June 24, 2009
Early Expatriates Got the Cold Shoulder
The official policy of turning a cold shoulder to the Israeli expatriate population is well documented. Anna Schwarz, a graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, wrote her 2009 master’s thesis on Israelis living in Los Angeles, in which she discussed at length the Jewish American establishment’s reaction to Israeli immigrants in the 1970s and thereafter.
Prompted by the Israeli government’s disdain for the “deserters,” and fueled by their own apprehension that the Zionist ideal would be deemed a failure if Israelis were leaving the Jewish state in droves, American Jewish institutions reacted to Israeli immigrants in a variety of ways, ranging from hostility to suspicion to disappointment.
For many years, Los Angeles’ American Jewish community more or less ignored the growing population of Israelis in its backyard, perhaps expecting they would just return home eventually — and many did.
The first waves of Israeli immigrants were mostly men seeking education or economic opportunity. They “sat on their suitcases,” as the Hebrew saying goes, ready at a moment’s notice to go back to Israel with the fortune they had amassed or their tails between their legs. This transient mentality didn’t encourage a flourishing of cooperation between American Jews and Israelis. It also didn’t foster a sense of belonging or a connection between the immigrants themselves.
As the Israeli population continued to increase and the duration of their “visits” grew longer, the every-man-for-himself frame of mind began to change. Israelis started looking for ways to gather and socialize, reminisce about haaretz, speak their own language and assist one other.
A new Israeli consul general, Ron Ronen, friendly to his fellow sabras dwelling abroad, arrived in Los Angeles in 1989 and ushered in a new era of outreach to the community. The Federation and the Jewish establishment quickly followed his lead.
Haim Linder, a longtime activist in the community and vice president of the Council of Israeli Community (CIC), an organization promoting community unification and Israeli involvement since 2001, recently wrote a three-part history of Israelis in Los Angeles for the local Hebrew-language weekly, Shavua Israeli. In the articles, Linder, who moved to Los Angeles in 1981, chronicled the flurry of activity in the late 1980s and ’90s: the formation of the Israeli Business Network; the first Israeli Independence Day Festival in 1991; the grass-roots group, Israelis of Los Angeles (ILA), which later evolved into the CIC; an Israeli radio and television station; and the various initiatives in partnership with The Federation.
In 1990, Schwarz writes in her graduate thesis, a group of Israelis were trained to make phone calls in Hebrew for The Federation’s phone-a-thon to support Israel’s Operation Exodus — a first.
However, the honeymoon didn’t last. Relations between the Israeli community and the American Jewish establishment soon soured, and the organizations, many of which were Israeli branches of existing Jewish organizations, withered. At the core of the collapse was a fundamental difference in cultures and mentalities.
“It is difficult for Israelis to understand the critical importance a community plays in the Diaspora,” said Shoham Nicolet, executive director of the newly thriving Israeli Leadership Council, who has lived here since 2000. “In a sense, Israel is one big Jewish community that provides everything you and your children need to live as Jews. You don’t have to be active; you don’t have to be a member of anything, and you certainly don’t have to donate money in order to have a community.”
The American Jewish concept of paying for synagogue membership is foreign to Israelis. In Israel, you walk down the street to the nearest synagogue and pray, Nicolet said. For Diaspora Jews, a synagogue is the cornerstone of the community, whereas for most Israelis, a synagogue is a religious center, not a place to socialize or send your kids to school or attend book clubs.
“Persian Jews and Russian Jews came from the Diaspora; they had to build their own community and organizations in order to survive in those hostile environments,” explained Yoram Gutman, a veteran who has witnessed the evolution of the community. Gutman is executive director of the 20-year-old Israel Independence Day Festival at Woodley Park in the San Fernando Valley, which draws between 20,000 to 40,000 people every year to what he says is the largest gathering of Israelis in the United States.
“Israelis come from a country where the government takes care of everything, or you take care of yourself,” he explained. “Israelis don’t know how to live outside of Israel. They have to relearn how to live in the Diaspora.”