Israelis in America or Israeli Americans?

If you approach an Israeli in the street and ask what he feels about Israelis leaving the country to live overseas, his answer will probably demonstrate a negative attitude. This attitude is beginning to change, but not completely. In the early days of the state, for an Israeli to leave the country was considered something shameful to be done in secret and always with the excuse, “just for a few years.”

In 1976, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called these emigrants “nefolet shel nemushot” (an untranslatable expression meaning something like “contemptible wimps”). Later, the term used was “yordim,” literally translated as those who fell or went down, as opposed to “olim,” immigrants to Israel, those who rise, move up. All negative adjectives used to describe Israeli emigrants reflect the Israeli disappointment with those deciding to desert the country, perhaps abandoning it forever, to seek a more comfortable and prosperous life elsewhere.

In recent years, however, the increase in the numbers of Israeli Americans and the changes within this community has made it necessary to adjust to a new reality. There have been new efforts by the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Jewish organizations in North America, including our JCC Movement, to address this community.

Today, many in Israel, including government officials, have moved away from their former narrow and intolerant state of mind. Yesterday’s yordim are today’s Israeli North American community. Significant changes took place within this community as well. For years, Israelis in America suffered from an identity crisis. Israel rejected them and Americans didn’t really welcome them. Who were they? They were supposed to stay in Israel, after all.

Israelis living in North America today don’t need to apologize or defend their decision. They wanted to relocate for different reasons and don’t see the need to constantly justify themselves. The Israeli government through its Ministry of Absorption funds Israeli Homes (clubs) serving this community, offering Israelis access to Israeli culture and atmosphere, and basically a sense of connection and belonging.

This week, at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly (GA) held in Jerusalem, a historic conversation took place: for the first time, a GA session under the title “The Untapped Strategic Asset: Israeli-Americans,” acknowledged the value of this community, its needs and importance. Israel’s Diaspora minister stood on stage and said the following: “We need you there, we love you; once Israeli, always Israeli.”

For me, an Israeli growing up in Israel and used to hearing the opposite, “Return home, we need you here, you belong here,” this new refrain seemed unbelievable. Furthermore, a video shown by representatives of the Israeli American Council showed Israeli Los Angelinos proudly declare loud and clear: “We are Israeli Americans, part of the American Jewish community, comfortable here and with our dual affiliation.” This paradigm shift is truly historic, embracing all Jews with no judgment.

So who are these people? A recent survey done by Israel’s leading statisticians looked into the Israeli community in the U.S. The survey mapped the Israeli American community’s needs, attitudes towards Israel, politics and Jewish values. More than half a million Israeli-Americans live in the U.S. and around 40,000 in Toronto. Comparing the second generation of Israeli Americans to second generation American Jews, Israeli Americans tend to marry fewer non-Jews (17%) than American Jews, are less affiliated with synagogues (28% vs. 57%) and are more critical of Isral: 80% believe American Jews should be supportive of Israel even if opposing Israel’s politics vs. 89% in the general Jewish community. Between 23% to 33% (depending on the number of years these Israelis live in America) have no problem criticizing Israel’s politics vs. only 14% of American Jews, and between 43% and 60% of Israeli American say that the decision of who to vote for the American president was influenced by the candidate’s position in regards to Israel vs. 64% of American Jews in general.

Israelis living in North America for short or long terms play a vital role in the American and Canadian society; they are involved in social activism, academia, culture, high-tech and innovation. As a result, in 2007, a group of successful Israelis living in Los Angeles founded IAC, the Israeli American Council, which is the largest Israeli-American organization in the Unites States. Among other goals, the IAC sees itself as able to serve as a bridge between the Jewish North American community and Israel. JCC Association will focus in the next year on engaging North American Israelis with the larger Jewish community, through the work of our JCC Movement.

Israelis in North America gain a deeper, richer, and more comprehensive understanding, and most important feeling, of Jewish peoplehood, or as one of our JCC shlichim( emissaries) shared with me: “Until I began my shlichut, I appreciated 65 years of Israel’s existence. Thanks to my shlichut and my understanding of North America Jewry, I now appreciate thousands of years of Jewish existence.” For Israelis, being part of Jewish communities across the Jewish world is a transformative experience of appreciating our long, diverse, rich Jewish chain, our Jewish people.

Leah Garber, Vice President, JCC Israel Center
leah@jcca.org