Just don’t call them ‘Israelis’

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Sheldon Adelson, IAC Chairman Shawn Evenhaim & Haim Saban attend IAC Conference in Washington, DC. Photo by Shahar Azran
Sheldon Adelson, IAC Chairman Shawn Evenhaim & Haim Saban attend IAC Conference in Washington, DC. Photo by Shahar Azran

The Israeli American community has arrived.

The number of Israeli Americans has been estimated as anywhere between 200,000 and 1 million. While the number is up for debate, what is clear, observers say, is that Israeli Americans are ready to become a Diaspora community like any other with the potential to influence the American Jewish community and U.S. policy.


“I see no reason Israelis shouldn’t have a community the way the French have and the Chinese have – to be able to get together and network,” says Jonathan Nesher, a U.S.-born attorney who grew up in Israel and moved to the Washington area two years ago.

Until recently, “Israelis in the United States did not have a collective identity,” says Yoram Peri, a professor of Israel studies at the University of Maryland and an Israeli American. The Israeli-American Council’s (IAC) Washington conference, held Nov. 7-9, opened “a new chapter” in the community’s history.

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Israel’s Zionist founders created a country that was to be like any normal country. It would solve the 2,000-year-long problem of Jews being a minority everywhere and at home nowhere. Its citizens, born of this normality, would be proud and unself-conscious. Unlike Jews of the Diaspora, they would not have to live in fear of what the gentiles thought.

But what would it signify if an Israeli left Israel and moved to a place that the Jewish state was created to supplant? That “abnormal” act was called yerida, literally descending from the heights of Israel. Those who made yerida were treated as traitors and bore the shame of leaving a homeland that was both under siege and the answer to two millennia of Jewish longing.


And unlike other Jewish immigrant groups, Israelis did not receive a warm welcome from the American Jewish community.

“There was a disconnect from the Jewish community,” Peri says, “even antagonism.”

“The fault lies in both the Jewish and Israeli communities,” says Adam Milstein, one of IAC’s founders and a national board member. “The Israeli government gave American Jews the message: ‘Do not encourage Israelis to stay here.’ ”

In a notorious incident in 2011, an Israeli government media campaign tried to encourage Israeli Americans to move back to Israel by warning of the dangers of assimilation in the Diaspora. Both Israeli Americans and American Jews protested that the campaign was demeaning and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu killed it.

But even when the organized Jewish community reached out, they did in a way that was culturally alien to Israeli Americans, Milstein says.

“They said, ‘Why don’t you join the Federation? You’ll pay dues and we’ll give you services.’ Israelis don’t pay dues. They’re not philanthropic,” he says. “Any Israeli who was philanthropic was thought of as a Jew.”

 

A hyphenated community

About 20 years ago, the antagonism between Israeli Americans and the Jewish community began to fade, Peri says. More Israelis began to go to synagogue, something that Israel’s secular majority does not do. They began fundraising. In other words, they began adapting to life as a minority community.

But they didn’t have a national organization that reflected their interests, particularly regarding the U.S.-Israel alliance.

“The U.S. Jewish community is American centric,” says an Israeli American familiar with the Israeli-American alliance. “The Israelis’ view is more emotional [than that of American Jews]. It’s our home country. There’s less criticism. Maybe a new voice would reflect the deep emotions we have.”

Israeli Americans are getting comfortable with being a hyphenated community. Others be warned: Just don’t call them Israelis. Milstein is vehement about that.

“We are Israeli Americans,” says the Los Angeles real estate developer and philanthropist. “We are Americans of Israeli descent and children with at least one Israeli parent.”

(This article, and some of the people interviewed, uses “Israeli” and “Israeli American” interchangeably.)

In 2007, Milstein and a group of funders founded the IAC in Los Angeles as a local organization. “We put our own money into it. It started as a start-up.”

The new organization had cultural goals of strengthening Israeli identity here and political goals of strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The IAC began expanding beyond Los Angeles in 2013. There are now offices in Las Vegas, Boston, New York and Florida. Each was built on the entrepreneurial model: first the money, then the organization, Milstein says.

 

The Israeli AIPAC

Mitt Romney. Photo by Shahar Azran
Mitt Romney. Photo by Shahar Azran

The IAC was able to attract 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, former Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to its national conference. Peri believes the IAC’s impressive showing in Washington says three things about the Israeli American community today: That Israelis have become an immigrant community like any other; that they have become influential in public life; and that they can influence U.S. policy toward Israel and the Mideast, and become part of the pro-Israel lobby.

Milstein agrees. “It’s important for us to be the ambassadors for Israel in the United States.”

“You could call it the Israeli AIPAC,” Peri says of the IAC. “And it will be interesting to see how the relationship between the new group and AIPAC will develop.”

Still, some look at the bombast of IAC funders Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban and see an organization with a distinct political tilt. At the conference, Adelson said “who cares” if Israel is not a democracy. Saban said Israel should “bomb the living daylights” out of Iran to prevent it from getting a nuclear bomb.

“I welcome the idea of an organization that addresses the unique concerns of our community,” says Ori Nir, an Israeli-American who works for Americans for Peace Now. “However, if the inaugural conference of the IAC signals the direction in which the organization’s big donors are pushing it, then the IAC is a disservice both to Israeli Americans and to the state of Israel. Israeli Americans care deeply about Israel’s democracy, peace and security. They are not belligerent militants.”

“If they can keep it apolitical, great,” says Inbal Katz, who has lived in the United States for 16 years. “If not, they’re going to put off the people who don’t share their view.”

Still, she says, the community is not a Hebrew-speaking clone of American Jewry. “Israelis tend to be a little more Republican than the general Jewish population.”

While it’s too early to tell what IAC’s orientation and impact ultimately will be, its founders and backers like Milstein, Adelson and Saban aren’t shy about where they stand. With a bravado that can’t be mistaken for anything but Israeli, Milstein believes that Israeli Americans have what it takes to treat what ails American Jewry.

“Our mission is to ensure Jewish and Israeli continuity,” he says. “Israelis bring in this chutzpah and entrepreneurship. We want to improve the Jewish gene with Israeliness.”

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@DavidHolzel

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