“THIS IS MATI, he is from Berlin”. This is how my friends introduce me to their friends every time I visit Israel. And each time I shrink inside.
Although I have lived outside of Israel for six years, this new identity is still strange to me. On the surface it should be ok, because I left Israel and I am living in Berlin. But then again, I was born in Israel, and my Berlin story is only a small part of my identity. I lived in Israel for 41 years, I served the army, studied for two degrees, I published books with Hebrew publishers, wrote for the main newspapers, etc.
“Please don’t say anything to your friends about my Berlin side,” I repeatedly ask. But they are laughing in the bar where we are celebrating my arrival. They tell everybody that I am Mati from Berlin. And then I have to explain that I married a German woman from Berlin; that we live with our daughter; that I work and declare my taxes in Berlin. I guess I still want to be introduced as an Israeli.
In 2011, before I left Israel, I proposed a column to my editor at the newspaper Israel Hayom where I mocked Israelis who emigrated to Berlin. I imagined them as the upper middle-class pretentious elite who have a European passport. Again, an Ashkenazi versus a Mizrahi story. But the editor said no and I ended up being one of the Berlin Israelis.
“So you live in Berlin?” The peers of my friends in the bar are trying to understand who I am. And I try the same with them. If they are pro-emigration, I try to explain why there is a way out of Israel and I have a lot to say. I talk about the prices, feeling of normality and peace without the Middle Eastern wars etc. But if I feel they see me as a threat, I say how hard life is for me and others. I say that emigration is not only about prices but a more ambivalent feeling that can’t be quantified in cost of living. I tell them they should stay in Israel and fight for a better future.
I think I want to be accepted as an Israeli knowing that my Israeliness is fading away. I am already a new person and my former home has drastically changed. Tel Aviv, where I lived most of my adult life, and Haifa where I spent most of my childhood, have completely changed My favorite coffee places are closed. Many friends are lost in time. The entire city centre of Tel Aviv is now expensive and most of my remaining friends don’t live there anymore. Capitalism won over the bohemic culture of Tel Aviv, changing its content and colours. But still, I want to belong.
Now, here is the core of my desire to belong. Maybe I want to feel my old self, as I was all those years ago. Or I just need to feel that I can always go back; to prove to myself that I can enter my Israeli identity, even if it has changed. To tell the truth, the idea that I have a centre of love in Tel Aviv or in Haifa, keeps me alive through the long, grey Berlin winter.
But my love for my Israeli friends is not the same as my connection to Israeli society. Or am I wrong and it is connected. Maybe in Israel I celebrate with my Israeli friends as part of being a Jewish majority. And in Berlin I will always be a Jewish minority – living in some kind of a mental exile. Just like my Iraqi grandma who sits in her Haifa apartment and watches Egyptian soap operas on the Arab TV channels.
Or maybe I need to know that I am part of a majority in some place in this world? Well, what remains is that my Berlin identity is an obstacle to my identification as an Israeli by my friends. You are either here or there. It stands between us. Maybe it is just inside of me. Maybe it is a projection from the Israeli society. Maybe both.
In a few months, three of my best Israeli friends will visit Berlin. And I will have my revenge. I will take them to the Palestinian barber. As he shaves them, I’ll mention they are visitors from Israel and ask him what he thinks about the Naqba. We’ll then go to the Turkish market in Kreuzberg and I will do the same. Let everybody know that they are Israelis and I am the local.