Stop Treating Israelis Who’ve Left the Holy Land With Disdain
At the heart of 3,000-strong Israeli-American Conference (IAC), which took place last weekend in Washington, was this question: Is it healthy to create a new Israeli-American identity when it comes to those Israelis who have left the Jewish state?
Israelis who have left Israel are called “yordim” — descenders — people who are sometimes treated as having abandoned the dream of a Jewish homeland to live in the “Goldene Medina” — the gold-paved streets of America.
Many ask if Israelis who’ve left the country can remain “culturally” Israeli. And what is Israeli culture anyway? There is no precedent of a geographical culture being handed down successfully. Sure, Irish-Americans might drink a Guinness on St. Paddy’s day and Italian-Americans may love rigatoni — but their children identify as full-blooded Americans, with their parents’ country of origin fading into the background.
At a Sunday afternoon plenary, a woman got up and asked mega-philanthropist Dr. Miriam Adelson and her panel of Sabra-Americans this very question: What happened to the embarrassment that some Israelis felt in leaving Israel? Why was the IAC celebrating this new identity, and was it a good thing?
Miriam said the following. The IAC was not offering a pass, but was imposing responsibilities on Israelis living in the United States. It was saying to them that moving to the US was not an excuse to relinquish one’s responsibilities to Israel. Moving to the US would never sever the responsibility that every Israeli had to advocate for the welfare of the Jewish state. Indeed, the move should have increased it. And the IAC was creating a national conference of Israeli-Americans united by their dedication to the Jewish state, and their willingness to defend her at all costs.
Miriam’s challenging response incorporated many layers. First, it directly addressed the stigma attached to being Israeli-American. What was the point of making someone feel embarrassed — which just alienates them and gives them an excuse to disassociate from the community? After all, who better to fight for Israel than those citizens of the country, living abroad, who feel Israel in their very bones, and who fought in its wars?
Second, Miriam was saying that Israeli-Americans can no longer be left to live on the margins of American-Jewish life, feeling alienated, ignored or disaffected. They must be galvanized into a strong, national community than can lobby for Jewishness and inspire support for the Jewish state.
While she did not relate it to her own experience, Miriam is a case in point. Having married an American businessman, Miriam and her husband Sheldon have emerged as the foremost global funders of Birthright, Friends of the IDF, Magen David Adom, Yad Vashem and countless other Jewish organizations that fight for Israel. And this is aside from their pivotal political involvement in promoting the US-Israel relationship.
No one is sure how many Israelis live in the United States — perhaps it’s many as one million, and perhaps as few as 400,000. But we do know that for most of the last several decades, they were politically invisible. As I witnessed last week at the IAC annual meeting, the situation has changed dramatically for the better. The shift is nothing short of miraculous, and the IAC deserves immense credit.
In the past, feeling somewhat dismissed, most Israeli-Americans eschewed politics and limited their relationship to their homeland primarily to business and family. Many felt that they met their obligations to their country by serving in the army prior to moving to the United States, and did not see any additional obligation once they adopted a new home. Consequently, many were unresponsive to efforts by the Jewish community to engage them in politics. The opportunity for Israeli-Americans to add their voices to the pro-Israel chorus was needlessly lost for years.
The Israeli government did not necessarily help. It generally reflected the attitude of the millions of Jews who stayed in Israel and treated yordim as lepers. To the, the term Israeli-American reflected a betrayal of the Zionist ideal. Israeli-Americans were viewed by many in Israel as embarrassments rather than assets.
What a waste, and what a misguided denigration of fellow Jews.
I was reflecting on this as I sat at a dinner surrounded by hundreds of young Jews, brought together by the Israeli-American Council’s (IAC) annual dinner. Just three years earlier, the IAC held its first convention with 750 participants; now the Walter E. Washington Convention Center was filled with people speaking Hebrew and attending dozens of panels on topics that ranged from “Jewish Peoplehood, Israel and Zionism” to “How to Fight Antisemitism at Colleges.” An indication of the change in Israel’s attitude toward Israeli-Americans was evident from the number of former and current Israeli officials who were on the program — and the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a video message of support.
Haaretz ran a typically tendentious article under the headline, “Adelson-funded Israel lobby group IAC could soon rival AIPAC.” It was meant, I assume, to portray the organization as right-wing. But it is not.
Israeli-Americans do not share the disdain for Israeli democracy shown by J Street. They understand the consequences of policies that affect Israel’s security, such as the disastrous nuclear agreement signed with Iran, which was opposed by a plurality of Israelis. That is why the IAC is an asset to the pro-Israel lobby.
The IAC was formulated by a handful of business people in Los Angeles, including current chairman Adam Milstein, who decided to mobilize Israeli-Americans to ensure that future generations had a Jewish and Israeli identity. The IAC is also addressing the issue of the Israeliness of Israeli-Americans by seeking to strengthen the Israeli and Jewish identity of the next generation. This is vital if we want Israeli culture and continuity to remain alive in the United States.
I wrote a book, The Israel Warrior, primarily as a guide to help American students understand the political issues, so they have the confidence to advocate for a strong US-Israel relationship. And some of the best generals who will emerge to lead these warriors will be Israeli-Americans, who know first-hand what is at stake in the battle for the hearts and minds of American decision-makers.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is founder of The World Values Network and is the international best-selling author of 31 books. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.