Keeping in touch with Israelis Abroad

Covid-19 has obligated us to use Zoom to maintain a meaningful connection with our loved ones from a distance. However, as close as it may have helped us feel, it isn’t the same as real-time.

 WZO staff on mission visiting Israelis living abroad  (photo credit: Spokesman WZO)
WZO staff on mission visiting Israelis living abroad
(photo credit: Spokesman WZO)

One really big thing that the coronavirus taught us is the difficulty of keeping in touch. We experienced grandchildren cut off from their grandparents, families separated due to restrictions and lockdowns, and long periods of social distancing. 

So many of us looked to Zoom to maintain a warm and meaningful connection with our loved ones from a distance. However, as close as it may have helped us feel, it isn’t the same as being with the ones we value in real-time. Imagine that same concept – the challenge of maintaining a connection between the State of Israel and the Israeli citizens who live abroad.  

In the Jerusalem Talmud (Brachot 68), Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish says, “If you abandon me for one day, I shall abandon you for two days.” The interpretation of this for us is clear: if we distance ourselves from them, they are more distant from us. This makes the difficulty in keeping in touch twofold. The World Zionist Organization’s department for organization and connection with israelis abroad deals with the challenge of maintaining the connection with Israelis abroad constantly. 

From moving out of Israel to relocation

A survey commissioned by the department from 2019, conducted before the outbreak of the corona on the issue of Israel-diaspora relations, stated that 97% of Israelis legitimize Israelis who have left the country. The distribution among the secular respondents was higher as expected, but surprisingly it turns out that even among the Orthodox respondents, there is support for the idea of living abroad - only 45 percent of them completely ruled out the possibility of leaving the country! In other words, 55% of the Orthodox respondents didn’t rule out living abroad.

In contrast to the 1980s and 1990s, in which we treated Israelis who chose to live abroad as “fearful and weak,” in recent decades, moving abroad has become a viable lifestyle, raising children and building and growing a future for future generations far from Israel. This shift may be due to the changing way of life, the various relocation options, and the high costs of living and housing in Israel versus the temptations and plenty of options overseas. However, we, too, face internal migration waves as our best minds move away on a one-way ticket. The American boy with his stylish pants from the 1960s who came to a labor camp on a kibbutz overcame the Zionist ethos. That child who was distant, alien and exiled defeated us all - we became him, and he became us.

Israelis living abroad today talk about their sense of alienation as Israelis within the Jewish community and from the unfamiliar “exiled” Judaism they do not know. They are confronted with another place in the world where they face the challenge of creating a new identity. Who will be there to help them?

Israel has always shown commitment to diaspora Jewry, but the multitude of connections and issues that characterize Israel’s ties to the Diaspora have not only been missed, but Israeli governments for generations have not formulated significant policies and action plans for millions of Israelis and the more that are moving to the Diaspora. 

Coronavirus clarified the deep need of all of us for commitment and mutual help.

It also clarified how important Israelis in key positions around the world are to us and how crucial their help and influence is. Who knows if Israel’s future leaders do not currently live in the Diaspora? Is it possible to doubt that maintaining contact with the second and third generations is a significant factor in the strength of Israeli society? Israelis abroad are a strong population that offers powerful alternatives, and we must keep our doors open for those who want to return here and those who live there. If we do not ensure a meaningful and committed relationship on both sides for future generations - what is our strength?

The mission

This coming Sunday, for the first time in its history, the World Zionist Organization will launch a first-of-its-kind delegation that seeks to open a window to Israeli society in the diaspora. The delegation’s goal is to recognize Israelis in the diaspora as a phenomenon and as individuals to ensure we retain a connection with our brothers and sisters living in the diaspora.

During the visit, we will speak Hebrew, delve into the crux of our Israeli-Jewish identity, ask questions, and most of all get to know a vibrant Israeli community that exists abroad for which the state of Israel is the main tier for the existence of its Israeli identity. We will get to know their needs and take part in the in-depth processes in the Israeli communities that are growing overseas. We must reach out to them in order to ensure that we do not lose this connection. We are doing this through the understanding that losing them is losing an Israeli identity component of all of us, a component that seeks to explore and discover new worlds.

It is inconceivable that the price that Israelis living there would pay for this longing for wanderings (which, incidentally, corresponds and is deeply rooted in our Jewish identity as well) would be a detachment from who we are and from who they are at their core.

I am proud and excited for the journey, proud of my team that will be the first to make history, to send out a delegation of leaders and to our Israeli brethren across the ocean.

A delegation whose very existence eliminates in a flash the expression of the “fearful and the weak” and recognizes the citizens of Israel living outside the country as a significant and integral part of the Israeli story in all its nuances and locations worldwide.  

Gusti Yehoshua Braverman is the head of the Department for Organization and Connection with Israelis Abroad of the World Zionist Organization. On December 5th, she will lead a delegation with 15 Israelis who are each shaping reality in their fields to New York and Washington for a meeting and dialogue with Israelis living there. For all of us, this will be the first meeting of its kind.