Secular, no community and rejected

The ultimate diaspora group explains why it is not an organised community


You have met them in your butcher, your baker, possibly even your candlestick-makers and they teach in your children's schools. But did you know there are nearly 80,000 Israelis living and working in Britain?

As many as 70 per cent are believed to be entrepreneurs. But Israelis are also bankers, bakers, teachers, fundraisers, psychologists, artists and work across all the professions. About 2,000 Israelis are registered in Britain as students, mostly doing second degrees or doctorate, which are sponsored; Israeli undergraduates are rarer because it is expensive for them to study here.

But Israelis in Britain are different from almost every other immigrant Jewish community such as Adeni Jews, Iraqi Jews, Iranian Jews or even South African Jews.

They are the anti-diaspora group, who nevertheless find themselves in the diaspora - and they are alone in not having organised themselves as a formal community, although most Israelis agree that they tend to stick together.

Dr Rona Hart is an Israeli-born academic, who specialises in the pyschology of change, particularly that of relocation. She says: "The Israeli community is very strange in some respects.

"It differs from the main Anglo-Jewish community because it consists of a lot of younger people and very few older, as older Israelis tend to return to Israel when they approach or reach retirement.

"Every year, hundreds of young families arrive in the UK, so the 30-plus form the majority of the Israeli community. The more stable part of the community, the 50-plus, are slowly disappearing. So demographically the Israeli community has little chance for stability unless we do something about it and create an internal leadership".

Eyal Lavi, a researcher at London University's Goldsmiths College, has another suggestion for the difference between Israelis and the rest of Anglo-Jewry. He says: "Israelis, unlike other immigrants, have a much higher social and economical position. They are more educated then the average in their country, in contrast to other immigrant groups".

Dr Hart agrees. "You cannot come here without financial means and qualifications. The ones who have neither are lying low at the bottom of society - maybe 10 per cent are illegal - but across the board these are very few. It is a brain drain for the state of Israel, because Britain draws in the strong ones".

Mr Lavi explains: "Until the 1980s, many Israelis did not feel comfortable at leaving the country, and because they felt uncomfortable that they lived abroad, they never institutionalised their community, as did other immigrants.

"But during the 80's and 90's, ideology changed and self-improvement became more acceptable against a background of increasing globalisation. In today's Israel, it's 'ok' to live abroad for a few years, for financial and career opportunities. Israel also recognises the need to keep in touch with her nationals abroad and tries to bring them back home through social activities and financial incentives".

Dr Hart categorises herself as one of those Israelis who came here in the 90s with a sense of guilt. "Most Israelis are secular and did not rush to build synagogues when they arrived, which is part of the problem of why they never integrated and the reason that they do not create organisations for themselves. Potentially the Israeli community, with 70 per cent entrepreneurs, could have done better for themselves".

Last year the Toronto UJIA held the first conference of Israelis abroad, addressed by Yuli Edelstein, Israel's minister for the diaspora.

It showed that Jewish communities around the world had recognised the strength of the Israelis in their country, and started engaging in mutual activities with them through purposely-created groups, something that does not yet exist in Britain.

Dr Hart claims: "In the UK we find ourselves rejected by the Jewish community. First, they see us as something that went wrong in Israel. The message is 'we don't want to hear it' - but there are too many of us for them to ignore. The only way they can accept us is if we contribute money to their causes.".

There are a few organisations which are purely Israeli. There is Alondon, the Israeli magazine and website, which is now also in English and reflects the way Israelis view their lives here.

Then there is the Israeli House, which is run by the Israeli Embassy. It says it "provides guidance for those interested in returning to Israel. In addition, the Israeli House is a meeting place for Israelis, holding cultural events where Israelis can express their Israeli identity in a Hebrew-speaking environment".

There is also the IBC - Israeli Business Club-London - a private and exclusive networking club.

Keffi Wyse, 47, a film producer and editor, is one of the founders of a new Israeli organisation, in the UK, IFFL - Israeli Film Festival London. She moved to the UK in 1990, is married to Len, a property developer, and lives in Stanmore with their three kids.

"We found the need for an Israeli film festival", she says, "just like a Brazilian, French or Italian festival, where the prime goal is to represent the Israeli film industry, show our culture and help dialogue and co-production between the two countries".

