Behind the Headlines: U.S. Olim in Israel Worry About Rift with Government

Relations between the Israeli government and American immigrants seem to be at an all-time low, a fact that has some olim very worried.

Ever since the start of the Palestinian uprising in 1987, when Jewish settlers, some of them Americans, began to receive much media coverage, many immigrants from the United States have felt maligned both by Israeli politicians and by the local media.

Often portrayed as gun-toting extremists from the East Coast, many American olim believe that they are getting a bum rap.

The truth is that only a small percentage of Israelis live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and of these, only a minority hail from the United States or other English-speaking countries.

The country’s three highest officials – Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and President Ezer Weizman – have all recently knocked American olim or American values as a whole.

In December 1993, during an informal demonstration to protest the killing of Jewish settlers by Arabs in the West Bank, Peres made waves by telling Ruth Matar, the founder of the right-wing Women in Green movement, to “go back where you came from.”

Matar, a Holocaust survivor who later immigrated to the United States, was actually born in Austria.

Weizman, too, made handlines when he blamed the death of three teens at an Israeli music festival earlier this year on the “Americanization” of Israel.

“We have to beware of the McDonald’s, we have to beware of Michael Jackson and we have to beware of the likes of Madonna,” Weizman said at the time.

The latest incident to focus attention on Americans occurred during Sukkot at a gathering called “The Event” that was held in Netanya.

Sponsored by various groups of English-speaking immigrants, it was supposed to be a giant festival for “Anglo-Saxons,” Israeli slang for immigrants from English-speaking countries.

Things turned nasty, however, when Rabin tried to address the crowd. Jeered and heckled for several minutes, Rabin was also approached by a man who was later arrested after allegedly trying to attack him.

Immediately after the incident, Rabin, in a reference to the followers of the late militant Rabbi Meir Kahane, called the demonstrators, “Kahanists, racists and a blot on the Jewish people.”

He also borrowed Peres’line, telling the hecklers to “go back to be countries you came from.”

The incident, which was broadcast at the top of the evening news and made front-page headlines in the Hebrew press, has stirred a great deal of controversy ever since.

Prompted by the rash of comments and cartoons that followed the Rabin debacle, the Jerusalem Post, the country’s only English-language daily and a co-sponsor of the Event, denounced what its editors called an anti-American backlash.

In an editorial defending the right of free expression by all Israelis, the Post stated, “Clearly, the unprecedented invective used against American Jews in the U.S. and Israelis from English-speaking countries, particularly those living beyond the Green Line, has hit home much more effectively than expected. And neither Rabin nor Peres seem to realize that even moderate elements in the Anglo-Saxon community feel offended by it.”

The editorial was also referring to widely reported critical remarks Rabin had made to American Jews during a recent visit to the United States.

Judging from the letters and opinion pieces in response to the editorial, many American olim are indeed upset by what they perceive to be negative labels.

“I voted [for the left-wing party] Meretz and I live in Gush Etzion. I am disturbed to find myself stereotyped,” Yisrael Gadiel, an American-born social worker living in the West Bank, wrote in a follow-up opinion piece.

Reisie Miller, who is from Toronto, sees the problem not only as an American issue, but as something that affects immigrants from all English-speaking countries.

Sitting in the world’s first kosher McDonald’s, which opened in October in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret, Miller said, “The government has definitely been anti-Anglo. It is characterizing all Anglos as settlers wearing `kippot srugot,’” the knitted yarmulkas worn by many modern Orthodox Jews.

“What you have to remember is that half of Meretz’s supporters are Anglos, too,” Miller added.

Miller, now a Jerusalemite, said, “Rabin doesn’t want olim here because he sees us as against his government. We trigger an almost gut reaction in him.”

Matar, whose American accent touched off Shimon Peres’ ire almost two years ago, agreed.

“I think the government feels a lot of dissent from Western olim, and they find it very disturbing,” she said. “There is a growing rift, no doubt about it.”

Gordan Sugarman, national president of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, said that if a rift exists, much of the blame should be directed toward the media.

Referring to Rabin’s remarks at the Sukkot gathering, Sugarman said, “There has certainly been some heat generated by them, but not an extraordinary groundswell. What most Anglo-Saxons reacted badly to was the media characterization of the demonstrators.

“Most found the coverage disproportionate. It was a full day of fun and the press tended to focus on that brief moment, as if that had been the tone of the entire day. It wasn’t.”

Rabin, in Jordan this week for a three-day regional economic summit in Amman, was unavailable for comment.

But a spokesman for the prime minister was quick to attempt to patch up any wounds, real or imagined.

“Here in Israel, there is a very large Anglo-Saxon community, and the prime minister has no problems with it,” the spokesman said.

“There is a small minority of [militantly anti-Arab] Kach people, extremists who do not express their feelings in a democratic way,” he said.

“But they are not representative of the Anglo-Saxon community in Israel. There is no tendency to lump together these extremists with the Anglo community.”

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