SYDNEY – Australia appears to be the new Promised Land, with the number of Israelis immigrating Down Under doubling since 2000, according to statistical data.
But many of the 20,000 or so Israelis living here still harbor feelings of disconnect, dissonance and detachment.
For decades Israelis were known pejoratively as “yordim,” and derided as “leftover weaklings,” as Yitzhak Rabin infamously branded them in the 1970s.
In Australia, like elsewhere, Israeli emigres – who now number close to one million, mainly in North America – presented an ideological conundrum for the Zionist movement, which promoted Israel as a birthright.
Now, however, the cold war between Australian Jews and Israeli immigrants seems to be thawing: The Zionist movement has relaxed its red lines and Israelis Down Under have risen to the challenge.
Last month, the Jewish Agency and the Zionist Federation of Australia brought Israeli delegates from across the continent to Melbourne for the first “Israelis in Australia” conference, part of a global initiative by the Jewish Agency to strengthen Israeli communities as well as their ties with the local Jewish communities.
“We’d like to be part of the community,” said Eitan Drori, president of the Association of Israelis in Australia (AIA), the first national peak body representing Israelis. “We want to be accepted the way the others are."
Hailing the conference as the building of “a bridge” between the two estranged communities, Drori issued a public plea to local leaders: “The way you accept Russians and South Africans, you have to accept the reality that Israelis are living within you.”
Although the 15,000-plus South Africans have helped Jewish life thrive in Australia, Jews from the former Soviet Union, estimated at around 10,000, struggle with similar lingual and cultural obstacles as Israelis.
But Drori wants more than just tokenistic inclusion. “Why is the Jewish community not consulting us about [Israel] advocacy?” he asked.
He also wants Zionist leaders to let Israelis run the communal Memorial Day commemorations and Independence Day celebrations.
“I believe strongly in this – give us [the chance] to run them,” he said. “We’re not saying you’re no good, but let us show our expertise.”
But there are opponents on both sides, he conceded. “There are many Israelis who don’t want to be part of the community. I don’t blame only the Jewish community. I blame also the Israelis."
Drori, who came here in 1998 as a shaliach (emissary) for the United Israel Appeal, said some Israelis “probably didn’t feel they were welcome here. That’s why AIA is here – to help those who feel unaccepted to feel accepted.”
He's one of only a handful of Israelis who have been appointed to communal positions, including Zev Bashan, a former president of the Jewish National Fund, and Dr. Dvir Abramovich, chair of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission.
“I’m pleased that the negative and stigmatic view of Israelis who left the country has now been replaced by a mature understanding that these expats are important,” Abramovich said.
But he added: “At the moment, because of a lack of genuine integration, Israelis live here and at the same time they don’t live here, caught in state of uncertainty and rootlessness."
Dr. Ran Porat, a co-founder of AIA in 2011, said both sides were at fault. “There’s grave misunderstandings and prejudices on both sides," he says.
In his address to the conference, Porat used the term “Ausraelim” to describe the new identity of many Israelis in Australia. “Most Israelis are acculturated but not integrated [into Australia],” he said. “They get attached to the culture but they don’t feel Australian."
They’re no longer Israelis either, said Porat, who just completed his doctoral thesis on “Ausraelis: the Diasporic identity of Israelis in Australia."
Porat, who grew up in the Krayot north of Haifa and arrived here in 2008, added: “They are Ausraelis with a new identity. They recognize Israel as their original home, not their ancestral home.
“They have a strong component of Israeliness but they have also developed a diasporic identity,” said Porat, who founded a website for the community, www.ausraelim.com.au, which also hosts E-ton, the free Hebrew-language magazine in Australia.
Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, chair of linguistics and endangered languages at the University of Adelaide, agrees with Porat.
“By and large, Israelis who moved from the Promised Land to the Lucky Country after puberty will remain Israelis rather than Aussies for the rest of their lives," he says.
Hebrew is a key reason for that, said Zuckermann, who helps Aboriginal communities revive indigenous languages.
“The Israelis’ children, on the other hand, will of course be Aussies, but often with a unique rapport with Israel,” he said, noting that his three sons have three mother tongues but “a significant part of their self is Israeli."
Bringing the second generation of Israelis inside the tent is a key aim of the paradigm shift within the Zionist movement, according to its executive director, Ginette Searle.
“There is no ideological dissonance involved. It’s not a dilution of Zionism. It’s about how do we connect this community to the mainstream Jewish community and back to Israel. We're trying to acknowledge they’re a critical part of our community,” she said of the Israelis in Australia conference. “This is first time there’s been a concerted collaboration."
But she said she “cringes with shame” recalling the negative stigma once attached to Israelis Down Under.
That old perception will be canvassed at this weekend’s Limmud conference in Sydney courtesy of a comedy performance titled “Bloody Israelis” by schoolteacher Hagit Baron. Baron, who spent five years in New Zealand before coming to Australia, said many Australian Jews still perceive Israelis as “loud, pushy and aggressive."
“What I’m trying to say is, ‘Yes we are like that but we come from a different culture. Although we have the same beliefs and the same love for Israel, being an Israeli means growing up in a totally different culture and environment."
Nitza Lowenstein, executive producer of the weekly Hebrew program on SBS Radio, said the image of the “ugly Israeli” belongs to the past. “Now Israelis are well educated and they speak the [local] language," she says.
The government has realized that “every Israeli is an ambassador of goodwill,” says Lowenstein, “but Israelis will always be Israelis and always feel affiliation to the country. You can be loyal to Australia and you can still be Israeli and an ambassador of goodwill while you are out of Israeli society."
When she came in the 1980s, “Israelis were socially isolated: They formed their own groups, they didn’t go to shul, they didn’t send their kids to Jewish schools. They lived in a bubble,” she said, adding that’s still the case for some older Israelis.
“Older migrants carried a chip on their shoulder, but the younger ones don’t feel guilty, and they don’t dismiss one day going back to Israel."
This ambiguity perhaps explains why the younger generation still faces challenges.
“Most Israelis I talk to carry with them some luggage of dispossession,” said Ori Golan, a former Jerusalemite who lives in Sydney.
“Many Israelis have recreated their own version of Israel, minus all the inconveniences of, say, the occupation, the corruption or the economic inequities. For many of us it is an unresolved issue, and one which calls into question the most basic question of identity, loyalty and belonging.
“I have faced – and continue to face – the same issue of dissonance and disconnect,” he said.
Asked if Israelis would ever fully integrate into the Australian Jewish community, Ran Porat said it was unlikely. “Never say never, but they are a separate diaspora and should be treated like one."