Israeliness and assimilation

The Jewish Agency chairman is right to see the need to strengthen the Jewish identity of Israelis living abroad, particularly those living in America.

Sharansky speaking 370 (photo credit: Sam Sokol)
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 States.
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 living abroad.
“We have a common interest to help you enhance your identity and to ensure that your grandchildren are Jewish,” he said.
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 Diaspora.
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.
Indeed, one 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 percent.
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 intermarriage.
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.
When 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.
Also, 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 non-Israeli.
Finally, Israelis tend to be highly upwardly mobile.
And second generation Israelis tend to be even more successful in socioeconomic terms than their parents.
And this success is a catalyst for assimilation.
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 assimilation.