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Members of the Global Israeli Leadership demand a place at the table

Israelis living outside Israel have never had it easy. Historically much maligned back home for having left their embattled country, they’ve also faced ambivalence if not haughtiness from Jews where they emigrated. Today, while acknowledging greater acceptance in their homeland, Israeli expatriates feel little improvement in the resistance they often meet from Jewish communities abroad. This according to leaders of the so-called Israeli Diaspora who recently gathered in Paris to take stock of their current situation and plan for the future.

“Although some of the stigma still persists in Israel, the general attitude has evolved for the better,” says Dr. Vered Glickman, during the just-concluded fifth annual Global Israeli Leadership conference she helped organize. “There’s a growing understanding that Israel, like other countries, shouldn’t feel threatened by having a strong diaspora of its own citizens. There’s nothing to be gained from alienating those who choose to live abroad for whatever reason. Israel can only benefit from connecting with its diaspora,” Glickman says.

Glickman, 56, who grew up near Tel Aviv, recently relocated to New York with her husband after living in Budapest where she was Director of the Israeli Cultural Institute. She was one of 35 Israelis attending the Paris conference, held at a Jewish community center not far from the Eiffel Tower.

Sharing a strong Israeli identity and often deep roots in Israel, attendees came from diverse places around world. At their own expense, they traveled to Paris from their homes in the United States, Canada, Mexico, England, Germany, Switzerland, Gibraltar, Ukraine, Australia and the host country of France. A few came from Israel, including Rami Rosengarten, a major supporter of the conference, who’s a top executive at DavidShield, which provides health insurance to Israelis living abroad.

“Although we’ve made great progress since our first conference in 2014, we still have a long way to go,” says Eitan Drori, 67, one of the founders of the Global Israel Leadership (GIL) initiative. Drori grew up in Jerusalem and in 1998 moved to Australia, now home to nearly 20,000 Israelis — double what it was 15 years ago. “We need to work on getting Israel to acknowledge us more, getting Jewish leadership in the Diaspora to better recognize and take advantage of the substantial presence of Israelis in their communities and we must raise awareness about our work among Israelis living overseas,” said Drori.

To that end, GIL leaders last week completed the legal steps to create an official not-for-profit organization [amuta] in Israel. They hope it will enhance their credibility and facilitate fundraising and engaging with politicians, government bodies and official institutions.

“As our work evolved, we realized we needed to be a registered organization with proper leadership, objectives, plans, rules and regulations,” says Drori, who lives in Melbourne and was the driving force behind the Paris gathering. “Yehiel Bar, Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, told me bluntly last year: ‘If you don’t register as an official organization in Israel, almost no one in the political realm will take you seriously.’”

While not a panacea for all the challenges at hand, the new formal entity should help GIL better focus on its multifaceted goals. Beyond lobbying for Israelis abroad, future plans call for building an online platform to share information and get to know the global Israeli community; help develop Israeli communities abroad; work for better relations between Israeli and Jewish communities; promote Hebrew culture and Hebrew education for the young with support from the Israeli government; promote original Israeli culture abroad; encourage joint business initiatives; and continue lobbying for creating an Israeli Diaspora governmental office.

Expatriate Israelis long suffered from a pervasively toxic image in their homeland where many people considered them traitors to the Zionist enterprise. Critics depicted them as jumping ship, forsaking their heritage for a softer life abroad.

In a country built on immigration where new arrivals were exalted as “olim” (literally, those going up), it’s little surprise those who left were called “yordim” (those going down) and treated as sinners. In 1976, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin famously denounced yordim as “contemptible wimps.” At best, they were simply ignored.

It’s much harder to ignore them today, if only for their sheer numbers, which have grown considerably in recent years. While estimates vary widely – ranging from 600,000 to more than 1 million – it’s indisputably a significant number and major brain drain for a small country like Israel. Many of the delegates reported that in their respective communities abroad, newcomers continue to arrive from Israel, underlining the relevance of GIL’s work, especially in today’s globalized world where people commonly relocate for jobs.

