Sharansky speaking 370.
(photo credit: Sam Sokol)
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky called this week for Israel to strengthen
ties with expatriate Israels, especially those living in the United
Admitting that the Jewish Agency’s prime objective is to
encourage immigration, he nevertheless said that his organization could have an
important role in fighting against assimilation and intermarriage among Israelis
“We have a common interest to help you enhance your
identity and to ensure that your grandchildren are Jewish,” he
However, this is no easy objective.
Numerous studies have
found that secular Israelis living abroad find it difficult to pass on their
specifically Israeli identity to their children. That was one of the conclusions
reached by Prof. Lilach Lev Ari, head of the Oranim Academic College of
Education’s sociology department, in her book Israeli Americans: Migration,
Transnationalism and Diasporic Identity authored together with Prof. Uzi Rebhun.
Apparently, an identity built solely on Israeliness is not very durable in the
Unlike Judaism as a form of peoplehood that emphasizes
religion, which has proved to be remarkably resilient in exile, an Israeli
identity — essentially no different from any other national identity like Greek,
Italian or German — tends to be difficult to transmit to one’s children and
grandchildren when outside the physical territory of Israel.
of the criticisms of Orthodox rabbinic leadership, which tended to oppose the
Zionist movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries, was that it strove to
replace religious identity with a solely or primarily national identity. And the
validity of this argument is proved by the high rates of assimilation among
secular Israeli yordim.
For instance, a survey commissioned by the
Israeli American Council and presented this week to the Jewish Federations of
North America General Assembly found that the intermarriage rate among the
children of Israeli expatriates after 10 years living in the US was 17
Admittedly, this is much lower than the 58% intermarriage rate
among US Jews as a whole, as found by the Pew Research Center Survey published
in October. However, the Israeli American Council survey was restricted to those
expatriates who continue to define themselves as “Israelis” or “American
Israelis.” Among less identified groups of expatriates intermarriage is probably
even higher. And this is the second generation. The third generation or
“grandchildren” referred to by Sharansky probably have a much higher rate of
According to Yogev Karasenty, senior policy planner at the Jewish
Agency, there are several reasons for high levels of assimilation among secular
Israeli expatriates. First of all, secular Israelis are used to having the
Jewish aspects of their Israeli identity taken care of for them by the State of
Israel. Jewish holidays are celebrated in schools and public places. Even for
those who do not spend Yom Kippur in a synagogue, the day is uniquely imbued,
either with nearly non-existent traffic on the road or as “bicycle day” on
Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv. Israelis are not used to taking the initiative to
strengthen their and their children’s Jewish identity by, for example, paying
extra for Jewish education.
In the Jewish state everything from kosher
food to religious services are provided by the Chief Rabbinate.
secular Israelis find themselves abroad, they quickly realize that unless they
go out of their way to build a Jewish surrounding, they will be left with
nothing. Out of habit, many remain passive. Some attach undue importance to the
Hebrew language. But unless knowledge of the language is grounded in Jewish
texts, it is difficult to maintain for more than two generations.
unlike other groups such as Asians or Africans, Israelis have little if any
ethnic identifiability. This makes it very easy for them to assimilate if they
should wish to. In social situations where it is uncomfortable to be identified
as an Israeli, for instance when severe criticism is being voiced against
Israeli policies, the Israeli expatriate has the option of “passing” as a
Finally, Israelis tend to be highly upwardly
And second generation Israelis tend to be even more successful in
socioeconomic terms than their parents.
And this success is a catalyst
The Jewish Agency chairman is right to see the need to
strengthen the Jewish identity of Israelis living abroad, particularly those
living in America. But this will be no easy feat to accomplish. Secular
Israeliness, after all, is not particularly resilient to the dangers of