Diaspora youngsters enjoy a Birthright Israel trip to the Jewish state..
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With the return to its historic homeland, the Jewish people has undergone a normalization process. One of the central goals of the first Zionists was to solve the Jewish question by transforming the Jews into a nation like all the nations. If the Jewish people returned to its historical homeland and engaged in all the mundane aspects of nation-building, it was believed, the plague of antisemitism would come to an end.
The Zionist movement failed to put an end to antisemitism. But it did succeed in normalizing Jewish identity.
Today, being Israeli is not much different from being Greek or French or German.
Numerous studies have found that secular Israelis living abroad find it difficult to pass on their specifically Israeli identity to their children. Like Chinese, Italians or any other nation living outside its homeland, Israelis have a difficult time transmitting their unique Israeliness to their children and grandchildren.
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 Diasporia Identity authored together with Uzi Rebhun. Apparently, an identity built solely on Israeliness is not very durable in the Diaspora.
The Israeli-American Council (IAC) was created to change that dynamic. At the beginning of the week, American and Israeli experts, community leaders, elected officials and innovators, and several Israeli politicians – including two cabinet members – took part in a three-day conference in Washington to discuss issues such as building a uniquely Israeli-American identity that can be passed on to future generations; cultivating community building and activism among Israeli expats; and building a distinct Israeli-American community.
Second and third generation Israeli-Americans have high rates of assimilation; they tend to shy away from integrating into Jewish community institutions; and they have difficulty maintaining a uniquely Israeli-American identity for more than a generation or two.
Secular Israelis are used to having the Jewish aspects of their Israeli identity taken care of for them by the State of Israel where the lingua franca is Hebrew and Jewish holidays are celebrated in schools and public places. Israeliness has much to do with IDF service and simply living Israel’s daily realities.
In the Diaspora, in contrast, the central features of Israeli identity are nonexistent. Israelis are not used to taking the initiative to strengthen their and their children’s identities by, say, paying extra for Jewish education. In the Jewish state everything from kosher food to various religious services are provided free of charge by the state.
When secular Israelis find themselves abroad, they quickly realize that unless they take action to build a Jewish environment for their children they will be left with nothing.
Many remain passive. Some hope that by speaking Hebrew in the home they can instill in their children an Israeli identity. But unless the speaking of the language is combined with more profound aspects of Jewish and Israeli culture, it is difficult to maintain for more than two generations.
That is why organizations such as the IAC are so important.
They provide a home, a framework, for these Israeli expats. One they can belong to, be affiliated with and use to strengthen and maintain their Jewish and Israeli identities.
It is in Israel’s interest to help Israeli-Americans strengthen their unique identity without resorting to the condescension that used to accompany any Israeli interaction with those who choose to emigrate. The pejorative term “yored” reflected this attitude and Israelis who lived abroad often were made to feel guilty and inferior, as if they had betrayed the Zionist enterprise.
The time has come for Israel to embrace these expats and help them remain connected to the Jewish state and to Judaism – even as continue to live in the Diaspora.
The Israeli-American community can be a real asset for Israel. These are people who are intimately familiar with both America and Israel. They enjoy social and business connections on both sides of the world. Often they are fervently supportive of Israel and its policies and can serve as ambassadors. They can be Israel’s bridge to the world.
Being a “yored” should not be a source of embarrassment.
It should be an asset for Israel and the larger Jewish- American community.