The advertising campaign by Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption aimed at inspiring expatriate Israelis to return to Israel so offended American Jews that it eventually was canceled by Prime Minister Netanyahu himself.
One of the ads suggested that a peril of Israelis coming to the United States and raising children here is the likely loss of Hebrew in the next generation: “Before ‘Aba’ becomes ‘Daddy,’” said the ad, “it’s time to return to Israel.” Other ads from the same series suggested that American Jews don’t appreciate Israeli national rituals such as Memorial Day and that American Jewish children will have no connection with Jewishness; indeed, that they are not even familiar with Hanukkah.
I saw that ad (all in Hebrew, except for the word ‘daddy’) on a billboard in Cambridge, Mass., several weeks ago. I understood it because, though a fourth-generation American Jew, I had been educated through eighth grade in a Jewish day school where we had a dual-language curriculum and continued my Jewish studies thereafter. Raised by American parents who had become attached to Israel during a year-long stay a couple of years before my birth, I also call my father “Aba” and my mother “Ima,” as do some other American Jewish children with similar backgrounds. My Israeli name, Liora, chosen by my parents also because of their feelings of closeness to Israel, along with my fluency in Hebrew, has made me regularly mistaken for an Israeli (or a daughter of Israelis).
My background is not typical; most American Jews do not learn any Hebrew and some who do don’t know enough to understand a billboard directed at expatriate Israelis. But American Jews like myself, day school educated and (sometimes) Israeli named, play a disproportionate role in the organized Jewish community and are among those from a variety of backgrounds who are engaged with Jewish issues, either in journalism or academia. Our very existence reframes the dichotomy of Israeliness and American Jewishness that the ads presume. In fact, some of us constitute a community of American Jews familiar enough with Israel, its language and its culture to move beyond the stance of unquestioning support that Israel might wish from us to a place of real, informed and, ideally, constructive engagement — and critique.
Ironically, Israel itself, through its promotion of Hebrew and Jewish education abroad, helped give Diaspora Jews like me the ability to have identities informed by Israel even outside of Israel. Even before the creation of the state, the Zionist movement ran some of the most important modern Jewish schools in interwar Poland; and the liberal Jewish day school, as we know it today, owes much to the notion that Zionism did not only function to bring Jews to Palestine, but also structured and promoted Jewish nationalism in the Diaspora. Israel was instrumental in promoting Hebrew language study abroad, for a while through the Brit Ivrit Olamit (known in English as the World Association for Hebrew Language and Culture). The organization was particularly active in the 1930s in training Hebrew teachers and creating curricular materials for Jewish communities outside Israel, in part to prove its commitment to a global Hebraist agenda. The appeal of Zionism and Hebrew education as a structuring force for Diaspora Jews in the absence or decline of traditional religious observance was central, particularly in the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967.
As much as I was raised with Judaism as my religion, I was also brought up — through my Jewish school and synagogue — with Zionism as my religion. We sang “Hatikva,” Israel’s national anthem, at the beginning of all school assemblies. We barely distinguished between Passover and Israel’s Independence Day as major Jewish holidays. We observed Hanukkah not as an alternative to Christmas, as the Israeli ads presumed, but as a celebration of the military might of the Jewish people. Aspects of a nationalist Israeli outlook became hallmarks of my own Jewish education, and when I came to question that outlook I questioned them from a place of familiarity.
Whenever I visit Israel, I get the same quizzical look, repeated by any number of taxi drivers, post office clerks, supermarket cashiers and other friendly questioners who have trouble understanding why a fluent speaker of Hebrew with an Israeli name is not Israeli, and why, if she is indeed not, she is not planning to make aliyah imminently, to return “home.”
But just as there is part of my identity that will always be intuitively comfortable with aspects of Israeliness, I am an American Jew, and it is also this part of who I am that chafes against the Israel that I have encountered when I have spent long stretches of time there for study and research, recently in particular. My inclination toward religious egalitarianism finds little place in Israel. I find lacking the respect for and enjoyment of cultural and religious diversity I had learned in my (non-Jewish) high school and university. Our Diasporic self-identification as a minority — adaptable, conscious of our image, aware of the need to work with other communities — seems to be lacking in a country increasingly unconcerned about its image among and treatment of non-Jews, inside and outside Israel.
The dichotomy that the ad campaign suggested — between nationalistic, strongly identified Israelis and assimilated American Jews who have barely heard of Hanukkah, let alone Israel’s Memorial Day — belies a more complex American Jewry, an important part of which has been shaped by decades of Israel-related education and Hebrew. People like me may be the minority, but we have become a cadre of American Jews with the language and the ability to listen to, study and critique — alongside many Israelis — an increasingly insular, militaristic and intolerant Israeli conversation.
Mine is a Jewishness that is informed strongly by Israel — in many ways, strengthened by the language and culture I have learned — but one that is and remains distinct from and often critical of what I find in Israel. It is not ignorance about Israel or assimilation that Israel should be worried about; rather, it should realize that some of these critiques are borne of deep familiarity, care and concern.
Liora R. Halperin is a Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Postdoctoral Fellow in Judaic Studies at Yale University.