Accent on Hebrew-language culture

The legendary appeal and attractions of Paris notwithstanding, conference participants stayed focused on the agenda. Defying unseasonably warm, sunny weather all three days, they spent most of their time indoors, hunkered down in presentations and discussions, all in Hebrew.

The event’s main theme was the role of culture in helping preserve identity. The strong accent on culture, in its broadest sense, fit well with Paris, and reaffirmed a central purpose behind GIL: to maintain Jewish and Israeli identity, including the use of Hebrew, in the next generation.

“It was good for us to come to Paris and meet Israelis involved in culture and see how it can inspire people,” says Drori. “We wanted to present culture as a method for maintaining Israeli and Jewish identity. Culture for us is an important part of being Jewish and Israeli. We also spoke a lot about cultural networking and exposing Israeli artists and performers worldwide and as a bridge with Jewish communities. We want to be facilitators for Israeli culture. It’s part of what GIL is about.”

It was a big part of the conference, reflected in the range of Israelis involved in cultural pursuits in Paris who gave presentations. They included Elinor Agam Ben-David, Cultural Attaché from the Israeli Embassy in Paris; Sharon Heinrich, an expert on French pastry, who has 230,000 Instagram followers and conducts tours in Hebrew; Assaf Matarassi and his wife Zofit Messa, who are organizing a traveling exhibition of Israeli photography; and singer Sharon Lalum and pianist/composer Meni Sonino.

Paris-based documentary filmmaker Tamara Erde screened and answered questions about her latest work, “Looking for Zion,” in which she examines Israel’s past and present. Other Israeli speakers included journalist, Guidon Kuts, who’s been based in Paris for 41 years. Author Shuki Stauber, who researched the large Israeli expatriate community in Berlin for a book, shared his conclusions on the subject.

Participants also took in Parisian culture outdoors through Israeli eyes. Shiry Avny, an artist from Haifa who moved to France in 2005, conducted a tour in Hebrew of street art and graffiti in the Belleville quarter that she offers tourists. The next day, Yaffa Iron, who’s written extensively on Parisian food for Ynet, took attendees on a culinary tour on the Right Bank.

Anat Yahalom, who spent several years in Paris earlier in her life, returned to the city from Israel to give an uplifting talk about overcoming adversity, such as she did after nearly dying on the battlefield during the Yom Kippur War.

On the conference’s final day, visiting Israeli author Mira Magen spoke after taking part in an Israeli literary festival in France. She told delegates that Israelis should value the perspective of their compatriots living abroad because they sometimes see the bigger picture in Israel better than those who are too close to it.

United by a love for the homeland

For all the seriousness of debate and discussion, a collegial, friendly atmosphere reigned at the conference, which was largely free of ideological exchanges. Delegates seemed united by their love for Israel, especially its culture and language. “The people at this conference are a great blessing for Israel,” says Ayelet Shay, 39, who grew up in Safed and now lives in Gibraltar where she’s Chairwoman of the Gibraltar-Israel Chamber of Commerce.

“We want to carry on with the tradition of Israel, with the culture, with Hebrew. It’s really important for the next generation. I’m here for that because I don’t want my children to forget where they come from,” Shay says. “Even though you’re living in in a different corner of the world, it doesn’t mean Israel is not your home. Israel will always be home for me. You don’t have to live physically in Israel to be a good ambassador for it.”

The roots of the GIL initiative date back to 2011 when independent Israeli lay leaders from around the world met in Toronto to address challenges faced by their countrymen living abroad. Initially progress was slow but eventually a core group of devoted volunteers took form and initiated the first official GIL conference in 2014, in London. Since then, there’s been an annual gathering in a different city, including two in Israel.

Last year’s event represented a milestone when Israeli President Reuven Rivlin welcomed a 40-person GIL delegation at the Presidential Residence in Jerusalem. In his remarks, he officially recognized Israelis overseas, referring to them as “the fifth tribe of Israel,” having previously spoken of Israel being comprised of four main tribes – the secular Jewish sector, the national religious, the ultra-Orthodox and the Arab sector.

