At the heart of 3,000-strong Israeli-American Conference hosted last weekend at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, was this question: is it healthy to create a new Israeli-American identity for Israelis who have left Israel? Israelis who have left Israel are called “yordim,” descenders, people who in the past have been treated as having abandoned the dream of a Jewish homeland to live in the “Goldene Medina,” the gold-paved streets of America.
No doubt many Israelis living in Israel would be puzzled by the IAC as a result. What, you’re celebrating an Israeli identity that is tied to culture and not to the land, that can be celebrated in California rather than Rehovot? And what is Israeli culture anyway? There is no precedent for a geographical culture being handed down successfully as a defining core identity for more than one or two generations. Sure, Irish-Americans might drink a Guinness on St. Paddy’s Day and Italian-Americans may love rigatoni. But their children identify as full-blooded Americans, with their parents’ country of origin fading into the background. Isn’t it their religious-Catholic identity which is transmitted rather than their geographical-cultural identity? Then, it happened. At a Sunday afternoon plenary, a woman got up and asked mega-philanthropist Dr. Miriam Adelson and her panel of Sabra-Americans this very question. What happened to the embarrassment that some Israelis felt in leaving Israel? Why was the IAC celebrating this new identity, and was it a good thing? With her wisdom and trademark patience, Miriam, unoffended by the question and gracious in her response, said the following. The IAC was not offering a pass but was imposing responsibilities on Israelis living in the United States. It was saying to them that moving to the US was not excuse to relinquish one’s responsibilities to Israel. One was not absolved from the fight for the Jewish State against increasing global delegitimization. Moving to the US would never sever the responsibility that every Israeli had to advocate for the welfare of the Jewish state. Indeed, the move increased it. And the IAC was creating a national conference of Israeli-Americans united by their dedication to the Jewish state and fostering a willingness to defend her at all costs.
Miriam’s challenging response incorporated many layers. First, it directly addressed the stigma attached to being Israeli-American. What was the point of making someone feel embarrassed? It just alienates them and gives them an excuse to disassociate from a community that makes them feel inadequate. Far more important is to inspire them with national and religious responsibilities. And who better to fight for Israel than those citizens of the country, living abroad, who feel Israel in their very bones and who fought in its wars? Second, Miriam was saying that Israeli-Americans can no longer be left to live on the margins of American-Jewish life, feeling alienated, ignored, or disaffected. They must be galvanized into a strong, national community than can lobby for Jewishness and inspire support for the Jewish state.
While she did not relate it to her own experience, Miriam is a case in point. Having married an American businessman with whom she created considerable commercial success, Miriam and her husband, Sheldon, have emerged as the foremost global funders of Birthright, FIDF, Magen David Adom, Yad Vashem, and countless other Jewish organizations that fight for Israel. And this is aside from their pivotal political involvement promoting the US-Israel relationship.
No one is sure how many Israelis live in the US. Perhaps as many as a million and perhaps as few as 400,000. But we do know that for most of the past several decades they were politically invisible. Israel’s most logical supporters were, with rare exceptions, absent from advocating on behalf of their homeland. As I witnessed last week at the IAC annual meeting, the situation has changed dramatically for the better.
The shift is nothing short of miraculous and the IAC deserves immense credit.
For too long Israelis stayed on the sidelines of the battles in America over Middle East policy. Some were focused on building lives here, others wanted to leave the turmoil and politics of Israel behind. Perhaps the most powerful inhibitor, however, was a sense of shame. After all, “yordim” are the opposite of those who make aliya and figuratively “go up.” Ex-pats were treated as having descended from the plateau of Jewish political identity.
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Feeling somewhat dismissed, most Israeli-Americans eschewed politics and limited their relationship to their homeland primarily to business and family. Many felt they met their obligations to their country by serving in the army prior to moving to the United States and did not see any additional obligation once they adopted new homes. Consequently, many were unresponsive to efforts by the Jewish community to engage them in politics. The opportunity for Israeli-Americans to add their voices to the pro-Israel chorus was needlessly lost for years.
The Israeli government did not necessarily help. It generally reflected the attitude of the millions of Jews who stayed in Israel and treated yordim as lepers. The term “Israeli-American” was anathema and reflected a betrayal of the Zionist ideal. Israeli-Americans were viewed by many in Israel as embarrassments rather than assets.
What a waste, and what a misguided denigration of fellow Jews who should have been welcomed into the Jewish community and told that Israel needs them, wherever they dwell. Israel is under assault in the Diaspora and they need to join the fight.
I was reflecting on this as I sat at a dinner surrounded by hundreds of young Jews, brought together by the Israeli-American Council’s (IAC) annual dinner. Just three years earlier, the IAC held its first convention with 750 participants and now the Washington, DC, convention center was filled with people speaking Hebrew and attending dozens of panels on topics that ranged from “Jewish Peoplehood, Israel and Zionism” to “How to Fight Antisemitism at Colleges.” An indication of the change in Israel’s attitude was evident from the number of former and current Israeli officials who were on the program and the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a video message of support. I was deeply impressed that the IAC sponsored a traditional Shabbat where Jewish law and ritual were fully observed. No microphones or cameras were allowed. Shabbat was peaceful, joyous and inspiring.Haaretz
ran a typically tendentious article under the headline, “Adelson-funded Israel lobby group IAC could soon rival AIPAC.” This was meant, I assume, to portray the organization as right-wing. But the IAC does not compete with AIPAC, it complements it, potentially adding tens of thousands of Israeli-Americans to the ranks of pro-Israel lobbyists.
Some on the Left object to Sheldon Adelson’s reported description of the IAC as an organization that does not equivocate in its support for Israel. The J Street activists who patronizingly treat Israelis as children who need their guidance lobbied the Obama administration to coerce Israel to adopt their preferred policies, ones whose security consequences they would not have to live with. Many of these people are justifiably outraged by Russian meddling in a US election, but advocate interfering in Israeli politics and overturning democratic results they do not like.
Israeli-Americans do not share the disdain for Israeli democracy shown by J Street. They understand the consequences of policies that affect Israel’s security, such as the disastrous nuclear agreement signed with Iran, which was opposed by a plurality of Israelis. That is why the IAC is an asset to the pro-Israel lobby.
The IAC was formulated by a handful of business peo- ple in Los Angeles, including current chairman Adam Milstein, who decided to mobilize Israeli-Americans to ensure that future generations had a Jewish and Israeli identity. The Adelsons had the foresight to imagine the potential of Israeli-Americans to act as ambassadors for Israel in the United States and provided funds to turn IAC into a national organization.
The IAC is also addressing the issue of “Israeliness” by seeking to strengthen the Israeli and Jewish identity of the next generation. This is vital if we want Israeli culture and continuity to remain alive in the United States. There is no substitute for simple Yiddishkeit, making sure that the foundation and underpinning of any Israeli cultural identity is Jewish ritual, tradition and faith.
I wrote a book, The Israel Warrior , primarily as a guide to help American students understand the political issues so they have the confidence to advocate for a strong US-Israel relationship. And some of the best generals who will emerge to lead these warriors will be Israeli-Americans who know first-hand what is at stake in the battle for the hearts and minds of American decision-makers.The author, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is founder of The World Values Network and is the international best-selling author of 31 books. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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