They usually meet twice a week: once on El Al flight 001 from Tel Aviv to New York on Sunday night, and again on the same return flight to Israel on Thursday.
Some of them have been doing this routine for 5-10 years; other began a short time ago. All of them, however, belong to the special species of frequent flyer people who live here and work there. They spend their weekends in Israel with their families, but they spend their mid-week working hours alone, in another country. How many people live this double life isn’t clear; estimates range from the hundreds to the thousands. One thing however is sure: because ofthe gloomy state of the Israeli labor market, their number is growing.
Almost all of them are immigrants from Western countries, whether recent or from many years ago. It’s their second passport that enables them to work legally outside of Israel. Their numbers include doctors, lawyers, accountants, brokers, and diamond traders. They are also noticeable on flights to London and Paris, not just New York. Many of those flying to New York go on to connecting flights to Chicago and Los Angeles. If you think Los Angeles is far away, one person is reported to manage a business in Australia, returning to his family in Israel only on holidays.
Most of these commuters are fathers, aged 40+, who have already enjoyed a successful overseas career. They immigrated to Israel for ideological reasons, but are unwilling to accept lower salaries, living standards, and status, and are therefore continuing their professional lives there. In the past two years, they have been joined by a large group of new immigrants, who came to Israel to enjoy the high-tech boom. When the boom turned to bust, they were among the first to get fired.
The vast majority are religiously observant, living in towns like Beit Shemesh and Hashmona’im, which have become home in recent years to large numbers of native English-speaking observant Israelis, perhaps because the airport is close by.
Saul Zimmerman, a lawyer specializing in US tax law, has already spent five years on the trans-Atlantic line, since immigrating to Israel with his wife and five children, and settling in Beit Shemesh. He used to spend two weeks in the US, followed by two weeks in Israel. Lately he’s been taking it easier, spending three weeks in Israel for every two weeks in the US.
Zimmerman knows “dozens more like himself” in Beit Shemesh, including a neighboring engineer, who spends one week in Israel with his family for every two months he works in the US. Another neighbor works in Russia for a US company, spending weekends in Israel with his family. Zimmerman is also friendly with a dentist from Beit Shemesh who immigrated to Israel and tried to open a clinic here, but without success. The dentist continues to work in his US clinic.
Zimmerman has been a partner in a Newark, New Jersey law firm for over 20 years. He came to Israel at the rather advanced age of 44, after putting together a customer portfolio in the US. “It was clear to me when I immigrated to Israel that I wouldn’t be able to earn a living on the salaries being offered here,” he says. “I of course made a few phone calls to make sure, but I quickly realized that if I work here, we’d have to drastically lower our standard of living.”
That doesn’t mean that Zimmerman has chosen an easier path. “All these flights are obviously an awful headache,” he admits. “Even ordinary flying is no great pleasure. If you add to that the complaints of your wife, who has to handle everything alone, it’s no pleasure at all.”
Zimmerman can point to at least one advantage of frequent flying. “My wife and children always prepare me a shopping list of things you can’t get here, or which are very expensive. I also use the time there to record TV programs that my wife likes.”
Zimmerman was the only one willing to be interviewed publicly on the subject. The others are understandably reluctant to be exposed; some even would not agree to talk anonymously. It seems that the chance to continue enjoying a high income, a “US salary”, is not the only attractive feature of their work arrangement. At least until now, those making a living overseas were not required to report to the Israeli tax authorities. The good times, however, are scheduled to end with the implementation of the income tax reform. Up until now, anyone spending over 180 days a year outside Israel was not considered an Israeli resident for tax purposes, and was therefore exempt from tax reporting in Israel. Under the reform, what determines whether people are Israeli residents for tax purposes is not how long they spend in Israel, but whether their life is centered in Israel. “Clearly, if someone has a home in Israel, and theirfamily is here, then theirlife is centered in Israel, even if they make a living working in the US,” states former Income Tax Commissioner Doron Levy.
As an expert on tax law, Zimmerman is well aware of the problem. “I think the reform means that people like me will have to pay 3-4 times the amount of tax we do now. I think the result will be that some will try to cheat the authorities, while others will simply leave Israel,” he says.
It is worth noting that quite a few of the so-called “new immigrants” working overseas never changed their status, and still enter Israel on tourist visas, although their families already have Israeli identity cards.
Mickey (a pseudonym), a dentist specializing in gums, immigrated to Israel two months ago with his wife and five children, settling in the Ramot neighborhoodof Jerusalem. He has already traveled back six times since. He flies to New York on Sunday night, starts his work week on Monday morning, works until Thursday afternoon, and goes straight from his clinic to catch his return flight to Israel.
