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The Move that Dare Not Speak Its Name

This article is the second of a two-part series.  Today's feature discusses Israelis' attachment to American Jews; Friday's feature discussed American Jews' attachment to Israel. —The Editors

Relevant Links
Strengthening Jewish-Israeli Identity of Israelis Abroad  Yogev Karasenty, Jewish People Policy Institute. The JPPI report asserts that Israeli government actions can significantly affect the attachment of expatriate Israelis to their home country.
The Israeli Diaspora as a Catalyst for Jewish Peoplehood  Reut Institute. The Reut Institute report argues that many hands besides those of the Israeli government hold the key to Israeli expatriate integration.
Mass Jewish Migration Database  Gur Alroey, University of Haifa. A massive record of the Jews who emigrated from the Pale of Settlement of the Russian Empire before World War I.

Recent years have seen a flurry of reports, studies, and worried discussions about strengthening Diaspora Jewry's ties to Israel.  But what about strengthening the ties to Israelor, for that matter, to the Diasporaof the growing numbers of Israelis who live abroad? 

At any moment, some 500,000 to 600,000 Israelis and their children, around 15 percent of Israel's population, are living abroad.  Every year large numbers leave for work rotations and studies while others head back home.  The largest number, some 200,000, are in the United States, with the rest in Canada, Australia, and Western Europe.  As ties grow between Israel and the East, we can easily imagine substantial numbers of Israelis in China and India, too.

In themselves, the numbers are manageable.  But the emigrants, disproportionately well-educated and highly skilled, are leaving a country that is crucially dependent on brainpower and built on an ethos of solidarity, immigration, and shared sacrifice.  When set against the classic Zionist terms for immigration and emigrationaliyah and yeridah, "ascent" and "descent"this is the outmigration that dare not speak its name.

Outmigration is nothing new.  Aliyah has never been easy; olim (those who make aliyah) have always left, evenperhaps especiallyin the heroic pioneering decades.  According to Professor Gur Alroey of Haifa University, the leading authority on these migrations and founder of the Mass Jewish Migration Database, roughly half of olim before World War I ultimately left.  In the late 1920s, three to six per cent of the Yishuv left the country every year.

Economics was the chief driver of the outward flows; it still is.  Israel is a small country teeming with talented people whose natural geographic outlets are closed to them.  They tend to excel in the information-era skills that today's globalized economy richly rewards and the scientific and scholarly research that Israel's declining university system is increasingly unable to sustain.

Culture is at work, too, in today's steady loosening of geographic and other fixities ("where do you want to go today?" Microsoft asks happily at the toll booth to the information superhighway).  One can fruitlessly resist such changeor try to bend it to Zionist purposes.  Two new reports offer ways of doing the latter.

The Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI, where I used to work) has recently issued a spate of recommendations for keeping Israelis abroad engaged with the homeland.  Among the suggestions: Strengthen Israeli youth movements abroad.  Establish Israeli schools and centers for Hebrew and Israeli culture, like the British Council and Alliance Française.  This last is all the more urgent because Hebrew seems perpetually on the ropes, even in Israel.

One particular recommendationthat expatriate Israelis be allowed to cast absentee votes in their first four years abroadhas kindled a firestorm.  Though this volte-face from the classical Zionist sensibility would seem most offensive to assertive nationalists, the strongest protests have come from the Left.  A group of leading leftist intellectualsincluding Zeev Sternhell, Shulamit Aloni and, of course, Amos Ozwrote a furious open letter to the government in Haaretz characterizing the proposal as a naked attempt by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to strengthen the Right in Israel.  In a sneer at Netanyahu's affinities for America and Israel's supporters abroad, the signatories characterized him as the "Prime Minister of AIPAC."  In a radio interview, Knesset member and Meretz Party chair Zehava Galon decried the possibility that elections could be decided by kevutzot Yehudonim, "bunches of Jewboys."  A more thoughtful objection came from Shlomo Avineri, writing that though JPPI's proposals might be limited and well-intentioned, they would "inevitably be remodeled to fit party political needs and undermine the Zionist solidarity without which Israel cannot endure."

To be sure, the JPPI proposal is carefully measured (of course, maintaining the report's delicate balancing in the rough tides of Israeli politics won't be easy). The report's author, my friend and former colleague Yogev Karasenty, notes that the purpose is to promote identity by building on the ties that newly expatriated Israelis already  have to Israel's political system.  That is why the absentee vote is allowed only in the first four years: Studies have shown that those who stay abroad longer are much less likely to return.

These longer-term expats are the subject of even more ambitiousand likely controversialrecent proposals by another Israeli think tank, the Reut Institute.  While Israel remains at the center of JPPI's report, Reut has a different idea: "If in the past the main project of the Jewish people was building the state of Israel, the focus today is on building Jewish communitiesboth within and outside Israel."  Reut's idea represents a profound shift away from "aliyah/yeridah" to a "life of fluid movement."  In this view, outward migration should be seen as not a problem but an "opportunity" to form "a new type of Israeli identity that dwells within a newly formed Israeli social space" in which Israeli, Jewish, and American identities would meetand, presumably, be regularly replenished with new arrivals.

At the center of this new "social space" is the "North American Jewish Sabra" (or NAJS, Reut's addition to the long list of Jewish acronyms)typically, an Israeli who left because of the country's constricted economic and professional opportunities, has been in America for a decade, and is not going back, but who knows that a narrow Israeli identity will not sustain the next generation and identifies as Israeli-American-Jewish.

That last element, the sense that Jewishness is severable from "Israeliness" and that the latter is unsustainable without the former, may require a greater leap of imagination than most Israelis abroad thought they bargained for when seeking their fortunes outside of Israel.  Reut proposes encouraging that leap with yet another controversial ideathat American Jews welcome the NAJS into leadership positions.

