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Transformation of identity – the Israeli-Jewish dilemma

I am Sara Dobner, a volunteer and the Chair of the Israeli Identity Program with the UJA
Israeli Forum in Toronto, and am a committee member of The World Council of Israelis
Abroad Conference. It is a great honour to stand here in the first Council conference
and talk about issues that are most dear to my heart.
I was joking at home during the months prior to the kens that I am lucky to find myself
an audience that will listen to me talk about these topics because my family had
enough. And after all that, my family is here today, to listen to me one more time.

I will talk about my personal journey in search of a modified identity and the lessons
my family and I have learned over the last 24 years, since we left our motherland,
Israel. This is a story of a struggle through identity crisis and the efforts to resolve it. It
is a story about the re-discovery of our Jewish identity while trying to preserve our
Israeli identity.

What is identity, or more specifically, ethnic or national identity? It is feeling part of a

group of people or a community, its joint history, present and future; a group with
whom we share common ancestry, characteristics, experiences, culture and values.
You may not think much about your ethnic identity or nationality when you are
surrounded with people who are mostly like you; like life is for many Israel in Israel.
This is until you move out and realize that most people are different from you, that you
are a small minority.

The Identity crisis

Emigration creates an identity crisis, for most people. For secular Israelis, I believe,
this crisis is exacerbated because of the lack of strong Jewish identity. When Israelis
leave Israel to live in another country, they usually take with them a strong sense of
Israeli culture. Whatever the circumstances, the political views, the emotions and
conflicts around our departure from Israel, our ties to Israel and our Israeliness are
undeniable. The land, the military experience, the family, friends, language, music,
literature, the folklore, mentality, and the Israeli open and informal way we interact
with one another. It is all ingrained in us and we mostly love it and identify with it.
“adam eino ela tavnit nof moladeto” is the name of a famous poem by the poet of early
Zionism Saul Tchernichovsky that we learn in school in Israel. A man is nothing but the
mould or patterns of his motherland. These words still pop up in my head more often
than you would expect after 24 years away from the mould of my motherland.
And then we come here, to the Diaspora. We look for something familiar, and in most
cases, naturally, we find ourselves close to the Jewish community. But, for most of us,
the life of the Jewish Diaspora, Jewish mentality and culture are very foreign. We are
not familiar with the Jewish Diaspora way of life, mentality, Jewish schools, overnight
Jewish camps, Jewish philanthropy and various Jewish organizations, the synagogue
affiliation and the different alternatives to orthodoxy, reform and conservative; we

don’t relate to it and don’t identify with it; and many times we resent the
Diaspora/Galuti mentality.
Even when we were deciding on the title for this conference, the committee was
struggling to find the right term to describe ourselves. In Hebrew, we struggled with
the words: Gola, Galut, Tefutsot, Nechar, and Pezura. Nothing had a good
connotation, no word sounded appealing. We ended up with the neutral term that does
not smell Diaspora: ‘Israelis Abroad’.

The Need for Identity re-building

A few years after the move to Canada, after our kids were born here in Toronto, my
husband and I realized that the Israeli identity and culture would not be sufficient when
we enter this stage of our lives. In this regard, parenting in the Diaspora was probably
one of the biggest challenges that emigration had posed. There were questions and
dilemmas around whether to raise our kids on Israeli culture and activities and speak to
them in Hebrew, whether to get them involved in the Jewish community or let them
grow as Canadians, without necessarily the Jewish connections? How to deal with the
numerous educational options?
There was a lot of ambivalence. On one hand, we wanted our kids to understand and
identify with our Israeli culture and values, and on the other, we wanted them to
integrate into the local Jewish community, as we thought that if our kids grow up
outside Israel, they will not be able to grow up on Israeli identity alone. They will need
to be connected to the local life, to the environment where they grow up. Our choices
were to: let them integrate into the general community, or support their integration
into the Jewish community.
Our resolution was that we would need to support two identities: the Israeli identity
and the Jewish identity, with everything that come s with it. We realized that we
would have to build bridges in our own private lives: a bridge between us and our kids
through the preservation of our Israeli identity, and a bridge between our kids and the
local Jewish community by first strengthening our own Jewish identity and connection
to our Jewish heritage, and then by helping our kids integrate into Jewish life.

Why is the preservation of Israeli identity important?

Some feel that it is hypocritical and pathetic to live here and feel proud Israelis,
maintain our Israeli culture and support Israel. Some ask ‘why do we need to preserve
our Israeliness? It can only last one or two generations at the most, and then you
become American, Canadian, Australian...then what is the point?’ One answer is that
the Israeli identity is our main identity, and it act as a bridge that connects us to our
kids and paves the road to a Jewish identity. So, if we don’t pass on this identity to
them, we will pass to them no identity.
As parents, we have a need to create commonality with our kids. It is our interest that
our kids will have similar identity and values to ours, so that we don’t feel alienated
and strangers to them. So, by passing on to them our Israeli values, culture, history
and identity, we connect them with our way of life, we can talk the same language and
enjoy similar activities. As parents, we have immense power to influence our kids and

have a crucial role to play in passing our pride and identity to them, and act as role
models. The experience of raising kids who identify with your heritage and culture,
know where you came from and speak your language, in spite of them being raised in a
country different than yours, is very rewarding.

