January 22, 2019

Israelis in the U.S.A.

When your ancestors yearned for 19 centuries to return to their homeland of Israel, and you were fortunate enough to be born there but still decide to move to America, it’s natural that somewhere deep inside, you might feel a little guilty. How could you not? Regardless of how happy or comfortable you might be in America, how could you not miss the Israeli streets that make you feel so at home, the country you fought to defend, the place that moves your spirit like no other?

It would be an insult to Israel for Israelis to feel perfectly OK about not living there.

This emotional dynamic has contributed to a complicated relationship between Israeli-Americans and their adopted country. Traditionally, the rap against Israeli-Americans is that they have been reluctant to fully engage and integrate with the local community — and I can understand this reluctance.

Many Israelis cope with the guilt of not living in Israel by telling themselves they’re in America only “temporarily.” Fully engaging with the local established community would only make their decision to live in America feel more permanent. It would be like making yourself feel at home in a place that deep inside your soul doesn’t really feel like home.

That’s why I felt something very poignant when I attended the inaugural national conference of the Israeli-American Council (IAC) last weekend in Washington, D.C. This was the big coming-out party for the IAC, which was founded seven years ago by a small group of successful Israeli-American entrepreneurs living in Los Angeles. The conference attracted prominent speakers from across the political, diplomatic, academic, media and philanthropic worlds, as well as more than 700 Israeli-Americans from across the country.

There was plenty of buzz at the conference, which meant the Twitter world had a field day. Two-time presidential candidate Mitt Romney blasted President Barack Obama on his approach toward Iran. Mega machers Haim Saban and Sheldon Adelson shared the stage with IAC Chairman Shawn Evenhaim and tried to out-hawk each other on Israel. Politicians such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) reminded an adoring crowd of America’s undying support for Israel. Actress Noa Tishby and other entertainers added some glitter.

Beneath all the buzz, however, there was some serious business. The IAC’s mission, as stated in its program, is to “build an engaged and united Israeli-American community that strengthens our next generations, the American Jewish community, and the State of Israel.”

We were offered a Limmud-like smorgasbord of sessions led by scholars, experts and community leaders, dealing with issues such as: “Israeli-American Double Identity: Comfort vs. Conscience?”; “Models of Israeli-American Communities: What Works?”; “Our Stand Against BDS”; “What Is Our Role in the Future Leadership of the Jewish-American Community?”; “How Can Israeli-Americans Strengthen the U.S.-Israel Bond?”; “Social Media: The Ultimate Force Multiplier”; “What Can Israeli-Americans Learn From the American-Jewish Community?” and “Israel in 2048: How Can Israel’s Economy Become One of the World’s Top 10?”

As you can imagine, there were plenty of heated discussions. If Jews in general like to argue and debate, then Israeli Jews take it to the next level. At several sessions I attended, when it came time for questions and answers, all we got from the audience were answers — and nobody complained. Usually, an audience is reminded: “Please, no speeches, just questions.” Here, it was more like: “OK, go ahead and make your speech. We know we can’t stop you anyway.”

But after all the buzz, debates and big statements of the conference, it was a statement that no one uttered that had the most impact on me.

This was the collective statement that seemed to hover above the conference and that no one needed to spell out: “We are madly in love with Israel, and we miss it terribly. Yes, we still feel a little guilty that we left. But let’s stop pretending that we’re going back tomorrow. We’re not. We’re here in America, and we’re not leaving anytime soon. That stings a little, but let’s make peace with that and fully engage with our adopted country. Above all, let’s be grateful we’re still able to do so much to help the Jewish world and Israel — and we can do it in our own Israeli way.”

As much as anything, the IAC conference was a statement on the greatness of America — a country that allows its citizens the full freedom to promote the cause of their choice, even when that cause includes helping another nation.

That is also worth waiting 19 centuries for.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.