Understanding the complexity of the Israeli identity in the Diaspora requires a new and more multipronged approach.
by Shirin Ezekiel-Hayat
I recently attended the first conference of Israelis in the Diaspora hosted by IAC (Israel American Council) and The Jewish Agency for Israel. This gathering, the first of its kind, brought together leaders of Israeli communities in the Diaspora, including Israeli educators and representatives from different organizations working to bring together Israel and Israelis who live abroad.
Over the last decade we have noticed a tremendous growth in Israelis moving to North America. The number is estimated to be about 900,000 according to Agency representative Yogev Krestani. This immigration trend is creating a shift in Jewish demographics, but while the community is growing in numbers there are in fact two parallel communities: the established Jewish community and the emerging Jewish Israeli Diaspora.
Understanding the complexity of the Israeli identity in the Diaspora requires a new and more multipronged approach. Most secular Israelis would agree that the Israeli identity in the Diaspora is different and is tied more to the language and culture than to religion, but when they actually make an effort to maintain that cultural connection in the Diaspora, the Jewish identity question materializes.
In the past, Israelis who moved to the Diaspora did not feel comfortable admitting that they left Israel. They truly believed that they were going back, sometimes referring to themselves as “living in their suitcases”. Usually, they were simply refusing to admit the new reality. These Israelis spoke to their kids in Hebrew, watched the Israeli channel, read Israeli newspapers and visited Israel every summer. They bypassed any Jewish community organization and were able to maintain this approach until their kids grew old enough for them to realize that something is missing. Unlike their parents, first-generation Diaspora Israelis don’t have that same connection to Israel and to Israeli culture without the country symbolism. Israelis enjoyed a secular Jewish identity that was provided by the state. Once not in Israel, the deeper cultural context is missing. This gap can’t be bridged by simply watching the Israeli Channel.
As emigration from Israel became more socially acceptable, Israelis have come to terms with living in the Diaspora and started to make a deliberate effort to create an Israeli identity while abroad. While Diaspora Jews focus on Jewish growth and Jewish expression, Israelis in the Diaspora started working to build and create what they felt missing in Jewish initiatives – a real connection to Israeli culture and language. This trend was very evident in the conference: from Hebrew-only institutions, Israeli cultural organizations, and so on, to the latest establishment of the Israel American Council as an umbrella organization providing funding to help other Israeli communities in the Diaspora grow.
The complex Israeli identity in the Diaspora did not only come from the Israelis who refused to admit they left Israel, but also from the greater Jewish community and Israeli organizations such as The Jewish Agency and the Foreign Ministry and their views on the Israeli immigration: how can it be that well educated, Israeli born young people are leaving a country they care deeply about? We would rather not know, not service and maybe it will go away.
The fact that this conference was embraced by both The Jewish Agency for Israel and the State of Israel also highlights the new shift in attitude. The Israeli Diaspora is a phenomenon that can no longer be ignored. Rather than burying their head in the sand and saying “There is no such thing as Israeli Diaspora”, both sides – Israelis and the local Jewish community – need to face this new reality.
Israelis need to own up to their choice of living in the Diaspora. Israelis are allowed to choose where they raise their families, but every choice comes with a price and by admitting their choice and acknowledging that they are part of the Diaspora; they need to work together with the local community to provide serious thoughtful, creative opportunities for their kids to connect to a Jewish Israeli identity. That’s too heavy a task for the Israeli channel. The Israeli Diaspora needs to accept this new reality and offer a fresh approach for their Zionism and Jewish identity which respects not only their choice of living outside of Israel but also offers Diaspora Jews the richness of Israeli culture and language.
The organized Jewish community also needs to accept this new reality and include Israelis in all aspects of their communal work so their community can grow, demographically and culturally. Israelis can bring a new and fresh perspective to Jewish expressions in the Diaspora based on their cultural and language knowledge: as an example, turn the Israel day in camps of falafel and humus to a more meaningful Jewish experience.
Both the Israelis and their adoptive Jewish community in the Diaspora would be better served by cooperation. For the Israeli this would provide smoother integration into their new environment and the community would benefit from the “Start Up Nation” culture and expertise. The injection of Israeli culture and vibrant Jewish life may be the missing link in showing young Jews the relevance and “hipness” of the modern Jewish life.
What do we stand to lose if these trends continue? Many Israeli Jews will not benefit from being part of the debate of Jewish Pepolehood and advocacy for Israel. The Jewish community will lose the opportunity to successfully integrate Israelis that are able to meaningfully contribute. Regaining Jewish meaning to fit this new reality is their search, and community organizations should address their needs and find new approaches together with them, not in separate institutes. There needs to be a serious dialogue between the leaders of Jewish communities and the local Israeli leadership in each Diaspora community to address these challenges in the way of integration. One successful example would be the Toronto Model: with 1/3 of the Jewish population being Israeli, the federation works with most Israeli initiatives and offers funding and staff support. While there are still challenges, at least both sides are sitting around the table.
This conference is a milestone in the development of local Israeli leadership and an acknowledgment by Israeli leadership for the need for creative, innovative solutions in connecting the 2nd generation of Israeli’s in Diaspora, to Israel and to Israeli culture. Funny enough, many Israelis addressed the need to make an effort to build a community, the need for education, and the need for resources. Mute the Israeli cynics for a minute and it could have been any similar conference in the greater organized Jewish community.
Shirin Ezekiel-Hayat holds a Masters Degree in Communications and Political Science from Bar Ilan University and received MFA grants for summer programs in cultural studies at Prague and Copenhagen Universities. She is currently the Associate Executive Director for Hillel of Greater Toronto, responsible for Israel engagement, emerging student communities in Toronto (Israelis and Russians) and Development.