At the Toronto conference people found similar concerns, in particular for the younger generation. Eyal Lavi notes: "There is evidence, especially in north America, that in the second generation, the tendency is to get closer to Judaism. The more Israelis stay abroad, the more they build organisations and get closer to Jewish institutions, mostly as a result of sending their kids to Jewish schools".

Unlike the UK, things are changing faster in the US and Canada, geographically much further from Israel. "From Britain, it is a lot easier and cheaper to go to Israel, so there is less motivation to institutionalise," says Mr Lavi.

His research shows a gender difference among the Israeli migrants. "Normally, it is the men who relocate and the wives have to give up careers and therefore are 'pushing' to go back, " he says. "They are stuck at home with kids and feel isolated.

"It is also typical for all immigrants, not only Israelis, to say that one day they will go back, yet other communities establish organisations", he observes. "One of the reasons is that the Israelis here are better off and are less needy than other migrants. Israelis come here not only to better themselves, but also because they want to widen their horizons and develop".

Chaya Langerman, 41, lives in Hendon. A medical adviser for a pharmaceutical company, she is married with five children. She came in 2001, initially as the wife of diplomat, Moshe Langerman, now a city banker, and later resumed her own career. The couple are members of the local synagogue and their children go to Jewish schools. She enjoys life here for "convenience, culture, and opportunities".

Another out and proud Israeli is Manuela Rathaus-Alper, 39, an architect and mother-of-two. She and her husband Mark, also an architect, live in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Mrs Rathaus-Alper, a leader of the Israeli Scouts in London, moves easily between the two communities.

She says: "We also belong to the local shul and take part in childrens' activities. We participate in some Limmud seminars and have a strong circle of Jewish friends." But she notes: "Although Israelis in Britain come from very different backgrounds, they tend to stick together."

Meir Porat, 41, is a quantity surveyor and project manager, who lives in Mill Hill with his wife and children. He came to Britain in 1998 to study at university and married a local Jewish girl. Would he go back to live in Israel? He laughs. "Only when my wife agrees." Most of his friends are Israelis. "I wouldn't say there is a lot of Israeli cultural life here, but you can find it when you want".

Noa Bodner is an actor and singer who regularly performs on stage and screen, recently alongside Brad Pitt.

She has lived in Brockley, south-east London, since 2002. "I came to do a post-graduate course at the Royal Academy of Music. London is a hub of culture and I absorb as much as I can. In my profession, the opportunities here can't be compared to those back home. I have done cabaret gigs for Jewish cultural centres, but in general I don't see myself as part of the community".

Mr Lavi's doctorate looks at how the media bring Israel into the everyday lives of British Jews and Israelis in London. He finds that most Israelis think that the media here is biased and unfair towards Israel - although none will admit to being afraid to be identified as Israeli.

Tally Koren, 47, a singer and songwriter, lives in Mortlake with her husband Simon Edwards, whom she married two years ago. "I came to London in 1977 with a few demo songs on cassette and got a good response to my music. I realised that I could make it here. But being an Israeli in the UK is not easy. Through the biased media, many people get the wrong idea about Israel. When I give radio interviews, I always speak about Israel and

presenters are supportive."

Meir Porat is pugnacious. He says: "I think that every Israeli is an ambassador for the state of Israel and we all have the obligation to act accordingly. We need to change the image of Israel in the world. To some extent, that is a result of misinformation and ignorance on the Arab-Israeli conflict issues.".

Mrs Langerman takes every opportunity to correct what she sees as bias. She says: "Israel is treated in a very unfair and unbalanced way in the media, which mostly provides inaccurate information about Israel. I am an Israeli who lives abroad, and I have lots of contacts with non-Jewish people at work, and I tell them the real facts".

"Israel is often treated in a one-sided way", says Ms Bodner, "but it doesn't affect my everyday life and it would not be a reason for me to return."

Tsvia Vorley, a hotel executive who came to London in the 70's, says: "I have a feeling that Israel is the universal devil to polite British society, and they ignore any argument or facts that contradict that view, particularly when they come from an Israeli.

"Often British Jews feel embarrassed by Israel and the result can be that they avoid close relations with Israelis here. I think it is because we are a reminder of their own internal conflicts."

Anat Koren

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive