Over 750 Israelis living in North America, including several from Toronto, attended the inaugural Israeli-American Council (IAC) Conference in Washington D.C., last month to explore their collective identity, their community’s potential, and a vision for their future. The message was loud and clear: We are proud Israelis who care about the Israeli-Jewish identity of the next generation, want to act as a bridge to the American-Jewish community, and continue to support Israel.
The conference received wide coverage in American and Israeli media, some of which painted the IAC as a right-wing organization driven by wealthy philanthropists’ agenda. (While it is true that Republican Sheldon Adelson is a major supporter of the IAC, so too is Democrat Haim Saban.) In any case, that was not my experience.
What I witnessed in Washington were apolitical discussions focused on the challenges faced by Israeli expats, the cultural gap with Diaspora Jewish life, split identity, and passing the Israeli-Jewish torch to the next generation. The conference felt like a defining moment in the history of Israeli expats.
The Israeli diaspora has not yet developed a formula that guarantees a sustainable future. Torn between their strong Israeli identity and the need to integrate into the Jewish community, Israelis live in a constant conflict. Unlike other immigrants, many Israelis have difficulty detaching themselves from their motherland. They carry the baggage of a unique culture, a connection to the land, a sense of peoplehood, and a complicated relationship with religion. Perhaps that’s why a 2013 IAC poll revealed that 96 per cent of Israelis living in the United States define themselves as Israelis, and 57 per cent of them intend to return to Israel.
There is no one single right answer to address the cultural challenges of the Israeli diaspora. Many of the IAC’s activities focus on strengthening the Israeli identity through Israeli-style holiday festivals, Israeli performances, and Israel-related programs. This can help Israelis connect to the familiar while projecting their love and connection with Israel to the surrounding Jewish community. These types of programs can also help support expats who may want to return to Israel.
But the conference also emphasized that Israeli identity can only survive in the Diaspora perhaps two generations. For this reason, it is crucial to strengthen the Jewish identity of Israelis, or develop a temporary hybrid identity to act as a bridge and help their transition to Diaspora life.
In Washington, there was no denial of the ambivalence felt by some speakers about helping Israelis feel comfortable and welcome abroad. Some worry doing so will lead to more Israelis emigrating from Israel. But at the same time, many claim that stronger connections between Israeli expats and Israel could lead to an increase in the chances of expats returning to Israel, or at least supporting it from abroad. To that end, MK Elazar Stern and entrepreneur and investor Yossi Vardi ended the conference by telling Israeli expats: We will always love you, we want the best for you, and we want you back with us, in Israel. Israeli expats, for their part, are voicing similar feelings: Israel is deep in their hearts, they want the best for it and desire to contribute to its success, despite the choice to live abroad.
Israeli expats have to cope with the grief and loss related to emigrating from Israel. For this reason, many of them have not been successful at adapting to Jewish Diaspora life. With the recent emergence of the powerful IAC, it appears that the tide has turned. Once the foundation is laid and momentum is built up, the community may get a life of its own. n
Sara Dobner is a member of the board of directors, Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto and the chair of the Israeli identity program, UJA Federation.