Proud to Be Israeli – in the U.S.

Attitudes toward Israeli expats have changed in recent years. Nobody in Israel calls them ‘traitors’ any more, while Americans now view them as entrepreneurs rather than blue-collar migrant workers.

Courtesy IAC

The Facebook page “Olim Le-Berlin” (calling on people to migrate to Berlin) managed to stir things up in Israel last week, but the truth is that emigration to Berlin from Israel is still a marginal phenomenon. According to World Bank figures, the number of Israelis currently living in the United States is larger than that in all European countries combined.

Apparently without Facebook pages and protest movements, a proud Israeli community is establishing itself in the U.S. without attempting to assimilate into American society. And it is actually establishing leadership institutions with the backing of the Israeli government.

The nature of the Israeli-American expatriate has been changing over the past few years. Whereas in past years, newcomers tended to keep a low profile with regards to their country of origin as they tried to blend in and assimilate into American society, today more Israelis are quite comfortable with their Israeli origin and image. They are proud of it and try to preserve it, although they feel quite good about their American lives.

One should be wary of generalizations – not every Israeli living in the U.S. has an Israeli flag stuck on his face. Nevertheless, Israelis fitting this pattern can increasingly be seen in recent years.

Israelis living in the U.S. always knew how to find one another and maintain social contact. This was less prominent among academics and white-collar workers, who were more easily absorbed into American society. Anyone for whom Israeli culture was important chose to live in areas where other Israelis tended to live, such as Brooklyn and Queens, ate at Israeli (Mizrahi-style) restaurants, purchased Israeli food products (which are often cheaper in the U.S.) and often participated in public singing of Israeli songs. However, the truth is that the majority wished to blur their origins in their new homeland. Many did not have the inclination, time or patience to seek out other Israelis or Israeli culture.

Over the last decade a new wave of Israelis began arriving in the U.S. These included professionals, high-tech people, lawyers, people dealing in finance and real estate, as well as those who barely finished high school. In contrast to earlier migrants, they are not keeping a low profile at all. They don’t strive to become American. They see themselves as Israelis who live in the U.S. One of the main reasons for this conceptual change is the transfer of hundreds of high-tech Israeli companies, both large and small, to the U.S.

Reuters

What one book can do

According to figures released by the World Bank and the Central Bureau of Statistics, there are some 150,000 Israelis living in the U.S. However other (conservative) estimates consider the number to be at least 200,000, while others claim that at least half a million Israelis live in the U.S., mainly in New York, Los Angeles and Miami. For years, Israelis coming to the U.S. wanted to blend in, confident that they would not be returning to Israel. Their Israeli image was not something they were proud of, to say the least.

Courtesy IAC

Among American Jews there is great sympathy toward Israel, with a Pew Research Center survey from last year showing that 70% feel some degree of affiliation or sympathy. However, for many years the attitude toward Israelis living in the U.S. was not particularly positive. Israelis were occasionally associated with crime or with manual labor such as house movers or carpet cleaners. Israeli government policies also aroused discomfort among some members of Jewish communities, leading to reserved attitudes toward Israelis in the U.S.

If that were not enough, many Israelis tried to blur their origins in order to wipe out the negative stigma associated with emigrating from Israel. Their labeling as “cowardly dropouts” by former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had a significant impact.

David Bachar

All this has changed in recent years. The 2009 book “Start-Up Nation” by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, which depicted Israel as a country replete with start-up ventures, had a great influence on altering perceptions. The buzz surrounding the book served as a source of pride. The new Israelis are no longer stereotyped as taxi drivers and schleppers (an image which was not accurate to begin with). They are now stereotyped (again inaccurately) as entrepreneurs.

Ethan Bronner, deputy national editor of the New York Times who in the past was the paper’s correspondent in Israel, knows Israel and Israelis in New York very well (he’s married to one). “There are Israelis across this city in key positions in real estate, finance, science, mobile software, art and architecture,” he says. “I have met Israeli graduate students here who say that companies like Google and Facebook are recruiting them. My sense is that Israeli professionals who come here are even tougher and more determined to succeed than those who stay in Israel, who themselves are pretty tough and determined to succeed. In that sense, the Israeli diaspora in America punches way above its weight and has made its presence felt quite strongly.”

Ariel Halevi, the co-founder and CEO of Choozer, a company which helps corporations quickly set up attractive job descriptions, says that there is “something wonderful about the community of Israeli entrepreneurs that has developed in New York. These are Israelis of a different type. They exhibit a wonderful amalgamation of successful and likable Israeli qualities such as vision, initiative, boldness and a sense of community with successful American virtues such as organizational skills, attention to detail, order and discipline and, of course, social refinement. It’s a wonderful blend of two cultures, taking the best of both worlds.”

