February 7, 2012 | 12:19 pm
Go back two weeks. The 49ers have just lost devastatingly to the Giants in the NFC football championship game, but the Israelis in the room – should they be called “Israelis” after living here for so long? – don’t seem to suffering any great sorrow. We talk about the complications of having an Israeli community far away from home. A community of happy and well-to-do emigrants, most of them in the high-tech business and living in of what one of them calls “the silicon-shtetl” (a term he did not invent). It is a thriving community, but one that can’t hide even a grain of guilt.
Once upon a time, Israelis used to condescendingly call such people “yordim” – which literally translates as “those who are going down” – aiming to belittle those abandoning the Zionist vessel and their pioneer brethren. But now it is considered politically incorrect to use such terms. The world had changed and is getting used to professionals who understandably pursue better incomes and a more challenging work environment. And Israel is getting used to this class of the best and the brightest living abroad. A stronger, more prosperous country might not be in such need to beg for people to stay. Why begging, when the difference between the number of those heading overseas and those returning to the country is at its lowest point in thirty years. In other words, like many countries Israel is losing people to the US, but not as many as it used to lose in the past, or so it seems.
Relations between Israel and its emigrants, though, hardly abide by rules of normalcy; hardly conform to the ways of the global economy. Two months ago, Israel had to abruptly end a US ad campaign that was targeting the departing Israelis. It was a scare campaign aimed at convincing them that they could not expect to retain their Jewish identity and safeguard that of their offspring if they didn’t come “home”. And it was abandoned following a barrage of protest from American Jewish opinion-makers, who, well, happen to live in the US and still retain their Jewish identity. These Jews did not much appreciate Israel’s implied denunciation of Jewish Americanism, and since Israel has enough enemies already, the Prime Minister decided to scrap the campaign without much fanfare.
However, the urge to have a campaign of this sort, this notion of leaving-no-Israeli-behind to live comfortably as he chooses, finds its echo in the long meeting I had with this group of Israelis in Palo Alto. During the long evening that I spent with the group, I heard many stories that all had a similar message. One mother talked about her second grade daughter who knew nothing about the Wailing Wall until she heard about it from a local (American) Jewess. Others were bothered by having boys with none-Jewish girlfriends, or by having girls who did not understand the obsession of their parents with the country they’d decided to ditch for other lives.
Those Israelis are trying to better organize as a community, to better adjust to the ways of the Diaspora. Being Jewish in Israel where the majority of people are Jewish and the state is officially Jewish is different to being Jewish in the US. Israelis need not worry about the Jewish identity of their kids – the state takes care of it. They need not worry whether their sons and daughters know something about the Western Wall – the school takes care of it. When it comes to one’s heritage, living in Israel, where Jewishness is institutionalized is easy, and makes one lazy. However, if these Israelis want to retain and to pass their tradition to the next generation while living in California – so they discover – they may have to turn to the toolbox of Diaspora Jewry. They may have to be more proactively “Jewish”, namely, less “Israeli”.
It is a necessary adjustment that is not easy for them to make. It requires changes of habit, and investment, and effort, but most of all it requires a new and different state of mind. And just like the country from which they emigrated, it is hard for these people to admit that some of them might never be coming back.
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