An Uneasy Family: Israel, Expats And American Jews


So who are we now — to the country we left behind, to the people we are becoming a part of, and most importantly, to ourselves?

Earlier this month, representatives of the State of Israel, American Jewry and New York’s Israeli diaspora took a break from politics (if such a thing is possible in the run-up to the recent Israeli elections) and got together to talk about their relationship. Representing Israel was Ambassador Ido Aharoni, consul-general of Israel in New York. David Mallach, UJA-Federation of New York’s managing director of the Commission on the Jewish People, and Michael Foreman, a UJA board member, were stand-ins for American Jewry. Speaking on behalf of the Israeli-Americans were Oren Heiman, chairman of Moatza Mekomit NY, an umbrella organization for the region’s Israeli community, and an audience of 20-some prominent Israeli-Americans. The meeting, organized by Moatza, took place in Aharoni’s Upper East Side living room, giving it the feel of an oversized family therapy session.

This feeling is rooted in reality. Dynamics between the communities have often resembled those of a dysfunctional family, with Israel as the estranged motherland, American Jews the well-intended but ultimately clueless adoptive parents and us Israeli-Americans as the problem child caught in between.

Recently, however, things have been changing. In the past, Israel famously relinquished ties to its emigrants, denouncing us as deserters and betrayers of the Zionist dream — a “fallout of weaklings,” as former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin put it in a 1976 interview. But representing the country’s current mindset, Aharoni stated that “the state of Israel has changed its attitude to the whole issue of Israelis living abroad,” and that nowadays it views us as a viable part of Israeli society. This is an important distinction: While we are now going by the term “Israeli-Americans,” until very recently an Israeli living outside of Israel was nothing but a “Yored,” one who “goes down,” the opposite of an “Oleh” who rises up by moving to Israel.

Aharoni pinned Israel’s change of heart on the new technological era of global connectivity, in which nationality is a matter of self-identification rather than of geography. But more importantly, he admitted, it’s about Israel’s PR needs. “Whenever we talk about Israel, it’s always when Israel needs something, when Israel’s in trouble, when there’s some crisis that needs to be resolved,” said the ambassador. “We need to have a conversation about Israel that takes place in an entirely different context.”

Talking about “generating a Bingo moment” for Israel — a marketing term that describes the moment in which a product matches the interests of the consumer — Aharoni went on to explain how Israelis living abroad can now serve as Israel’s marketing partners on the ground, “penetrating the information bubbles” regarding Israel within their respective communities and “telling the story of Israel as a bastion of creativity, innovation, improvement.”

As an example of “the kind of relationships we would like to have with Israeli-Americans,” Aharoni mentioned the recent “Beyond” conference, a collaboration between New York’s Israeli consulate and New Jersey’s Mana Contemporary arts hub. The conference, which took place on March 10, featured Israeli and Israeli-American speakers in many fields, from famous chefs and artists to successful businessmen, who talked about their experiences of Israel solely “in the context of inspiration.”

Another example was a recent event organized by a local Israeli book club, which featured author Reuven (Ruby) Namdar, one of Aharoni’s guests that evening. Based in New York, Namdar is the first Israeli living outside of Israel to be awarded the Sapir Prize, Israel’s most prestigious literary award — perhaps Israel’s clearest signal yet that it’s ready to redefine its relationships with its diaspora.

In its ties to American Jewry, UJA’s Mallach said that “the Israeli-American community is doing better, but still has a ways to go.” Mallach noted that for a variety of reasons — “part the fault of American Jewry, part the fault of the Israeli government, part the fault of Israeli-Americans” — Israeli-Americans have for a long time refused to see themselves as part of the Jewish-American community, and the Jewish-American community responded in kind. This too has been changing. Rising intermarriage rates and the younger generations’ declining interest in Jewish institutions have caused American Jews to reach out to the Israeli population, seeing it as “new blood” that could help revitalize the system. The Israeli diaspora, now entering its third generation, has finally recognized that their children’s children “will either be Jews, or they will not be Jews. They’re not going to be Israelis,” as Moatza’s Heiman put it.

But even though we are working together better now than in the past, the Israeli community is still far from being smoothly integrated into the Jewish one. It is a telling sign, said Mallach, that the only Jewish-American organization Israelis habitually donate to is Friends of the IDF.

This might just be a matter of time. “Other immigrant groups, like the Russian Jews, needed first to coalesce unto themselves, to figure out who they were, before they were ready to take the next step and join the broader community,” said Foreman.

Over the past two years, we have done some remarkable “coalescing unto ourselves.” The 2013 birth of the UJA-backed Moatza, followed by the opening of a New York chapter of the Israeli American Council, or IAC, the largest Israeli-American organization to date, had transformed the region’s once disparate Israeli population into a dynamic and effective network.

Judging by the audiences’ remarks, we are now in the midst of the “figuring out who we are” stage. Each person in the room seemed to weigh his Israeli/American/Jewish aspects differently: people referred to themselves as Israelis living in America, Americans raised in Israel, emigrants, immigrants, expats, in-betweeners, internationals; statements ranged from “No matter how much I try to be an American, I’ll always be the girl from Shuk Machne Yehuda,” through “there’s nothing for me in a synagogue,” to “I’m still a Jew, but I stopped being an Israeli when I left Israel.”

“[We are an] Israeli-Jewish diaspora, living in New York, treating New York as our physical home while keeping Israel as our spiritual home,” asserted Heiman, who is a lawyer by profession.

The one apparent point of consensus was the kids. “This is not about us — we know who we are, where we came from,” said Anat Levi Feinberg. “This is about our children. It’s our responsibility to make sure they have the tools to become part of the Jewish peoplehood, because if they do not, in the end of the day what will they stay with?” Feinberg, a program developer at the JCC of Fort Lee, is currently working on a bar/bat mitzvah program that will bring together Israeli and Jewish American families, which will study, celebrate and ultimately bridge the cultural differences.

Thankfully, even though we are all involved, hardly a word of politics was breathed throughout the evening. This is an encouraging sign: the elections may have affected relationships between Israel, America and American Jewry in myriad ways, but there is still a chance that the forming Israeli-Jewish-American identity will not be affected. Whoever we turn out to be, we are all and none of the above, and we have our own thing going.