And the Jewish identity?

While instilling an Israeli identity in our kids will ensure their connection with us,
supporting the development of their Jewish identity will help them in the connection
and integration into the Jewish community.
Connecting our kids to our Israeli heritage and developing their Israeli identity does not
need to come at the expense of their ability to immerse in the local community. On
the contrary, kids have the ability to absorb and identify with more than one culture,
and the exposure to multi cultures, ways of life and languages will only enrich their
lives and give them a more worldly, sophisticated and open-minded perspective.
Connecting our kids with our rich Jewish culture and history, with our Israeli culture,
the State of Israel, the Hebrew language and the amazing story of the Jewish people
will be an immense source of pride, inner strength and richness, and is essential in
developing our kids’ identity as Jews, Israelis and human beings. I am proud to say that
our two daughters who were born here in Toronto, 15 and 19 years ago, both identify
themselves first as Israelis, very proud Israelis, and secondly as Jews, in spite of the
fact that they are well immersed in the Canadian Jewish community.
I believe that kids from Israeli families can also bring Israel to the non-Israeli kids in
Jewish communities abroad. They bring their Hebrew language and knowledge and love
of Israel to the community and can be the best ambassadors for Israel. I remember
years ago that a kid in my daughter’s class asked her, after we returned from a trip to
Israel, whether people in Israel use camels as a means of transportation. Needless to
say, that kid learned very quickly that we also have buses and cars and even highways
in Israel.
Maintaining and cherishing our Israeli identity is key and a base to our connection to our
Jewishness and to the local Jewish community and to Israel. And there is nothing more
important for our kids’ sense of identity and belonging than to show them that we have
a heritage we are proud of.
While we live in a modern and global world, I believe that we cannot deny our history
and heritage, and cannot escape the need to belong, to identify with a group of people
with whom we share important values, characteristics and history, and the need for
continuity. Our identity and the sense of belonging are what give meaning, purpose,
richness and strength to our lives. It gives us strength to defend our values, our way of
life. These are natural needs and instincts and without fulfilling them, we will feel
lost. Without our roots and our past, we cannot have a meaningful future.

A Rabbi once argued that a Jew is not someone whose grandfather was Jewish, but
rather a person whose grandchildren will be Jewish.

So, how can a secular Israeli develop a Jewish identity?

This may be more challenging than it may sound. I believe that most secular Israelis
have a relatively weak Jewish identity. Our Jewish identity is mostly connected to our
lives in Israel. While this may not be a serious issue when we live in Israel, once we are
disconnected from Israel we may find a huge emptiness that we need to fill. We need
to redefine of our Jewish identity and enhance our knowledge of the positive and more
liberal aspects of Judaism that would appeal to secular Israelis.
As an Israeli with a strong Israeli identity, calling myself Jewish, rather than Israeli,
sounded almost like a betrayal during the first years abroad and involved a long
ambivalent process of mourning over my pure Israeli identity. It took me many years to
get over the ‘not very palatable’ image I had of the Diaspora and feel comfortable
calling myself Israeli-Jewish-Canadian, rather than just Israeli, and really feel part of
the Jewish community.
The problem, I believe, is that we, Israelis, especially secular Israelis, come here ill-
prepared for the transition. In Israel, we study lots of Jewish history, Tanah and
Talmud, in school and celebrate Jewish holidays. We have generally strong Jewish
identification, i.e., we know and acknowledge that we belong to the Jewish people,
however, as secular Israelis, I believe, our Jewish identity is weak; being Jewish does
not have too much meaning in our lives, and does not involve much commitment.
When we grew up in Israel, there was no need to defend our Jewishness, to ‘promote’
our pride as Jews. We were proud Israelis and that was enough; being Jewish was
almost a by-product; was taken for granted without too much deliberation and
thinking. It is mostly about loving our country, identifying with it and defending it. For
secular Israelis, I, believe, Jewishness is mostly national, has some ethnic and cultural
connotations; usually it is not based on historic Jewish tradition and values, and
certainly not related to religious, as religion many times can have negative
connotations for us.
This notion has been supported in recent polls of young secular Israelis in Israel. When
they were asked about the meaning of Judaism to them, it centred on the army service
and the Hebrew language. There was no mention of the Jewish history, heritage or
The move here in that respect was a big culture shock. Once we have disconnected
ourselves from Israel, at some levels at least, we knew that we had to fill our lives with
more positive Jewish content and learn to better understand, recognize and appreciate
our unique place among the nations. Knowledge is a key ingredient in order to develop
a Jewish identity and pride. If you don’t know what you should be proud of, it will be
hard to be proud.
We realized that learning and understanding the amazing and unique story of the
Jewish people, the history, heritage, culture and our immense contribution to the
world’s values of democracy, moral, ethics, justice, love of learning, tikun olam,
peace, tsdaka, modesty and family values - are essential to the development of our
Jewish identity and pride. We learned that Judaism is not a mere collection of rules
and bans. There is so much to offer and so much to choose from. Judaism is a
pluralistic and agile and for this unique characteristic it was able to survive for
thousands of years as it was able to adjust itself to the times and the challenges along
the way. The word Israel means struggle with God; we are allowed to ask questions
and even to argue with God. I am far from being a Judaism expert but as a secular
Israeli, who lives outside Israel, I now know that there is not only one way to connect to
our immense heritage and tradition.
I remember my first Christmas in Toronto. I was working in an office with mostly non-
Jews. I was very confused and didn’t feel comfortable to be so different. I wasn’t sure
whether it was OK for me to join to celebration or stay away. It was torturous. This
was my major Jewish identity test. It was then when I, a very secular Israeli,
understood how so Jewish I was. These kinds of events are not torturous anymore. It is
no longer an issue once you have a strong Jewish identity.

