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Clinging to Their Native Identity, British Israelis Stick to Their Own

For the organizers of the British Zionist Federation’s celebration of Israel’s Independence Day, the idea of bringing American Jewish comedian Jackie Mason to perform alongside the Israeli army’s entertainment troupe and Israeli singer Sarit Hadad seemed a natural fit for this year’s festivities.

“We usually have just an Israeli artist as the main performer,” said the federation’s director of public relations, Gavin Gross. “But this year, being Israel’s 60th anniversary, we’re expecting some 6,000 people instead of the usual 3,500 or so. So we figured we needed someone really famous like Mason who can pull in people who don’t usually come.”

But for Anat Koren, the publisher of London’s main Hebrew-language magazine ALondon, the plan seemed off-putting for an annual event that is a major draw for Israelis living in Britain.

“I told the organizers that some parts of the program are less suited to the Israeli taste,” Koren said. “Jackie Mason is not exactly a mega-star in Israel, and many Israelis will find it hard to have to listen to all the speeches in English before the performance of Sarit Hadad begins.”

The discussion between Koren and the event organizers underscored the gap that separates Israelis who live here from British Jews.

“It’s a real problem,” Koren said. “We are two communities who share the same religion but have completely different cultures.”

The size of Britain’s Israeli community is unclear, with experts offering estimates ranging from 70,000 to 7,000.

What the experts can agree on is that Israeli involvement in organized British Jewish life is quite limited.

Few Israelis participate in the country’s main Jewish organizations, and social interaction between local Jews and Israelis living in Britain is unusual, with the notable exception of Israelis married to British Jews.

However, many Israelis choose to live in Jewish neighborhoods and some, particularly religious Israelis, belong to British synagogues and send their children to local Jewish schools.

Professor Steve Gold, an expert from Michigan State University on the subject of Israeli immigrants, has interviewed Israeli emigres in both Britain and the United States. He says Israelis generally appear more integrated into the United States and its Jewish life than in Britain.

Israelis “feel more comfortable in the U.S.,” he said.

David Graham, a senior research officer at the Board of Deputies, the main umbrella body of British Jewry, attributes the divide between British Jews and Israelis to profoundly different identities.

“Israelis define themselves in nationalistic terms, whereas the British Jews’ identity is basically ethnic and religious,” he said.

It doesn’t help that many Israelis don’t speak English well and that the socioeconomic backgrounds of the Israeli immigrants in Britain differ from those of most British Jews, who are part of a well-established, upper-middle class, Graham said.

“The average Israeli has a completely different set of needs than the average British Jew,” he said.

Both sides seem to share some responsibility for the poor relationship between the two groups.

Israeli immigrants in Britain often complain of being discouraged by the “frosty” attitude of British Jews toward them. Yet many Israelis in Britain are indifferent to the local Jewish community and reluctant to become part of it.

In many cases Israelis simply don’t know how to connect to British Jewish organizations, Gross says, having had no need for such groups in Israel to preserve their Jewish identity.

Israelis who are predominantly secular are not inclined to view synagogues as centers of Jewish community because in Israel, synagogues serve almost exclusively religious functions, notes Israeli-born sociologist Rona Hart.

This is not the case in the Diaspora. Yet even those Israelis who recognize this often are reluctant to pay synagogue membership fees, which can run as high as $1,600 per year.

This reluctance may stem from the way Israelis see their status in Britain.

Hart, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Israelis in London for King’s College in London, conducted several studies that found that most Israelis here, regardless of socioeconomic backgrounds, often contemplate returning to Israel.

“It’s something which is always in the background,” Hart told JTA. “The question, ‘When are you going back to Israel?’ is asked at practically every social gathering.”

Hart estimates that nearly half of Israeli immigrants to Britain eventually do return to their homeland.

“It’s a very transient community,” she said. “Most people coming here are young couples in their 30s in search of enticing career opportunities, but within a decade or so most of them return to Israel because of aging parents or worries about the identity of their growing teenage kids.”

Orly and Alex Granot moved to Britain two years ago after Alex was accepted into a master’s program in business adminstration at the prestigious Said business school in Oxford. In their early 30s and with two little children, they say immigrating is not in the cards even though Alex recently found a lucrative job as an investment banker in London.

“We’ll certainly return to Israel in a few years,” Orly said. “If we wanted to emigrate, we’d rather go to Australia or the U.S., where the cost of living is much cheaper. We chose Britain because it’s only a five-hour flight away from our families in Israel.”

The Granots, who recently began looking for housing in London, say they want to stay away from Jewish neighborhoods. They’d rather live in a neighborhood with Indians, Russians and other nationals, they say.

“We see our stay here as an opportunity to expose our children to a different culture and a way of life,” Orly said. “We didn’t come to England to live in a Jewish ghetto or an Israeli kibbutz.”

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