Let’s reach out to Israelis in Britain

By Lilach Lev-Ari, April 3, 2008

Israeli expatriates are alienated from the local community

I recently completed a study, carried out under the auspices of Bar-Ilan University, which aimed to find out the degree to which the estimated 50,000 Israeli
immigrants living in Britain and their descendants maintain a distinct Israeli/Jewish identity, and to what extent do they do so in the context of a mutual relationship with the local Jewish community.

We attempted to track the mechanisms for Jewish continuity used by first-generation Israeli expatriates, and compared them to the mechanisms characteristic of the “one-and-a-half” generation (children of Israeli immigrants who were born in Israel but lived most of their lives in Britain), and of single Israeli-born expatriates living in Britain of their own initiative.

We found that it is clear to Israeli expatriates of the first generation that they must act in order to safeguard their Jewish identity, and ensure the participation of their children in Jewish frameworks. However, the available frameworks do not suit the secular outlook and lifestyle characterising most of the respondents in the study, especially those whose background is Ashkenazic, and any participation that occurred despite this gap happened for utilitarian reasons.

The study took in 150 Israelis from across Europe, including about half from the UK. The English respondents recognised, and clearly testified, that the identity-preserving mechanisms of local Jewry are much more sophisticated than their own. The Israelis are aware of the existence of intensive (primarily synagogue-based) Jewish activity under the auspices of a well-organised and lively Jewish community, as well as far-reaching educational and community-based activity. Nevertheless, they participate infrequently, mostly in educational contexts. Only a few Israelis mentioned the Israeli community’s contribution to the local Jewish one in the teaching of Hebrew in Jewish schools by Israeli teachers, or noted that they initiate Israeli cultural events enjoyed by the local community, such as Israeli concerts.

At the social level there are very few reported ties, and the Israeli expatriates sense mutual alienation and great differences, in dress codes, political stances, levels of religiosity, etc. As one 65-year-old Israeli male said: “Israelis and [local] Jews have a love-hate relationship. They are separated. They are not the same.” Another 50-year-old Israeli woman added: “The Israelis as a community (if you can call them a community) are not involved with the local Jewish community as a group (only some individuals are involved). There is not enough contact between Israelis and [local] Jews.”

One of the practical recommendations of this study is that for the sake of the Jewish future of Israeli expatriates, Jewish communities in Britain should initiate contact with the goal of bringing the Israelis closer to the local Jewish community. When doing so, it would be wise to take account of the fact that most Israeli expatriates are secular, and their current lack of contact with local Jewish communities derives from a feeling of difference and alienation, explained by the Israelis as stemming from their perception of the latter as religious. Therefore, parents of children belonging to the first generation will be more likely and willing to come closer to the local Jewish community if it presents a pluralistic, non-judgmental stance, especially towards the Ashkenazim among them, who are further away both from tradition and from the local Jewish community.

The greater community-based strength of the Jewish communities in Britain, as compared with the relative weakness of the Israeli expatriates, should lead UK Jewry on all levels to initiate outreach directed at the Israelis in order to develop modes of cooperation and to strengthen Jewish continuity in both groups.

In addition, youngsters of the “one-and-a-half” generation, unlike the first generation immigrants, have very little involvement with voluntary Israeli expatriate frameworks. It is important for UK Jewry to find a way to the hearts of these youngsters, and to involve them in appropriate programmes. This may contribute to the strengthening of the sense of Jewishness on the part of young Israeli expatriates, and of the locally born children of Israeli expatriates.

Some of these youngsters, unlike their parents, already have some exposure to local Jewry, mostly through Jewish educational institutions. UK Jewry must find additional ways of strengthening its ties with the younger generation of “Israelis”, and thus bridge the gap between two alienated Jewish communities. Thus, a dual development will take place. On the one hand, young Israeli expatriates, like the older first generation immigrants, will be able to receive cultural and spiritual assistance from the local Jewish communities. On the other hand, the local communities will benefit from an infusion of participants and new members. Ultimately, the entire Jewish people will be the beneficiary of such strengthening of Jewish diaspora continuity.

Dr Lilach Lev-Ari is head of the sociology department in Oranim, the academic school of education, and a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Last updated: 1:53pm, June 8 2008