Guy Franklin, an accountant at Ernst and Young, made a name for himself within the Israeli community in New York when he drew up a map of Israeli high-tech companies in the city. He overlaid 200 companies, some still in their early stages, across the map of Manhattan, highlighting how extensive the transfer of Israeli companies to New York really is. Franklin says that Israeli entrepreneurs get support from American startups and investors and feel comfortable expressing their Israeli origins. They are proud of them, seeking other Israelis and trying to maintain their Israeli character. They don’t consider themselves to be permanent expatriates and therefore don’t attempt to assimilate into American society, in contrast to the Israelis who left in the 1970s.

A change in the government’s attitude

One prominent indication of the Israeli community’s self-perception is the forming of organizations not seen in the past. Last year the Israeli-American Council (IAC), an umbrella organization for Israelis in the U.S., was formed in Los Angeles and is now gathering momentum. A “local council” of Israelis was formed in New York, trying to link Israelis living in the city and its vicinity.

Eran Hyman, the elected head of the council, says that “Israelis living in the U.S. are now more secure about their Israeli identity and feel more comfortable presenting themselves as Israelis and going out together.”

The council has an eight-member cabinet and an 80-member board. Hyman says that the initiative for establishing the council came from Israeli government institutions such as the Jewish Agency and the Zionist Federation. The Jewish Agency contributed $30,000 for setting up the council, and the Zionist Federation of New York added another $75,000.

The support of the UJA - Federation of New York, which encompasses New York’s Jews and their numerous organizations, is no trivial matter. For years the Jewish community took care to distance itself from Israelis in the city. Now it views them as an asset. The Jewish Federation has concluded that Israelis in the U.S. can serve as ground-breakers with regard to Jewish identity. Their secular cultural framework can serve as a model for emulation by New York’s Jews.

At the Stephen Wise Free (Reform) Synagogue, Israeli-American Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch is leading a campaign trying to attract Israelis to his synagogue. He raised a donation of $300,000 for this purpose and his synagogue holds activities designed to attract them. Among the federation’s activities are Hebrew classes and a job fair to assist Israelis in finding work.

Attitudes toward Israelis living in the U.S. have changed not only in America but in Israel as well. The Israeli government, the Jewish Agency and several Knesset members have recognized the fact that Israel is a normal country with a diaspora, as many other countries have. The government and Jewish Agency have now changed course after shunning expatriates for many years. Following behind-the-scenes arguments in government offices, there is now a willingness to invest resources in this community. They are now viewed as people who can bring business to Israel and strengthen Israel’s standing in the U.S. and the world, as well as donating money and potentially returning to Israel.

The increased attention to this community also stems from the ongoing failure to attract immigrants from the U.S. There are currently 2,000-3,000 immigrants a year, many of whom eventually return to the U.S. Reports of widespread assimilation among many children of Israeli expatriates also set off alarm bells in Israel. The Israeli government is now interested in strengthening Israeli communities in the U.S., trying to encourage children to return and enlist in the Israel Defense Forces.

The change in Israel has not just been institutional. Public attitudes have become more forgiving. Even people who aren’t happy with the phenomenon are more accepting.

Things started to change in the Los Angeles community earlier than in New York. Israeli businessmen like Shawn Evenhaim, Adam Milstein and Danny Alpert established an Israeli community organization eight years ago. They later expanded it and set up the IAC, which covers the entire U.S. The purpose was to unite the community and serve as its representative when dealing with Israel. The organization received $10 million from Sheldon Adelson and another donation from Haim Saban, who maintains a prominent Israeli profile. These donations made IAC, of which Evenhaim is now the chairman, a wealthy organization.

From many perspectives IAC is a success. According to its CEO Sagi Balasha, “It is now a national organization with six branches, supporting 40 Israeli-American organizations, with 150,000 members from coast to coast.”

Each branch receives $300,000 a year. During Operation Protective Edge the organization called on Israeli Americans to join demonstrations held in Los Angeles, Miami and Boston. Another big event expressing identification with Israel was held at a New York community center.

The IAC’s first national conference will be held in Washington on November 7. The “Israeli side” will be represented by Communications Minister Gilad Erdan and opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog. Israel’s ambassadors to the UN and the U.S., Ron Prosor and Ron Dermer, will also attend. The “American side” will be represented by Haim Saban, Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam. Mitt Romney and Joe Lieberman will be the keynote speakers. Also speaking will be Israeli entrepreneur and investor Yossi Vardi, a regular traveler between Israel and the U.S.

The IAC views this as a historic conference. There is some truth in this. There has never been an organization of Israeli expatriates with such extensive activity, receiving Israeli governmental backing. The participation of official Israeli representatives at such an event clearly expresses the new winds blowing from Jerusalem. It’s a far cry from the “cowardly dropouts.”