New York notes: Is honesty the best policy with American-Israelis?

May 19, 2015

A small group of Israelis who live in the US gathered on Sunday afternoon for a long, open, and sobering conversation about their future in the US. There are hundreds of thousands of such Israelis – 600 to 700 hundred thousand according to most estimations. Many of them came to the US assuming that they will just stay for a year or two or three, and now, six or nine or fifteen years later, they don't necessarily expect to ever go back. Many of them came to the US not thinking much about issues such as the preservation of identity. Israelis don’t have to bother with such issues as the state takes care of their identity (or so they think). In the US, at some point, many of these Israelis face a crisis. They suddenly realize that an Israeli identity is not truly transferable to other countries – and if it is, it is not transferable to the next generation in other countries.

So these Israelis have choices to make. An easy solution is to decide that Israeli identity, or Jewish identity, is not quite important to them. Some people just don’t have the identity gene; they can live without it, they see no benefit to gain from passing on the identity they inherited from their parents. These Israelis abroad don’t come to meetings in which the identity of Israelis abroad is discussed.

Then there are those who do want their children to have an Israeli or a Jewish identity (or both). I often ask such people about their motivation for having such an identity, and I often find the answers insufficient. Wanting to pass on an identity is for many people more an instinct than a thought-through ambition. They want it because they do. And then they explain it by attaching a certain value to their identity that is not always there, and if it’s there it is not always unique to their own identity. Example: I want to have Jewish identity because Judaism is for justice. Well, Judaism isn’t the only religion that advocates for justice. Example: I want to preserve an Israeli identity because Israel is the only way for the Jewish people to survive. Well – why should the Jewish people survive, and if it’s that important that it does, and if Israel is its only savior, why are you here?

Talking to Jews about their lives and identities is always interesting. Talking to this group of Israelis in New York was interesting, and it was also somewhat complicated. They asked me what to do if they want their children to remain Jewish. I wish I had an answer, but since I don’t, I responded by asking my own question. How important it is for you that your children will remain Jewish? A good way of measuring this is looking at what people do rather than what they say, and I tried to explain that to the group. Then I presented to some of them a follow-up idea: what would you do had you known for a fact that living in Israel gives you a ninety percent chance of having Jewish grandchildren and living in America only gives you a fifty percent chance – would this be a sufficient driver for you to pack up and move back?

Many of them hesitated. It was not a surprise for me, nor is it something that I find objectionable. Being Jewish is rewarding, but it can also be demanding. And for each Jew the math of reward vs. price is different. Some would be willing to pay a very high price – with their time, energy, finances, choice of spouse and place of living – in order to stay Jewish and ensure Jewish continuity, and others would not. They want to be Jewish, they want their children to be Jewish, but only as long as the price is reasonable and only as long as Judaism does not interfere with other things that they deem important.

For the Israelis I met – and for many others – the moment of having to face their own priorities is, I think, a very difficult one. It is easy to say I want it all. It is hard to say I want this more than that. It is hard to say, yes, I want Jewish identity for my children, but not with the intensity that is a prerequisite for having it. Not intensively enough for me to abandon the American dream and go back to Israel (where Jewish identity is easier) or intensively enough for me to stay in America (where Jewish identity preservation is more difficult) and invest a lot of effort in having a truly Jewish environment for my children abroad.

Talking to these wonderful, thoughtful, struggling Israelis in New York, I had to wonder if making the choice vivid for them is a useful and positive thing to do. There is the a possibility that by looking at the facts, and by understanding the challenge, and by having to face the cost-benefit calculation, some of them might be discouraged and decide to drop Jewish identity motivations for the sake of having a more harmonious existence. For others, presenting things as they are would be a call for action. No, your children aren’t likely to have a strong identity of the type you want them to have just because you take them to a barbecue on Israel’s Yom Ha’Atzmaut. No, they are not going to understand that you want them to find a Jewish spouse just because you once told them so. No, you can’t pass on a great tradition effortlessly. Not even if you were born in Israel, not even if you still love Israel.

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