I kept asking myself about what draws Poles to Israel. I do not mean, of course, pilgrimages to the Holy Land, but rather young people choosing to take time off their lives and move to Israel for a specific time period in order to immerse themselves in culture and meet the community.
With 66 thousand Poles visiting annually (The Central Bureau of Statistics, 2015) thanks to more affordable plane tickets and generally bigger exposure to Jewish/Israeli culture through all sorts of music and culture festivals all across Poland, it is hardly surprising that we are seeing a surge in visitors. Out of 271.1 thousand tourists from all countries in the world (Trading Economics, Israel Tourist Arrivals, 2017), 66 thousand seems to be quite a number.
Initially, I thought that everyone who felt compelled to live in Israel, were either Jewish or at least one of their grandparents were. Having said that, it is estimated than 1/3 of all Poles these days are descended from someone Jewish (R. Schurdrich), but no one can actually present any data, because it’s non-existent. Still, a large percentage of Polish visitors to Israel do not identify as Jewish and have no ties with Jews whatsoever.
Why do they come then? What did they see in Israel that makes them want to spend time here; apart from great food and amazing weather of course? What ruins them for other countries? Love for men, someone said. Really? 66 thousand people come for men? I doubt it. What is it then? It’s not their land, not their people, not their language, not their religion… I decided to investigate the matter thoroughly and present you with the results of my survey.
It’s as simple as being a curious cat. They are interested to see how Israel looks like. For all they know from history books, white-washed history, societal bias and lack of exposure to Jews on a daily basis, their imagination of Israel is that of a pyramid and two camels (to be honest, I think this is how the majority of people imagine Israel until they visit) and a bunch of Jews running around in coats and shtreimels (well, depending where you go the latter is still the case minus the pyramid and the camels). Quoting one of the surveyees, they struggle to “imagine a modern, progressive, pluralistic, economically developed and an advanced state. It’s an intellectual revolution for anyone, who suddenly understands the meaning of an Israeli, not just a Jew”. For them, Israel is an unusual, interesting, mind-boggling and an enticing country which seduces into being discovered.
2. Progressive university programs.
Through various student exchange programs and possibilities to research for PhD more people feel prompted to come to Israel as their country of choice. Why Israel, you ask? Aren’t there any other countries or other universities for that matter? Yes, indeed there are, but what they are missing are a couple of ingredients such as the fact that Israelis are “wildly creative, without boundaries, with bendable rules, lack of established patterns of thinking, free in thought and definitely in speech”. “In Poland”, continues one of the students at the Weizmann Institute, “professors behave as if they swallowed a stick and there is no way to you feel comfortable to disagree. One cannot present a different opinion without making the professor feel threatened and redundant. In Israel students are free to express their opinions and offer an agreeable alternative, which, by the way, could even completely negate the professor’s initial statement, but the professor will still listen, separate what indeed contributes constructively to the argument and dismiss that which doesn’t”. It seems that Israeli professors are more into hearing new ideas, than being right. Additionally, Israel gets far more funding from private donors for new and often crazy experiments than a regular university would, because they want to see Israeli students succeed, innovate and keep the progress moving in all fields.
3. “Israel is just, you know, very European”.
I actually asked what they meant by that. After all, Israel is based in the Middle East and formed out of a mixture of probably every single type of Jew that ever existed on the face of the world. Some of the opinions carried into the fact that so many Jews of Polish origin were the pioneers, who came to Israel and began rebuilding the country, while others mentioned that they appreciate Israeli presence in UEFA or in Eurovision (the latter is no longer applicable), but I personally think, that these two perhaps make them feel that Israel is almost Polish, not just European. That’s simply because of the ever-existent presence of Polish mothers, which gingerly leads me to the next point.
4. Israeli hospitality.
Every single person I spoke with says that Israelis made them feel at home. They are “extremely friendly, optimistic, full of love for life and definitely not someone you can get bored around”. My personal opinion is this: both in Poland and in Israel we have a term for Polish mothers (Matka Polka in Polish and Ima Polayna in Hebrew); which de facto spreads to all traditional mothers, regardless of their origins, due to their very specific traits of character and behavioural patterns (sorry Mum), and as such in both countries the Poles feel a certain level of familiarity.
Additionally, that level of hospitality reflects the realisation that Israelis welcome others at their home; not just domestically, but nationally too. There is always food on the table and there is always a shot of something alcoholic waiting for you. There is always a celebration to go to and there is always someone’s life that people want to influence, change or express their opinion about. You fall in like “plum in compote”, which is a nice Polish phrase meaning that you fell for something or someone without even noticing and there is no way back.
Considering the ever-expanding amount of start-ups and new ventures that Israel is always undertaking, it’s hardly surprising that young minds are attracted to the Israeli job market. Through doing work experience or simply working, they both learn as well as teach. It’s a win-win situation in which the exchange of ideas is flowing both ways hopefully long-term benefiting both countries.
Even though one wouldn’t think of Hebrew as being one of the top languages to learn just because (unless you are Jewish), an increasing number of business investors began perceiving Israel to be the Middle-Eastern hub of development and though Israelis are always thrilled to learn English, the Poles are thrilled to learn Hebrew.
I found this point most intriguing actually. Single Poles or even families join volunteering programs around Israel. They often volunteer at the MDA (Magen David Adom), kibbutzim or even in the army. All this volunteering is geared towards not just helping local communities, but to immersing themselves in the society they fell in love with. Like a plum.
In conclusion, the points presented above are those that came up most often. I think it’s absolutely brilliant that even people who do not come to Israel because they want to live here, actually invest their time in enriching our society and giving something, while learning in return. The fact that there is an increase in affordable flights both ways shows that it isn’t just the Poles visiting Israel, but also Israelis visiting Poland for travel, shopping, socialising etc., which perhaps will help building a common bridge over the horrific, but intertwined history that we share.