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On Israel and America, identity and belonging

In the last decade, there has been a revolution, both in the old attitude from my parents’ generation of Israelis and in the attitude of Israeli Americans themselves.

Israeli-American Council chairman Adam Milstein addressing the IAC conference in Washington, D.C. November 2018. Credit: Perry Bindelglass.
Israeli-American Council chairman Adam Milstein addressing the IAC conference in Washington, D.C. November 2018. Credit: Perry Bindelglass.
Sagi Melamed
Sagi Melamed

“What would the average Israeli think about this conference?” I was asked last month at the Israeli-American Council National Conference in Hollywood, Fla.

“They’d be critical and sarcastic, and complain about these Israelis sitting by the fleshpots of America talking Zionism and patriotism. They would resent them because it’s us paying taxes and our children serving in the Israel Defense Forces. But this viewpoint is a mistake,” I said.

Decades ago when I left Kibbutz Ramat Yochanan, in northern Israel outside Haifa, to study in the United States, it was not traumatic—neither for me nor for the kibbutz. Unlike in my parents’ generation, which considered a member leaving (let alone moving overseas) to be an act of betrayal against the comrades, country and the Zionist dream.

Three-and-a-half years and two children later, we returned to Israel for many reasons, most of them rational. But one reason was not: my fear that my children might start calling me “Daddy,” instead of “Abba.”

In the last decade, there has been a revolution, both in the old attitude from my parents’ era and in the attitude of Israeli Americans themselves. This revolution is led by the Israeli-American Council.

So I decided to attend the IAC Conference and learn about this revolution firsthand. Before going, I told myself: “Sagi, keep an open mind. Don’t pack any judgmental attitude in your suitcase. Just be there to listen, to learn and to try to understand.”

IAC was established about 12 years ago as a local organization in Los Angeles, later expanding to more than 20 chapters from coast to coast—making it one of the largest Jewish organizations in the United States. My friend David Ya’ari explained: “At a time when identification with Israel on the part of liberal American Jews is gradually decreasing, Israel’s two strongest supporters are evangelical Christians and Israeli-Americans.”

IAC is active on many levels: strengthening Hebrew, Jewish heritage and Israeli culture among younger Israeli-Americans; fighting anti-Semitism and BDS; and, most of all, unconditional and unapologetic support for the State of Israel.

Beyond its activities and messaging, I wanted to understand something about the true, deeper needs that the organization meets. Naama Or, who founded and led the IAC Boston chapter until her return last year to Israel, explained: “Most of all, IAC helps Israeli-Americans create a new identity in a supportive community that connects them to the Israeli culture they miss. It gives them a greater sense of belonging. Today, one can be a proud Israeli-American, proud of one’s Israeli identity, a proud American citizen and proud of one’s unshakeable support for Israel.”

I asked Adam Milstein, IAC’s chairman, if the success of IAC as a place where Israeli-Americans could be proud Israelis while living outside the country is a sign of failure for Israel. Milstein was unhesitating: “On the contrary, we are a strategic asset. Through us, Israel benefits from an army of dedicated soldiers, willing and able to support Israel in the States.”

I returned with five insights.

First, that throughout most of history, the people of Israel has been nomadic—not rooted in one place and working the land. I was privileged to be born on a kibbutz and to grow up in a society that broke this “tradition,” but only for a brief period. Jews leaving Israel is not a new phenomenon.

Second, that everyone has the right to live in the place that suits them. IAC makes the lives of Israelis in a foreign land more bearable, and so deserves our respect.

Third, that Israel would find it challenging to thrive without the support of the United States. Of course, Israeli Americans fulfill a vital role in the continuation of that support, complementing the traditional backing that Israel has received from Jews in America.

Fourth, that Israel must not give any of its supporters the cold shoulder. Not former Israelis, not Jews of the Diaspora and not Christian lovers of Israel. That would be neither just nor wise.

And last, but not least, I am still thrilled when my four children call me “Abba”!

Sagi Melamed is vice president of external relations and development at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and president of the Harvard Club of Israel. He is the author of “Son of My Land” and “Fundraising,” and can be contacted at: [email protected].

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