The Emotional Transformation Process

The conflict between the need to preserve our familiar Israeli culture and identity, on
one hand, and the need to learn the local way of life and mentality so that we can
succeed in the new environment, on the other hand, is challenging. The process of
acknowledging that we live abroad; that we are part of the Diaspora, or the World
Jewry, is a long process, which can involve denial; we are not here to stay; we will go
back (the Myth of Return) and eventually some type of mourning and sadness over the
fact that we now belong to the Jewish Diaspora and not to Israel. It required learning a
new culture, the culture of the Diaspora, which is so different from our culture in
Israel, the culture we were connected to and mostly loved. It required the
understanding and recognition that we cannot continue doing the same things we did in
Israel, if we want to keep our Jewish heritage and also give our kids a sense of
belonging, a fair chance to integrate into the Jewish community at the same time as we
continue to instil a strong sense of pride in our Israeli heritage. It required the
recognition and understanding that one can develop a vital identity as an Israeli Jew in
the Diaspora and feel comfortable, fulfilled, part of a Jewish community, Israel, and
the world Jewry, even if we do not live in Israel. It required being much more active
than we were in Israel when it comes to preserving our Israeli/Jewish identity. It
meant being active ourselves in learning about our Jewish heritage so that we can pass
it on to our kids.

Now that it is more legitimate for Israelis to make choices and live abroad and that
Israel’s approach is more pluralistic and liberal than it used to be, I believe that Israelis
abroad who do not share the same stigma, guilt and shame of past generations, can
focus their energy rather than on dealing with the guilt, and justifying their stay here,
on increasing their involvement in the Jewish community, strengthening their
Jewish/Israeli identity, connection with Israel, and support the development of
Jewish/Israeli values of future generations.
Those who belong to the generation that grew up on the mentality that we are nefolet
shel nemushot, the reality is that many of them still struggle with guilt, the feeling that
we deserted and betrayed the vision of Zionism on which we grew up; many will not
admit it but it is there. Some ways to cope with this guilt is to stay connected, to try
to give back to the community and to Israel.
Now, that we are more accepted by the State of Israel and by Jewish Federations
around the world, it is the time to give more thought to the issue. The integration of
Israelis into the Jewish community is a win-win situation. Both are going to benefit
immensely. Israelis in the Diaspora are a strategic asset to Israel but can also be a
strategic asset to Jewish communities around the world.

I cannot end without mentioning and thanking a person who had triggered my interest
and soul searching process around the issue of our Israeli/Jewish identity. Close to two
years ago I had received two essays on Israelis in the Diaspora written by Professor
Steven Gold of Michigan State University which articulated for me so many ideas and
thoughts that had been simmering in my mind for many years. These articles triggered
the idea for a conference for Israelis, which later connected with Israel Pupko’s
initiative. Steven is the author of the 2002 book called “The Israeli Diaspora” and
wrote many essays about Israelis in the Diaspora. Unfortunately, Steven was not able
to attend this conference.

And last, something very personal and relevant. I want to dedicate my talk to my
father, Refael Azikri z”l, who passed away 20 years and 2 days ago. My Aba died the
night of January 18, 1991 from a heart attack, minutes after the Iraqi scud missile
attack on Israel started during the Gulf war, and the first scud missile fell on Ramat
Gan. My father was 55 when he died. He was born in Tel Aviv, Palestina at the time,
in 1935. He was a very proud secular Israeli with a strong Jewish identity. This
upbringing and heritage, no doubts, helped me later to strengthen my Jewish identity
in Canada. Aba would have been so proud to see me working for Israel and for the
continuity of the Jewish people.

Thank you.

January 20, 2011