For the tim ebeing, he’s not complaining. “Everyone has to sleep. What difference does it make if I sleep in my bed at home or on a flight?” he asks. “This whole arrangement is harder on my wife, who has to handle everything alone. The only hard thing for me is day flights from New York to Israel. That’s when I really feel the jetlag.”
Globes: Why don’t you start a clinic here in Israel?
”Mickey”: ”I was worried about the economy in Israel, and I think I can earn more in the US. In order to set up a clinic here, I’d have to start from scratch, and I’ve got five kids to feed. Maybe, sometime in the future, I’ll set up a clinic here, but first I’d have to pass all the tests to get a license to work in Israel, and that’s a real mess.”
But the flights also cost a lot money, don’t they?
”By my figuring, it costs me $30,000 a year, but if I had stayed in the US, I’d have had to go on paying tuition to private high schools for my kids, which would cost me $60,000 a year.”
”Mickey” says that the fact that his family is not around enables him to work longer hours at the clinic with a clear conscience. He adds, “Now, when I’m in the US, I work 12-13 hours a day. Thank God, I have good friends, who invite me to a hot evening dinner at their home.”
Ron Allswang, director of Tehilla, a voluntary organization that promotes immigration among the religiously observant, is well aware of the problems these families face as a result of the long separations. “There’s no doubt that it creates a lot of family tension, especially because the wife usually has to do everything by herself. Most of these people believe they can’t get along on an Israeli salary. I try to explain to them that it’s not really true, because in Israel, they don’t need private schools for their kids, for example. They also don’t need to buy 4-5 suits a year, because people don’t wear suits here, but it’s hard for them to believe that.”
Allswang estimates that 10% of the new immigrants from Western countries still make a living from work in their native countries. “We’re talking mostly about people earning six-figure salaries in the US, while in Israel, they’d have to settle for NIS 10,000 a month. People can work two or three weeks in the US, and earn as much as they would in 4-5 months in Israel. Out of this group, I know an accountant whose work is very seasonal, so he didn’t even bother to take the Institute of Certified Public Accountants in Israel admission exams. Other professionals, like lawyers, have expertise and specialties that are very hard to transferto Israel.”
How do the immigration authorities in Israel view this phenomenon? “We welcome creative solutions like this, which enable people to immigrate to Israel, and continue making a good living, says Jewish Agency immigration department director Leah Golan. “As distances become more manageable, the phenomenon grows. The economic situation is one factor, but not the only one. These people are usually middle-aged, with professional achievements they want to preserve, but they don’t want to postpone their immigration because of this.”
Golan says the Jewish Agency is aware that, in many families, the chief breadwinner will maintaintourist status. “As far as we’re concerned, they don’t have to change their status. If a family wants to immigrate to Israel, and one of the parents asks that that his or her status not be changed, we allow it, because what’s important for us is the intention of settling in Israel.”
Golan adds that with the arrangement of residence in Israel and work in the US, “We manage to bring many good people to Israel, quite well-off families.”
Jacob (a pseudonym), a diamond trader living in Hashmona’im, explains why he and most of his friends, including doctors and lawyers, have been flying 2-3 times a month to New York for eight years. “I’d have to work three time as much here, for the same money,” he says. “On the one hand, I’m away from home a lot, and when I’m in New York, I work at a crazy pace. On the other hand, though, when I’m here, I’m only with my family, and I actually wind up spending more time with them.”
If there were an alternative, however, “Jacob” admits he’d grab it. “If I could find work that would pay me enough to feed my four kids, I wouldn’t hesitate to take it. The way it looks now, though, I’ll have to wait a long time for it to come along.”
Nat Gordon, founder of Marksman International Personnel, which specializes in the placement of native English speakers, has noticed more and more new immigrants working overseas in recent years. “They came during the boom, got fired, and after looking fruitlessly for work for 6-9 months, they started working on overseas projects, or returned to their previous place of employment abroad, while leaving their families here. You could say it’s part of the globalization process.”
Marksman is now trying to promote a program for placing new English-speaking immigrants from Argentina as high-tech salespersons in Britain. “Some of them have a lot of experience in sales, and London is, of course, much closer than New York,” he explains.
How, if at all, will the recession in Israel affect the transcontinental commuters? “I feel it in only one way,” Zimmerman answers. “Before the recession, El Al operated many more flights to New York. As a frequent flyer, I could get an upgrade to business class on almost every flight, because there were always empty seats. Today, there are fewer flights, and most flights are full, so I don’t get an upgrade. As insufferable as the flights were then, now they’re even worse.”
Published by Globes [online] - www.globes.co.il - on November 19, 2002