Israelis in America

"Home is Nice to Visit, but I Wouldn't Want to Live There."

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Professor Steven J. Gold's book The Israeli Diaspora (2002) has a controversial title, one that, for many, reads like a misnomer--a paradox that upsets centuries of longing and the very foundations of Zionism. After all, Israelis are supposed to be the opposite of diaspora; their country was intended as a homeland for the Jewish people, a place where, for the first time in centuries, Jews would be relieved of exile. But these days, record numbers of Israelis are choosing diaspora, leaving Israel for that other Promised Land: America. Professor Gold calls them "the one group of American Jewish immigrants who aren't refugees." He describes two groups of Israeli immigrants. One is an elite, highly educated group that tends to be very successful in business and technical fields, and at the forefront of the infotech revolution and the arts. The second is a less educated group, one that comes to the US for primarily financial reasons.

For Richer or Poorer

Liel Leibovitz, the author of Aliya, is an expatriate Israeli who moved to America. He agrees with Gold about the two groups of Israeli immigrants. The first, he says, come to the US to study, then either by design or accident, end up staying to work at financial firms, law firms, or research institutions--all the while "guided by a sense of global opportunity twinned with a waning stigma of what life outside of Israel might mean."

map of israel to america emigrationThe other group comes from a different sector of Israeli society. They are real estate agents, movers, shopkeepers, etc. and, says Liebovitz, their immigration is more closely tied to socioeconomic and geopolitical tremors in Israel.

The significant number of Israelis arriving in America, many of whom are secular, is a phenomenon at odds with the stigma noted by Leibovitz--a long-held belief that Israelis who left Israel were betraying country and community by emigrating. For decades, Israelis who "made yeridah" by moving to America were shunned by an American Jewish community troubled by what their departure from Israel might mean for Zionism.

It didn't matter that American Jews didn't want to live in Israel, went the thinking, Israelis should want to. Today, however, the chill has faded, and the Israelis who come and go for school and career opportunities have become an accepted part of American Jewish communities, and a fact of life in Israel.

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Jordie Gerson

Jordie Gerson is a newly ordained rabbi and a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.