Perla Aizencang-Kane

The Awakening of the Israeli Diaspora

Hundreds of Israelis have been protesting in different cities worldwide for over 35 weeks. (Photo: Perla Aizencang-Kane)

A few years ago, I wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on the Transnational Life of Israeli citizens living in Mexico. I was attracted by the idea that globalization has led to increased migration and transformations in mobility patterns. I understood Israeli mobility as part of the global phenomenon of voluntary migration, mainly motivated by the desire to achieve a better quality of life, as expressed by income levels, education, professional conditions, and opportunities. In their search for new destinations to experience, many Israelis become “transnational migrants.” Transnational migrants continue to be active in their homelands while at the same time becoming part of their host countries. The transnational perspective to migration studies fits my research project since it considers the act of migrating not merely as an event but as a process through which migrants forge and maintain multiple and simultaneous social relations that connect their societies of origin and reception. The four dimensions of the transnational life considered were the economic-labor-professional, the civil-communal-societal, the cultural, and the political.

The empirical findings of my study indicated that Israelis abroad enjoy high levels of transnational life in the first three dimensions. However, when it comes to the political dimension, most surveyed displayed minimal interest in local or transnational political activities. While following the distinction between homeland politics, immigrant politics, and trans-local politics, the findings showed that Israelis in Mexico were not involved in any of these alternatives, as manifested in a) the lack of organization among Israelis as a particular group, b) the absence of any political expressions in favor of Israel in their host country, and c) the absence of transversal relations between Israeli migrants living in different countries.

Although Israelis in Mexico only constitute a case study and are not representative of the Israeli population worldwide, being an Israeli abroad often meant limited participation in Israeli politics. Only those who could physically travel to Israel during election times to cast their vote had the chance to express themselves. Nevertheless, recent developments in Israel point to a change in this paradigm, resulting in what I term the Awakening of the Israeli Diaspora. Let me explain.

Over the past few decades, the Israeli migrant community has transformed its self-perception from marginalized immigrants to members of a thriving transnational community grounded in daily diasporic practices. The negative connotations associated with being an Israeli abroad have gradually eroded, giving way to increased acceptance and, in some instances, even a warm welcome. Today, many Israeli migrants openly embrace their Israeli identity, language, and culture, proudly assuming their transnational lives without hesitation. This transformation, affecting both individuals and the community as a whole, can be attributed to a shift in the perspectives of both host societies (particularly local Jewish communities) and Israeli society, which has become more accepting of the choice to live outside the nation’s borders. This newfound confidence and extroversion among Israeli migrants have led to the emergence of organized Israeli communities, both nascent and well-established, in various locations worldwide. Improved relations with local Jewish communities have accompanied this shift, and global NGOs and Jewish organizations, especially in North America—the continent that concentrates the more significant numbers of Israelis abroad—have begun paying more attention to the Israeli migrant population.

Several organizations within the Israeli diaspora have arisen in the last decade, and existing ones have expanded their activities. Additionally, numerous online groups, web pages, newsletters, and radio programs created by and for the Israelis living abroad have formed a thriving digital diaspora. Digital diasporas are defined as distinct online networks through which diasporic individuals recreate their identities, share opportunities, disseminate their culture, influence homeland and host land policy, and engage in discussions on common-interest issues via electronic devices. Today, diasporas have evolved into transnational networks of migrant communities united by shared affiliations, interests, and affinities, with social media platforms fostering new virtual formations and digital diasporic networks.

Even though many of the organizations of the Israeli diaspora developed offline, focusing on social, cultural, and community needs (such as the Israeli American Council, Global Israeli Leadership, Tzuzamen, or Mishelanu), the past decade has witnessed a proliferation of online initiatives. Hundreds of Facebook groups were created by professions or activities (Israeli Medical Students Abroad, Israeli Physiotherapists in Europe, Israeli Educators Worldwide), by gender (The Female Power, Women in a World of Opportunities, A Forum for Women in Relocation), and by location (Israelis in Switzerland, Menagvim in Berlin, Israelis in Hoboken, etc.). Also, many offer support for those who were relocated or are in the process of doing so (Together in Relocation, Israelis likely to Relocate, Parents in Relocation). Turning the second decade of the 21st century, the Israeli diaspora has transformed into a dense tissue of cross-border ties and relations, practices, and connections between organizations, online and offline groups, private initiatives, programs, funding, and web pages.

Out of the four dimensions of Israelis’ transnational life described above, the political dimension remained dormant until recent events prompted its awakening. It emerged in response to homeland developments, as expressed primarily in solidarity with the manifestations of every Saturday evening in Jerusalem, in Caesarea, and more than one hundred bridges all over the country in 2019. Israeli expatriates staged simultaneous rallies in 18 cities worldwide, demanding Netanyahu’s resignation and safeguarding Israeli democracy.

