Identity and Belonging

“What would the average Israeli think about this conference?” I was asked at the Israeli American Council National Conference last month.  “They’d be critical and sarcastic, and complain about these Israelis sitting by the fleshpots of America talking Zionism and patriotism. They would resent them because it’s us paying taxes and our children serving in the IDF.  But this viewpoint is a mistake,” I said.

When I left Kibbutz Ramat Yochanan to study in the US, it was not traumatic—neither for me nor for the kibbutz.  Unlike in my parents’ generation, which considered a member leaving (let alone moving overseas!) to be an act of betrayal against the comrades, country, and the Zionist dream.

Three and a half years and two children later, we returned to Israel for many reasons, most of them rational.  But one reason was not rational: my fear that my children might start calling me “Daddy” instead of “Abba.”

In the last decade there has been a revolution, both in the old attitude from my parents’ generation and in the attitude of the Israeli-Americans themselves. This revolution is led by the Israeli American Council (IAC).

So I decided to attend the IAC Conference and learn about this revolution first-hand.  Before going I told myself, “Sagi, keep an open mind.  Don’t pack any judgmental attitude in your suitcase.  Just be there to listen, to learn, and to try to understand.”

IAC was established about 12 years ago as a local organization in Los Angeles, later expanding to over 20 chapters from coast to coast—making it one of the largest Jewish organizations in the US.  My friend David Ya’ari explained: “At a time when identification with Israel on the part of liberal American Jews is gradually decreasing, Israel’s two strongest supporters are evangelical Christians and Israeli-Americans.”

IAC is active on many levels: strengthening Hebrew, Jewish heritage and Israeli culture among younger Israeli-Americans; fighting antisemitism and BDS; and, most of all – unconditional, unapologetic support for Israel.

Beyond the organization’s activities and messaging, I wanted to understand something about the true, deeper needs that the organization meets.  Naama Or, who founded and led the IAC Boston chapter until her return to Israel last year, explained: “Most of all, IAC helps Israeli-Americans create a new identity in a supportive community that connects them to the Israeli culture they miss.  It gives them a greater sense of belonging.  Today one can be a proud Israeli-American, proud of one’s Israeli identity, a proud American citizen, and proud of one’s unshakeable support for Israel.”

I asked Adam Milstein, IAC’s Chairman, if the success of IAC as a place where Israeli-Americans could be proud Israelis while living outside the country, is a sign of failure for Israel.  Milstein was unhesitating: “On the contrary, we are a strategic asset.  Through us Israel benefits from an army of dedicated soldiers, willing and able to support Israel in the States.”

I returned with five insights:

First, that throughout most of history, the People of Israel has been nomadic, not rooted in one place and working the land.  I was privileged to be born on a kibbutz and to grow up in a society that broke this “tradition”—but only for a brief period.  Jews leaving Israel is not a new phenomenon.

Second, that everyone has the right to live in the place that suits them.  IAC makes the lives of Israelis in a foreign land more bearable, and so deserves our respect.

Third, that Israel would find it challenging to thrive without the support of the USA.  Israeli-Americans fulfill a vital role in the continuation of that support, complementing the traditional support Israel has received from Jews in the United States.

Fourth, that Israel must not give any of its supporters the cold shoulder.  Not former Israelis, not Jews of the Diaspora, and not Christian lovers of Israel.  That would be neither just nor wise.

And last but not least, I am still thrilled when my four children call me Abba!

*This essay first appeared in The Canadian Jewish News.

About the Author
Sagi Melamed is Vice President of External Relations and Development at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, President of the Harvard Club of Israel and author of "Son of My Land" and "Fundraising" - the 1st Hebrew book about Resource Development. Sagi can be reached at melamed.sagi@gmail.com.
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