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.

Identity Politics

According to Gold, many Israeli expatriates have actually become transnationalists--residents of both America and Israel who shuttle back and forth from month to month or year to year. Despite their comfort in the US, they tend to identify more strongly with Israel and are the one group of American Jewish immigrants that regularly go back to their country of origin. Many return frequently, sometimes commuting between the countries.

This enduring identification with Israel can be seen most clearly in how they are choosing  to educate their children. According to Michal Nachmany, an Israeli who has lived in the US for the past 21 years: "They want a way to keep their Israeli identity--and their children's--intact. They tend to live in small communities where other Israelis live, their peers, like an urban kibbutz, and though they tend to not join synagogues or other American Jewish institutions, they often encourage their kids to join the Tzofim", the Israeli Scouts youth movement, which has satellites here.

In the summers, Nachmany says, Israelis often send their children back to Israel, to live with extended family and perfect their Hebrew. In bigger cities like New York, Israeli-American children are often sent to Jewish day schools with significant Israeli populations.

Jew vs. Jew?

But relations between expatriate Israelis and American Jewish communities are complicated. According to Leibovitz, "The overwhelming majority of Israelis in America perceive American Jews as being soppy. Sentimental, effete, uninitiated in the ways of real, authentic Jewish life, which for them, of course, is only Israeli. It is hard for Israelis to connect to the religious life of the American Jewish community because, in Israel, you're either religious or you're not or you retain some kind of traditional religious practice even if you're not fully religious."

In Israel, historically, there has been an all-or-nothing attitude toward religion, a perceived dichotomy between 'secular' and 'religious.' Though the gradations of observance that characterize American Judaism--Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Judaism--do exist in Israel, they tend to be ignored by most Israelis. In this context, Leibovitz's observation that progressive Judaisms don't resonate with Israelis may be understood not as an insult to these denominations, but an inability to grasp the possibility of Judaisms that are not Orthodox.

But this resentment doesn't cut both ways. American Jews are often thrilled to welcome Israelis into their communities. For many American Jews, Israelis are seen as living embodiments of the country, a way to engage with and learn about the Jewish state without actually visiting. This warm welcome extends beyond the Jewish community as well. Gold notes that because Israelis are whiter than most other immigrants, and more educated, those that settle in major urban centers tend not to feel the discrimination that affects other immigrant groups.

As for the high numbers of Israelis now immigrating to the US, the most recent statistics from the Department of Homeland Security indicate that nearly 375,482 non-immigrant Israelis entered the US in 2007--the highest number on record, and one that has gone unmatched since 2001, the height of the 2nd intifada, when nearly 373,444 Israelis entered the United States on temporary or tourist visas.

The precise reasons for the recent uptick have yet to be measured by sociologists or demographers, but the Israelis featured in this article were certain they could explain it. The increase, they explained, was a direct result of hamatzav, literally, "the situation," the geopolitical morass at home. According to Leibovitz, "I think Olmert has led to a very deep sense of desperation and a sense that there is no political alternative and no way out of this quagmire…Talking to my Israeli friends and a lot of people in politics, there is a very deep sense of despair."

Whether the trend will continue is for now unclear: demographers have, of late, suggested that the trend has shifted as a result of the recession. In a reversal of the long-time trend, American and British Jews are now moving to Israel for job opportunities and Israel, says Professor Jonathan Sarna, is "overtaking the United States as the largest Jewish community in the world."

Whatever the case may be, the questions that Israeli immigration raises are profound--what does it mean when Israelis choose another country, a country where they, like so many generations of Jews before them, will be the minority? The answers are not entirely clear, and in the meantime, the paradox of Gold's  "Israeli Diaspora" remains.

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Jordie Gerson

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