Israeli Americans Today

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 23 – “The Israeli Diaspora – a Peoplehood Perspective” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By David Mallach

The Israeli-American diaspora took a long time in coalescing. The dual rejection that it experienced did not lead to community collective but rather to fragmentation and a low profile. On the one hand, for many decades they were seen as ‘Yordim’ in the eyes of Israeli society, and American Jewry saw them as deserters from the national enterprise. The central institutions that linked Israeli and American Jewry – the Israeli Government, Jewish Agency, JNF, etc. – all did their best to marginalize this community. As with any minority-majority relationship, individuals could enter, but the bulk of Israeli-Americans were kept at a distance.

The response in most immigrant communities that are not welcomed is to come together as their own entity. Many examples of such immigrant behavior exist. Where Israeli- Americans differ is that they were viewed negatively by their own country, received little encouragement from their fellow citizens and their own government denigrated them. So, they scattered and tried to enter American society as individuals, in many cases seeking to enter Jewish life, but rarely forming cohesive Israeli groups.

This has made the entry process far more difficult than one might have wished, because, ironically, by seeking to enter American Jewry on an individual basis they did not challenge the narrow view that it was fine for American Jewry to be here but once someone chose to be in Israel, all the descendants belonged only there. These factors led to the delay in the Israeli-American community coming together and in being accepted by mainstream Jewry.

Thankfully, the atmosphere changed both in Israel and the US. Extended/permanent departures from Israel became normative, among all segments of Israeli society. More significantly, a disproportionate number of National Religious, the backbone of contemporary Israeli Zionist ideology, have come to America. In America, the growing presence of foreign born throughout American society, including the Jewish community, and the decline in the centrality of Israel, have created a broad opening for Israelis as an immigrant community.

The confluence of these factors has given the impetus to both Israeli American organizations such as the IAC and many efforts by synagogue, JCCs, etc. to create programs that are tailored to meet the needs of the Israeli-Americans as a collective. It is the willingness to see the Israeli-Americans as a collective that marks the most dramatic shift in American Jewish attitudes and allows the Israeli-Americans to begin to play a significant role in American Jewish life.

It is unlikely that this Israeli-American community can survive as a distinct entity without affiliating with American Jewry, it is far too small and dispersed geographically and culturally. It needs to have, and one is beginning to see, the conversation not on their role with regard to Israel or the political landscape, but their place within and in relation to America and American Jewry. Such a role will provide them with both institutional support and a collective identity to nurture the participation of the future generation. The sense of comfort with a majoritarian Jewish identity, fluency in Hebrew, the global outlook as immigrants, and the fresh perspective as outsiders, can all benefit American Jewry.

The resident Israeli-American community has come to accept that few will ever move back and that their children are going to be Americans. It is up to them as a community to decide on what terms their children will integrate into American life and this conversation must take place for them in order to define their place in America.

David Mallach serves as Executive Vice-President of United Israel Appeal, a subsidiary of JFNA, and has previously worked in the Jewish communities of Philadelphia, MetroWest, NJ, and greater New York City. In each community he has worked to bring about greater involvement of the Israeli-American community in the federations, synagogues, JCC’s and other agencies of organized Jewish life.