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Israeli-American identity takes spotlight at New Jersey confab

The very idea of an Israeli Diaspora was long an oxymoron for the Zionist movement, but the Israeli government's attitude is starting to change.

How do Israelis who have moved to the United States and made their lives there ensure that their children - and their grandchildren – remain connected to their Israeli identity? That’s the question that Israeli-American community leaders, activists and educators - together with representatives of the State of Israel - were setting out to tackle Sunday as they gathered in New Jersey for a groundbreaking conference on the issue.

The conference, sponsored by the Los Angeles-based Israeli American Council, is hosted by the Moatza Mekomit, a newly-formed umbrella organization for the New York area’s Israeli community, together with the Jewish Agency and the Israeli Immigrant Absorption Ministry. It is this mix - Israeli official bodies working hand-in-hand with local Israeli-American groups - that makes the event unique.

“For 65 years the biggest Diaspora community in the world was not getting its community needs addressed,” says Moatza's chairman Oren Heiman, a 45-year-old U.S.-born, Israel-raised New York lawyer who has business and family in both countries. “The Israeli government never cared. So we Israeli Americans decided to get going and organize ourselves.”

And then, Heiman says, the Israeli authorities started coming around. The sea change, he says, came in early 2012, when the Jewish Agency modified its charter, including four new words to its mission statement: “strengthening Israeli communities abroad.” Soon after, the Jewish Agency held a first-of-its-kind introductory seminar for leaders of major Israeli communities in North America to present and compare approaches.

The conference comes a week after Haaretz reported that Israel’s immigrant absorption and foreign ministries distributed a questionnaire to tens of thousands of Israelis living in the United States and Jewish Americans, which included problematic questions on issues of their “dual allegiance” to both Israel and the U.S., as well as their attitude toward the Jewish lobby.

One question in the survey, commissioned by the Israeli American Council, a private nonprofit group based in LA, asked specifically which side the respondents would support publicly if there were a crisis in the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. The respondents were also asked to what extent the attitudes of presidential candidates or members of Congress towards Israel impacted their voting decisions.

According to the Israeli American Council, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson has taken it upon himself to help finance the organization's expansion. Adelson, considered one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closest allies, owns the pro-Netanyahu free daily Israel Hayom, and donated tens of millions of dollars to Republican candidates in the last U.S. presidential election.

Following the report of the story in Haaretz, Netanyahu directed the ministries to stop distributing the questionnaire. He also ordered that it not be promoted by any official government agency.

The conference this week in New Jersey, which will take place at the Kaplan Jewish Community Center on the Palisades in Tenafly, New Jersey, is part of the recent shift in Israel's attitudes toward Diaspora communities. Israel’s consul general in New York, Ido Aharoni, is to give the opening speech at the conference, titled “Israelis abroad as a resource for the State of Israel.”

And while not everyone in government seems to have gotten the memo, as can be seen in Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s scolding of Israelis who chose to leave the country for Berlin last month – a harkening back to the days when then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin infamously described Israelis living overseas as “a bunch of weaklings” - the landscape is nonetheless perceptibly different.

Next week, at the upcoming general assembly of Jewish federations in Jerusalem, organized groups of Israeli Americans are getting the red carpet treatment – a scenario which would have been almost unthinkable in the not too distant past. The Israeli-American Council, for example, is slated to meet with both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett will be the keynote speaker at their general assembly event.

Heiman, meanwhile, who will also be in Israel for the event, is invited to speak in the Knesset on the subject of the development of a structured Diaspora. “We are in a moment of great transition, maybe even a revolution, in the attitude of the State of Israel towards the Israeli Diaspora,” said Gidi Grinstein, founder and president of the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv-based nonprofit that has been the trailblazer in researching and addressing issues of Israeli-American identity.

The very idea of an Israeli Diaspora, explains Grinstein, was long an oxymoron for the Zionist movement, and as such, the Israeli government in the past either ignored that population – which is estimated to be, in the U.S. alone, anywhere between 400,000-800,000 strong - or bombarded it with calls to return “home.”

“The idea used to be that the Jewish Diaspora was fated to disappear – that between assimilation and anti-Semitism, there was no hope for them,” says Grinstein. “And until recently, the only thing Israel provided this community was counselor services.”

But, warns Grinstein, Israeli-themed food, music and book festivals across the U.S., as well as support for scouts, Birthright and the like, while great - are not enough. “Reut’s position is that trying to protect an Israeli identity in the Diaspora out of Israel is a lost cause,” he says. “The focus needs to be integration into the larger U.S. Jewish community.”

According to Grinstein, many Israeli Americans consume the services of Jewish community life in the U.S., but rarely take on leadership positions or contribute time or money to the community. As such, it is no surprise that their children, not truly plugged into the Jewish community, stray from both Jewish and Israeli identity

Recent studies seem to back this up. The latest Pew report, for example, reveals that within the general downshift in the intensity and levels of affiliation among non-Orthodox American Jews, second-generation Israeli immigrants were particularly ambivalent and vulnerable to alienation from mainstream Jewish life. “We felt, and we knew, this was a problem,” admits Heiman. “But we did not realize how bad it was.” “There is a potential for the Israeli Diaspora to serve as a resource for the State of Israel and the Jewish world,” says Monika Lev-Cohen, program director for Israeli Communities Abroad at The Jewish Agency. “There is also a role for American Jews to help Israelis appreciate how Diaspora Jewish life is different and why affiliation is of central importance.”

“A secure Jewish future in North America depends on establishing a sense of shared destiny,” she says. “Both communities realize this, but there needs to be a framework for rigorous thought, planning and commitment. This conference is an important step in that direction.”

Danna Harman