For its part, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem lent its support and legitimacy by hosting much of the conference at its Jerusalem headquarters. At GIL conferences, there’s never a lack of subjects to tackle. Should Israel treat its diaspora as a separate community? Should they have the right to vote in national elections, like some countries grant their expatriates? What can be learned from the way other countries engage their citizens abroad? For now, most of the questions remain more obvious than the answers.

Not the warmest embrace in their new homes

In recent years, as Israelis have changed their attitude to those who have left the country, sadly many Diaspora Jewish leaders have not. “British Jews have to start treating us with more interest and respect,” says Anat Koren, who grew up near Tel Aviv and moved to London in 1982. “The Jewish community in the UK is shrinking due to assimilation and emigration while the number of Israelis in London is growing. The Board of Deputies of British Jews is supposed to represent all segments of the Jewish community and yet there’s not even one Israeli on it. It’s ridiculous and reflects the attitude of community leaders to local Israelis.”

Koren, 62, who is the publisher of London’s Hebrew-language city magazine, says the local Israeli community is now nearly 100,000-strong and growing. “Jewish communities in the UK and elsewhere need us,” adds Koren. “I think British Jews are a bit lost. Because we speak Hebrew and they don’t, they look at us with a different eye.”

“We come from this land that Jews in the UK always treated as their insurance for security, as somewhere to go in case of danger. After Israelis started coming, British Jews didn’t like it. ‘Hey, you should stay there and defend this country to which we might need to come one day.’ And now, more Jews in the UK are talking about that because of rising anti-Semitism and the prospect of [Labor Party Leader Jeremy] Corbyn as prime minister,” she says.

Far from London, expatriate Israelis voice a similar frustration in Mexico City.  “There’s a big Jewish community in Mexico which the Israelis really want to be part of but there’s a big gap between the two sides,” says Nitza Levy, 61, who’s lived in Mexico City since 2011 and has attended three GIL conferences including Paris.

Levy spent her childhood in Kibbutz Bar-Am and moved to Haifa with her family when she was 10. Previously she and her husband were emissaries in Brazil for an Israeli youth movement. “Mexican Jews haven’t received the Israelis very well, and don’t seem to like them. Unfortunately, I don’t see the situation improving any time soon,” Levy says.

“Part of the problem is we [the Israelis] are not a community in Mexico,” she says. “We’re too separate and isolated. There are various groups but no collective organization even though the number of Israelis arriving continues to grow. My hope is we’ll develop a better sense of community that will help with the integration of Israelis into the Jewish community, just like they did in Toronto which I saw when I was there for a previous GIL conference.”

Toronto as archetype for engagement

Consistent with research of Israelis abroad by the Tel Aviv-based Reut Institute, many people at the conference cited Toronto as a model of what they yearn for in their respective cities. Starting nearly 15 years ago, Toronto’s UJA Jewish Federation, then under the leadership of Ted Sokolsky, decided to actively engage what was then a somewhat alienated but sizable Israeli community that today numbers close to 70,000.

While still a work in progress, the historical gap between the two sides has narrowed considerably. Today, with support from several local Jewish organizations including the Prosserman JCC, Schwartz-Reisman Centre and UJA, Toronto hosts Israeli arts and culture programs in Hebrew and has an expanding Hebrew-language supplementary school.

Many of these projects were initiated and are overseen by Jerusalem-born Galya Sarner, who participated in the conference and is on GIL’s board. (Full disclosure: this reporter is married to Galya Sarner.) Most Israelis who leave the country do so in pursuit of business or professional opportunities. Economic hardship, family ties, concerns over security, and disillusionment with Israeli society are other factors, especially for those who see the future as bleak.

Whatever their destination or reasons for departure, most Israelis abroad remain passionate about their homeland, as seen at the conference. Despite the distance involved, they maintain close emotional and family – and often business – ties with Israel and most visit it at least once a year.

In the final act of the conference, participants stood together to sing Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva, before dispersing to their respective homes around the globe, invigorated by what took place in Paris — the latest step in development of an Israeli expatriate community which is coming of age.

Robert Sarner