Then came the mobilizations for the right to vote when Israelis experienced five elections in only three years, including a pandemic that shut down the airport, preventing Israeli expats from arriving. Various groups emerged, initiating dialogues on the rights and obligations of Israeli citizens residing outside their homeland. Many who had previously rallied in support of Israeli democracy in global demonstrations joined the grassroots movement called “Vote Abroad Israel,”sparking online gatherings of several grassroots organizations advocating for this issue.

For instance, “UnXptable-Saving Israeli Democracy,” launched by Israelis residing in the San Francisco Bay Area in support of a democratic Israel, garnered support to help increase voter turnout among Israelis in Israel without leaving California. Deprived of arriving in Israel, several Israeli expatriates even submitted requests to the Supreme Court of Israel seeking the right to vote. Some initiatives were more organized and founded by groups of Israelis in different countries, while others took the form of personal endeavors, including websites.

Most significantly, protests erupted worldwide against the Israeli government’s proposed Judicial Reform at the beginning of 2023. This legislation, designed to weaken the judiciary by allowing Supreme Court decisions to be overturned by a simple majority of the Knesset, alarmed Israelis both in Israel and abroad. It threatened the very foundations of Israeli democracy and the rights of minority groups. Israelis abroad recognized the gravity of the situation, marking a qualitative shift from previous political engagement.

Across the United States and in numerous other global locations, Israelis gathered in city squares and symbolic sites to voice their opposition to the proposed judicial reforms. Many activities were coordinated by “UnXeptable-Saving Israeli Democracy.” In North America, week after week, thousands of Israeli expats organized public protests and demonstrations outside hotels and venues where Israeli government officials traveled. They also hosted online lectures, held in-person gatherings, engaged with Congress members, and even protested outside the home of a prominent funder of the Kohelet Policy Forum, the Jerusalem-based think tank driving the proposed judicial reform.

In a matter of months, “UnXeptable–Saving Israeli Democracy” expanded to include over twenty affiliated chapters across various cities, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, Miami, Pittsburgh, Princeton, Seattle, Toronto, and Vancouver. The movement also garnered support from Israeli academics worldwide, who signed the IL Academics Abroad Supreme Court Support Letter. Their influence extended beyond North America, fostering partnerships and participation in manifestations worldwide.

Crucially, technological communication played a pivotal role in disseminating the message of Israeli expats. Social media platforms provided the ideal arena for sharing information, organizing, mobilizing support, fostering identification, and showcasing collective strength. As a “bottom-up” approach, social networks facilitated coordination, information exchange, discussion, and the ability to call others into action. The accessibility and cost-effectiveness of these tools contributed to the movement’s decentralized structure.

If the political activism pursued by Israelis abroad has grabbed our attention as a new development, the unprecedented call to Jewish communities to join the protests also constituted a groundbreaking development that will grasp our attention in forthcoming events. Simultaneously, from within Israel, protest movements have been reaching out to diaspora Jews, emphasizing the urgency of this moment and seeking partnership in this historic and critical juncture.

Finally, Israel’s unique character sets it apart from other nations in many respects. One of the distinctive features is the presence of two diasporas: the longstanding Jewish diaspora, which played a pivotal role in establishing Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people, and the newer Israeli diaspora, comprising approximately one million Israeli citizens living abroad. While the older Jewish diaspora and its organizations enjoy high levels of rootedness, cooperation, and institutionalization, the relatively nascent Israeli diaspora is dynamic, dispersed, and not institutionalized yet.

Although Israel, its institutions, and its authorities largely ignored the Israeli diaspora until the beginning of the 21st century, current events signal a need for reconsidering the relationship between the State and its people. Israelis living abroad have expressed their desire to have a voice, to be heard, and, most importantly, to share their concerns, frustrations, and fears about the future of their homeland. Their protests are a poignant testament to their unwavering love for Israel, even from afar.

To echo the argument expressed by Yossi Klein Halevi in a conversation with The Time of Israel on September 4th, Israel serves as the epicenter of Jewish life. The question of what it means to be a citizen of the Jewish people has gained renewed relevance. Halevi emphasized the need to include diaspora voices at the table. “They have the right to voice their concerns and the responsibility to speak when they feel Israel has taken the wrong turn.” Perhaps a more comprehensive definition of Jewish Peoplehood should include an extended civil society that welcomes these diverse voices and perspectives.

About the Author
Perla Aizencang-Kane is an Argentinian-Israeli citizen living abroad. She received her B.A. in Sociology at the University of Buenos Aires, her M.A. in Political Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and her Ph.D. in Political and Social Sciences at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She is an independent researcher. Her main lines of research focus on migration, transnational living, and the constitution of the Israeli Diaspora.
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