A recent topic of heated debate in this and other publications has been the attitudes of the English-speaking immigrant in Israel. The dialogue has shot back and forth about the pros and cons of life in Israel and the merits and shortcomings of Israeli society. I believe we are having the wrong conversation. Perhaps it is time we transcend the minutia of day-to-day living and ask ourselves honestly what we are doing here.
Saul Singer, the co-author of Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, said it best in an editorial he wrote following Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the AIPAC summit this past March;
“Personally, however, I’m not sure why I would have moved to Israel if the purpose were to live in safety. I felt safe in the United States. I also could have had a rich Jewish life in the US. I — we — moved here to be part of a work in progress… we need to remind ourselves and the world what it is we are trying to build.”
I cannot help but wonder, as a community of olim, what are we really doing here? Are we just surviving? Are we merely struggling to “make it” here? Is just living in Israel enough of an actualization of the ideals that compelled us to make aliya? Unfortunately, to believe this is to sell ourselves short.
Immigrants from English-speaking countries arrive with benefits and advantages that no other immigrant group has. We were not forced out of our countries of origin by anti-Semitic regimes. We come from places in which we enjoyed a very high standard of living and in which education was accessible to all. On top of this, our aliya was facilitated by generous financial support provided largely by the Israeli government.
These apparent advantages, however, also pose a tremendous obstacle. All too many formally make aliya, but live with one foot in each country. After all, if we fail here, we can always return to our countries of origin. Other immigrant populations do not have this safety net. They have no choice but to integrate fully. We on the other hand, need never really leave our old countries completely behind. Until we do so, we will always be caught up in the daily struggle of living in Israel, instead of integrating completely and laying down the deep roots that are necessary for thriving as a community.
There are many areas where “Anglos” have excelled, however. In the IDF, that all-important institution of Israeli identity and culture, we are well-represented. Interestingly, Anglos seem to be especially prevalent in the ranks of elite combat units. A friend of mine, with whom I grew up in New York, is currently finishing his three years of service in the elite Sayeret Golani unit. Although he is a Lone Soldier, he is not really alone. He relates the following anecdote; “I was sitting in the cheder ochel for the two special units in Golani: Egoz and the Sayeret. Since all the Anglos on the base know each other we just ended up sitting together. Lunch ended but we kept on talking and it was at least 6 or 7 of us so one of the cooks remarked that it looked like the Marine Corps.”
While the army is an important organ of integration, there are other institutions where Anglos are strikingly absent. While other groups of olim have taken a strong interest in politics and have gained a lot of influence in the Knesset, Anglos have not achieved the representation that our numbers deserve. We are, after all, a unique community with specific interests.
Jeremy Saltan, who works for National Union Chairman Ya’akov “Katzeleh” Katz, is one of the approximately twelve Anglos who work in the Knesset. He noted that there are no Anglo MKs currently serving and there is no Anglo party or lobby. He runs an English-language blog that translates and summarizes every item discussed in the Knesset and every motion passed. “I hope this will lead to Anglos learning more about the Israeli political process and help them take an active part and integrate.”
We Anglophonic olim have lots to be proud of. We have made a mark on Israeli society. We are very well-represented in the IDF. We contribute significantly to cultural life here, and even have an English-language theater festival in Jerusalem every Passover. But we can do better—we have a large amount of untapped potential. The key to realizing said potential is to stop thinking about just getting by and surviving here in Israel, and to begin to think about how we can really move forward as a community. It’s time to change the conversation. How can we contribute even more? How can we really help shape Israel into the society we all hope it will be?