This is a thought-provoking ideaand one that requires a radical redefinition on the part of of American Jewry as to how its elites attain leadership, and of Israelis abroad as to who they are. Today there is mutual incomprehension between American Jews and expatriate Israelis, who are often unable to maintain their identity outside Israel.  This inability, sociologist Shlomo Fischer has pointed out, is ironic testament to the power of the classic Zionist value of "negation of the Diaspora," shlilat ha-Golah.  To erase the idea of shlilat ha-Golah, even if only where America is concerned, is to redefine the meanings of exile, authenticity, and freedom.

Even if such a redefinition is necessary, it must be undertaken with care.  The most obvious reason is that Israelis physically resident in the state of Israel live with risks and responsibilities that American Jews, however committed, simply do not.

But there are deeper reasons.  Zionism seeks, among other things, to restore Jews to their bodies and deepest selves.  That rich notion of Jewish selfhood is subtly bur crucially dependent on the hard idea of exile.  Near the end of World War I, A.D. Gordon, the secular prophet of the Second Aliyah, wrote that exile contains (and paradoxically, I would add, sharpens) one's sense of the "living Jewish soul, buried alive, cracking and choking under the stratum of dreadful ice"the evocative rabbinic idea of Shekhinta be-Galuta, the divine presence in exile.  It was this exiled soul that suggested the contrary vision of liberation by which Zionism judged itself. Without at least a modicum of that internal spark and challenge, something precious and quickening will be lost.

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Jacob Silver on April 30, 2012 at 10:40 am (Reply)
Of course universities in Israel have to be expanded, and knowledgeable faculty, particularly in technological and electronic areas, should be recruited. But there is also a need to bring about the two state reality. This will involve some initiatives and some skillful diplomacy on the part of Israel, which currently is lacking. A peaceful resolution will bring about two important things. First, it will take away the main complaint of other Arab countries. Second, it will allow for Israelis to engage in development projects in their neighboring countries. Just the elemental projects, desalinization and wind and sun electrical generation, will form the basis of significant development.
Daniel on April 30, 2012 at 6:38 pm (Reply)
Excellent point about the significance of the diaspora. The "NAJS" could be key to the Israelization of diasporic Jewish identity. Hebrew instructors are also essential. But there is nothing about the irony of expecting people who leave Israel to help others form a more Israel-centric identity. Sure, the taxes and economics are big, but is it only about the economy for the long-term yordim? Or is mere Israeli identity an empty shell of the classic identity, one that doesn't last a generation?
Pini on May 1, 2012 at 6:32 pm (Reply)
This is a numerical over-representation of the scale of Israelis leaving Israel. Is migration away from Israel somehow linked to its size? No citation is provided in the article of any contemporary data sources for the demographic descriptions.
Yehudah Mirsky on May 2, 2012 at 12:18 pm (Reply)
The numbers in the article are taken from here:
Pini on May 2, 2012 at 3:11 pm (Reply)
Regarding the "500,000 to 600,000 Israelis and their children, around 15 percent of Israel's population," it's disingenuous in the JPPI chapter to pad the numerator with persons who were born abroad, never resided in Israel and were never included in the Israeli population count denominator to arrive at a 15% figure. Most demographers accept the United Nations definition of a migrant as an individual who has resided in a foreign country for more than one year. Defining born-abroad children of Israelis by legislative fiat may be ideologically satisfying but is idiosyncratic. Including these theoretical Israeli children, assuming that they actually have been born, in the definition of a "move" when they may never have moved is problematic. If there is agreement with regard to not considering children of Israelis born abroad as migrants, the JPPI article you cited actually only lends credence to the finding that Israel retains Israelis better than other countries do and supports the contention that there are relatively small numbers of Israelis in the United States, as opposed to the usually large numbers promulgated by Israeli officialdom.
Yehudah Misky on May 4, 2012 at 7:58 am (Reply)
You raise a reasonable criticism of the numbers I cited; thank you for advancing the conversation. Your clarification highlights the ideological choice involved in characterizing foreign-born children as Israeli (it would be interesting to see what percentage of Israelis abroad register their children's births with the local Israeli consulate or embassy, I simply don't know). It is, given Israel's distinctive circumstances, its existential dependence on thick kinds of belonging and solidarity, not unreasonable, though as you point out it's an ideological choice. As for the numbers of retention, yes, it could be far worse, but the Israeli brain drain abroad is a sad fact of life, affecting especially the universities, but other sectors as well (the IDF expends significant resources to keep highly trained officers in fields like IT, communications, and logistics, from taking lucrative relocation packages abroad). And so I think the basic problem abides.
Pini Herman on May 4, 2012 at 2:24 pm (Reply)
The Israeli brain drain is another straw man. Israel did not, and probably still doesn't, have the technological and academic infrastructural resources and depth to absorb its disproportionate percentage of highly trained and skilled populace, the highest in the world after the United States, which, of course, does have the necessary infrastructure depth. The "surplus" Israelis, talented enough to surmount significant barriers to international migration, went abroad and later repatriated with them to Israel much-needed infrastructure, such as Intel, Google, Microsoft, Alcatel and 3Com, as earlier talented Israeli generations brought back with them IBM, Motorola, and Israel Aircraft Industries. Rather than being a basic problem for Israel, the Israeli "brain drain" and the subsequent repatriation of talent and infrastructure is a basic solution that has enabled more of Israel's talent to remain and return to Israel. Ultimately, this is also an additional factor in helping to attain the high rate of retention of its natives that Israel enjoys.

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