The highs and lows of Israeli life in Britain

By Zoe Winograd, September 1, 2013
Iris Margolis: “the London community is hard to understand”

Iris Margolis: “the London community is hard to understand”

For Iris Margolis, life in the UK is good.

The 28-year-old from Tel Aviv is studying for an MBA at the London Business School, a course she says “is regarded as one of the best in the world.

“I wanted to gain international experience and I wanted to learn among the best,” she explains. “London offers a great opportunity to scale-up professionally.”

She is one of 11 Israelis on the course. They are a tight-knit group. “We are a kind of mafia,” she laughs.

The 11 all belong to the Israel club run by 31-year-old Sefi Kedmi. “It is an Israeli thing, I guess — we have a very communal culture. So when we are in a different city, in a different culture, we tend to spend a lot of time together,” he says.

Mr Kedmi is involved with other Middle East groups on campus, and has good links with many of his Arab peers. “Even though I am a political person and a proud Israeli, at the end of the day I want to maintain relationships and to keep politics out of it.”

The LBS Israelis must be very good at “keeping the politics out of it” — according to Mr Kedmi, they have experienced no anti-Israel encounters on campus. “We don’t interest people as much as we think,” he said.

In fact, it is a different relationship that is proving a problem for these Israeli students — the one with their fellow Jews in the London community.

“There are a trillion organisations here and it’s very hard to understand. Everything overlaps. Every synagogue and every event; there is no one, combined thing,” complains Ms Margolis.

“I identify myself as an Israeli but, here, being Jewish seems to be more about religion,” says Mr Kedmi.

Both have been put off from trying to make friends with local Jews, and have contented themselves with staying within the 50,000-strong Israeli community in the capital.

Some London-based Israelis are more adventurous, however. Twenty-seven-year-old Mirit Lugacy, from the town of Yavneh, works for Thomson Reuters and specifically requested a posting in the UK.

On arriving here, she went to events held by Jewish Learning Exchange and Aish which she describes as “the best way to make friends.”

She says: “I went to one JLE event, then I joined Facebook groups, went to more events and now I feel like I’m part of a family.”

But, despite finding a warm welcome from the locals, Ms Lugacy started to “miss speaking Hebrew and having the Israeli connection”. So she joined the Israel Salon.

Sefi Kedmi: Israelis meet little hostility in the UK

Sefi Kedmi: Israelis meet little hostility in the UK

More than 170 Israelis attend this social group which was set up by World Zionist Organisation shaliach Nir Cohen in March 2012.

“One of the things I noticed when I got to London was that there were a lot of young Israelis with no framework to meet together, speak Hebrew in an Israeli atmosphere. The idea was to make a social platform where Israelis could feel at home away from home,” he reports.

The Salon, which meets at venues around the capital, was also established with a brief to help bridge the gap between Israelis and London Jews.

But a survey conducted by Mr Cohen showed that only 32 per cent of the members felt that integrating in the Jewish community was very important.

Mr Cohen explains: “The average Israeli doesn’t get the essence of the British Jewish community. We are a majority in our country and we don’t feel the need to express our Jewish identity in the same way.”

One member who sees no need to reach out to the locals is Eli Kaufman, He came to London four years ago for work and felt it was only a matter of time before he met “fellow Israelis”.

“When you travel around the world you can often see Israelis hanging around together — it’s almost an instinct,” he says.

Perhaps solidarity with Anglo-Jewry would be more of an issue if the Israelis encountered hostility from non-Jews in London. But, according to Mr Kaufman, very little exists.

“I am often asked by friends from Israel if I have encountered any hostility as an Israeli in London, but the truth of the matter is the most common reaction to hearing that I am an Israeli is: ‘That’s wicked — I’ve heard that Tel Aviv has an amazing night-life’.”

Good as Tel Aviv’s social scene may be, London’s is better, and provides the draw for many Israelis to come to the UK.

Ilan Toubiana, 37, left Haifa 10 years ago to move to London. “I’m here mostly for the freedom,” she says.

“In Israel, when you’re single at this age people judge you. Here, there are a lot of singles and they don’t judge. It is easier to meet people.”

There are different concerns for families. Manuela Rathaus-Alper, 40, mother of three and chair of Israeli scouts, moved to London 16 years ago with her husband to study architecture.

She says that her children, aged 13, nine and one, “enjoy having both English and Israeli identities, which are both quite established.”

By speaking Hebrew at home and “keeping all the festivals in a secular Israeli way,” Ms Rathaus-Alper feels her children maintain a strong Israeli connection, which is important to her.

“Many families find the transition from Israel to the UK quite easy, there is always the language barrier, but generally they feel quite supported,” she argues.

The question is, will they choose to say?

Mr Kedmi puts it poignantly: “I love London but Israel is where I want to raise my children. London is where I live but my home is Israel.”

Last updated: 10:45am, September 1 2013