The Move that Dare Not Speak Its Name

By Yehudah Mirsky
Monday, April 30, 2012

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

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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