we’re not in Israel; and sometimes there is a feeling of loss. London is a cosmopolitan city, but there is still a hatred of minorities here, which Brexit exposed intensely, and we will always be strangers here.

“But I prefer to live and raise children in a place where my foreignness sometimes generates antagonism, rather than in a place where I am part of the side that is racist toward the other. There are moments when I ask myself what we have done, but I don’t feel that it was really our choice.”

Dangerous place

“I did not have a golden parachute of work in academia like some others had,” says Yael Lerer, 53, a translator and editor who spearheaded attempts to draw Israelis and Palestinians closer together from a civic and cultural point of view. Lerer, who moved to Paris in 2008, was a central activist in the Equality Alliance, an Arab-Jewish political movement out of which emerged Balad (acronym for National Democratic Alliance), later serving as the party’s spokesperson, parliamentary assistant to MK Azmi Bishara and as Balad’s first election campaign manager. She founded Andalus Publishing in 2001.

Although Lerer has lived in Paris for more than a decade, she says she feels she never left Israel. “I come and go. I haven’t sliced myself off from Israel. It’s just that my day-to-day life has become more pleasant. My French friends complain about racism in that country, but we are talking a whole different scale from Israel.”

The political persecution she experienced in Israel sometimes also makes it difficult for her to find work in France; to make ends meet she has to supplement her earnings from translation and editing by working in real estate (“which I really hate”). “There are projects that interest me but that they don’t let me do, because when I’m googled in France the first thing that appears is that I am one of those Israelis who forged an alliance with the terrorists,” she says. “There was incitement to murder me and I was slandered. I was offered a job in television, but someone vetoed it, because they didn’t want to get in trouble with the Jewish community. Research institutes that approached me also backed off at the last minute for the same reason. So I can work mainly in things where I am not up-front [about who I am].”

In 2013, Lerer returned to Israel for a time and was a Knesset candidate on behalf of Balad, in the 12th (and unrealistic) place on its list. While taking part in a panel discussion ahead of the election at Netanya Academic College, she was the target of a violent attack by rightists. The other panel participants did not come to her defense, she says.

“It was almost a lynching,” she recalls. “It’s a lucky thing there were security guards. I’d always thought that even if I received hate messages and threats of murder, it would only be on the web, but that in real life no one would do anything really bad to me. Suddenly I understood that I could no longer count on that. I understood that Israel had become a dangerous place for me.”

Best time to emigrate

Rozeen Bisharat and Saar Székely, who are life partners, despaired of Israel at a younger age than the other interviewees, but even so, they felt they had to leave fast. “The best point to emigrate is in your early twenties,” says Székely. “But I was already 33 and Rozeen was 32, and we had the feeling that in another minute it would be too late.”

Székely, who is Jewish, and Bisharat, who is Palestinian, were among the owners of the Anna Loulou Bar in Jaffa, and were political activists in different ways. Bisharat was involved in the student organization of Hadash, and during the social justice protests of the summer of 2011, erected “Tent 48” on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, in an effort to simultaneously raise awareness of the Nakba. Székely was an activist via political performance art. They left Israel two-and-a-half years ago.

What prompted their departure, they say, was the question of whether it was possible to effect change. “When you try to exert influence or to change public opinion, it depends on whether you believe that it’s still possible to change things,” Székely says. “It’s a question of optimism – and that’s what we ran out of in the period before this.”

Hope waned for Bisharat after the protest movement ended and was severely battered in the Gaza war of 2014.

“For years I thought it was possible to generate change in Israeli society, to bring people content they hadn’t been exposed to,” she says. “But having a different opinion started to be considered treason. Automatically, if you don’t agree with the state’s way, you are a traitor. And I, as a Palestinian, was told: ‘You don’t like it? Go to Gaza.’ There’s no one to hold a discussion with. Not even in Tel Aviv. Part of my leaving was a desire to liberate myself from my role as ‘a Palestinian in Tel Aviv.’ In Berlin I am from the Middle East, or part of the Arab world. I am not a gimmick the way I was in Tel Aviv, but one of hundreds of thousands of other foreigners. Berlin gives me access to the Arab world, I can meet Syrians, Egyptians and Lebanese, I can be Middle Eastern. Tel Aviv today is far more white and European than Berlin. My real cultural exile was in Israel.”