Embracing a hyphenated Jewish identity – in Israel and the Diaspora

Ha’aretz 1/12/11

Growing up as a modern orthodox Jew in London the mantra of my life was always, ‘try to integrate, never assimilate.’ This message was repeated by my friends, family and youth group (Bnei Akiva) in every facet of my life. This message led to my hyphenated identity as a British-Jew. The Jewish part is the core of my identity and my British heritage is the prefix to it.

European Jews since the Enlightenment have all shared the same contradictions and struggles of keeping both sides of one’s identity balanced. Unlike other groups, Jews have never sought for their host countries to take on their identity; we have always learnt to sing in a minor key. Our desire was for society to accept that, while we want to be an equal part of society, we are always going to be distinct from it.

When I moved to America I entered a land where everyone has a hyphenated identity. The fabric of the society is that of many hyphens, where Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, African-Americans, (please insert x)-Americans have all learnt to live together. To express one’s “Jewishness” is as much American as it is anything else. A nation of immigrants has no host but a national culture that any can partake in. Jews in America suffer the same challenges of integration versus assimilation yet will never be seen as outsiders in America. Though they too have a prefix to their identity, so does everyone else.

In Israel there should not be a hyphen, if Zionism is correct. There, the national identity and that of the Jewish people should fuse into one. This creation of the ‘new Jew’ is at the heart of Zionist literature. Being an Israeli, with its own monikers and shibboleths, is somewhat distinct from being Jewish – despite the linguistic and causal roots that the two identities have in common.

This can best be seen in the latest ad put out by the Ministry of Absorption aimed at Israeli’s living abroad. Here, an Israeli girl living in the States comes back with her American boyfriend having left a party early as it is Yom Hazikaron but he cannot read Hebrew and does not know the significance of the day. The message is clear: you will always remain Israeli and your partner might not be able to understand what is important to you. The ad ends encouraging expats to move back to Israel.

The advertisement provides a fascinating insight. Firstly, it focuses exclusively on a secular Israeli festival, this ad is not about Jews, it’s about Israelis. It mixes some of the guilt messages normally associated with intermarriage with a nationalistic identity and a call for those abroad to come back home. I am unaware of any other nation that appeals to expats in this way.

Yet with thousands of Israeli’s living abroad, it is extremely rare to see any interaction with the Jewish community that resides there. The unhyphenated Israeli often sees little or no point joining a community that they feel no affinity to.

With the persistently vibrant and deep Jewish experience of the Diaspora, the unhyphenated Israeli needs to find an equal place in the global Jewish people. All too often Israeli’s living abroad feel distinct and separate from the Jewish communities in the countries that they settle in.

A dual recognition needs to happen. The Israelis need to feel that by choosing to settle in Britain they are now fully part of the British-Jewish or American-Jewish community. They should explore the thousands of opportunities to plumb the depths of their Jewish identity that the Diaspora offers. The British-Jewish or American-Jewish community in turn also needs to recognize that these Israeli’s have a national rather than just a communal identity and should use that national achievement to bolster they own identities against assimilation.

Both the hyphenated and unhyphenated Jews in this world have something to bring to the table. In a global world we can learn a tremendous amount from each other.

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