Reverse Aliyah

06.28.13

Why Israelis Abroad Should Branch Out

As the old saw goes, Israelis love immigration, but not immigrants. But what happens when Israelis leave Israel?

For the roughly 500,000 Israelis who have emigrated, Diaspora Jewish communities are a natural haven around which to build their new lives. But the transition has not always been easy. The stigma of leaving Israel is imbued with fraught ideological encounters; the synagogue focus which has formed a significant part of Diaspora Jewish life is often alien to many secular Israelis, a suspicion of fundraising can distance them from Jewish institutions and particularly Jewish Federations, the polarized political environment around Israel can lead to uncomfortable public identities, and even different speech styles between Israeli Jews and their American cousins—the Israeli penchant for dugri, or “straight talk,” for example, can lead to awkward conversations.

A new report out of the Reut Institute, a non-partisan, Israeli think-tank, outlines many of these challenges while identifying opportunities for tapping the resource of Israelis abroad for the aims of Jewish peoplehood and Diaspora-Israel relations.

Using Toronto as a case study (the authors estimate 50,000 Israelis live in Toronto, one in four of the city’s Jews identify as Israeli), the report suggests that Toronto-based Israelis have sought to create a “Little Israel” in the northern suburbs of Toronto, at the expense of integrating into the Jewish community. To address this, and to ensure the second and third generation Israeli-Canadians are able to sustain a meaningful Jewish identity, the report recommends developing more “hybrid” activities (connecting to Jewish, Canadian and Israeli identities), via the Jewish Federation of Greater Toronto, and relevant Jewish Community Centers.

As a Canadian Jew who maintains a complex yet deep cultural and political attachment to Israel, I particularly welcome the authors’ emphasis on the possible fluidity of geography for defining Jewish and Israeli identity. The authors note that some Israelis are choosing to live their lives in more than one place. Owning two homes is not for the working poor, of course. But beyond the financial logistics lies a flexibility of geographic imagination. Home may, in fact, be where the heart is.

Much of what defines home, in the case of Israel, is, of course, language. I have long bemoaned what I see as a marked decline in commitment to Hebrew as a vibrant and vital language in the Jewish Diaspora. Israelis living abroad can certainly be a catalyst for sustaining this value. But not all Israelis want to be informal emissaries for their homeland. More times than I can count, I have tried to maintain a conversation in Hebrew with Israeli friends and acquaintances who insist on replying in English.

Neither do all Israelis necessarily value the perspective Diaspora Jews bring when it comes to discussing their country. Years ago, as a young political scientist fresh out of graduate school, I was invited to provide commentary following the screening of a documentary about the political relationship between Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. As the lights came up and I proceeded to lay out my most finely tuned political-science models of leadership and rivalry in the Labor Party establishment, I was practically chased out of the room by the Israelis in the audience. “We don’t want your textbooks; we just want to enjoy the film!” they chorused.

As frustrating as the encounter was, neither am I immune from that kind of nostalgia. When among Israelis, I find myself trying to strike up spontaneous singalongs of old Israeli ditties. But many of the songs I know—which is whatever I gleaned from summer camp or while living in Israel here and there in my twenties—are comparatively ancient. These cultural artifacts don’t necessarily connect with my Israeli peers of today. One night, after my own sustained attempts at mining my not insignificant mental musical library of Israeli songs, my Israeli friends and I realized that the music we actually shared from memories of Israeli disco dancing wasn’t that of Chaim Hefer, Naomi Shemer or Shalom Hanoch. It was Ace of Bass.

With the word “reut” being Hebrew for friendship or companionship, I think the Reut Institute is onto something with this latest project, as it seeks to nurture what has been a complex meeting of the hearts and minds of two distinct yet overlapping communities. Diaspora Jews and their institutional expressions, for their part, need to bring Jewish and Hebrew knowledge to the encounter. Israelis need to share their cultural legacy. And both need to be willing to tango. Or to disco, as the case may be. Preferably in Hebrew.