A place where the guy at the local falafel greets you with a “ma nishma?”(what’s new?); where the neighborhood Aroma Café feels like is like your living room as you browse through the day’s Haaretz or Yedioth; where the streets are filled with music from the local chapter of Tzofim (Israeli scouts); and where the cultural offerings range from an Idan Raichel performance to a community theater production of Moshe Samir’s “He Walked through the Fields” — only in Israel, right?
Well, this actually also happens in Toronto, where Israeli immigrants have established de-facto “Little Israel.”
In practice, it happens in several other communities across the globe where critical masses of Israelis reside, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and London. Indeed, in recent years, the phenomenon of Israeli immigration has garnered the attention of the State of Israel and Jewish organizations around the world.
In general, the mainstream Jewish community sees in the Israeli immigrants both a burden and an ideological liability. The Jewish community here still perceives the Israeli community as a temporary phenomenon, not a genuine part of the larger Jewish community. American Jewish media outlets, which rarely cover Israeli community affairs, exemplify this mindset.
The phenomenon of one Jewish people with two diasporas is an indication of the fragility of Jewish peoplehood. The dichotomy between Israelis and diaspora Jews is embedded in the minds of both. Encounters between diaspora Jews and Israeli immigrants bring these differences to the surface, and in several places, such as Toronto, create a strange situation in which Israeli expats reside side-by-side with members of the broader Jewish community, yet don’t mix.
Traditionally, Israeli immigrants were given the cold shoulder from both the Israeli government and diaspora Jewish communal organizations due to the inherent tension between the phenomena of Israeli immigration and Zionism’s call for all Jews to settle in Israel. In recent years, however, the Jewish organizational approach towards the new Israeli immigrants has changed, and some are trying to engage with this constituency. This is the result of an increased understanding that the strength of Jewish communities depends on their ability to meet the needs of the changing demographics. Estimates indicate that there are 800,000 Israeli immigrants abroad. In Toronto, for example, the estimated 50,000 Israeli immigrants comprise up to one-quarter of the Jewish community.
Moreover, on their part, many of the Israeli immigrants were striving for an exclusively Israeli identity for their children and had seen little value in investing in Jewish life abroad. Since Israel’s establishment, Jews in Israel evolved into a unique blend, which is very different from the rest of the Jewish world. This new identity, which was formed in the absence of a perceived threat to the Jews’ collective identity in the Jewish state, dismantled traditional Jewish communal life. Thus, many Israeli immigrants do not perceive the connection with the Jewish community as relevant, and hence, made little effort to engage with the local Jewish community.
As a result, many Israeli immigrants who live a decade or more outside of Israel realize too late that it is impossible to produce second- and third-generation Israeli-Sabras outside of Israel. In other words, the attempt to duplicate life in Israel in the diaspora has failed to create a resilient Israeli-Jewish identity in later generations. Therefore, second- and third-generation Israeli Americans, Israeli Europeans, etc., are moving away in big numbers from the Israeli national identity of their parents to the local national identity of their place of residence, skipping over the Jewish identity.
In response to this challenge, Israeli leaders and Jewish communal organizations need to strive to facilitate the integration of second- and third-generation Israelis into the Jewish community, acknowledging that the gap between first-generation Israeli immigrants and the Jewish community is currently too wide to close. The concept of “Little Israel” should be challenged by investing in projects that are “hybrid” — maintaining a strong Israeli dimension, but also a robust connection to the Jewish community and heritage.
Bringing Israeli immigrants into the fold will not only benefit them, but enrich and strengthen the wider Jewish community. Both diaspora and immigrant community leaders must build an inclusive narrative that guides this transformation, built around Jewish Peoplehood and the changing fabric of Jewish communities. Doing so will not only change their relationship with each other, but the broader Jewish community’s image of itself.
Eran Shayshon is the former director of policy and strategy at the Reut Institute in Tel Aviv, and Daphna Kaufman is the current director. Reut recently published a document about Israeli emigration, drawing upon the case of Toronto (in partnership with the local Federation); it can be found at www.reut-institute.org.