The Manhattan telephone directory, like that of any major American city, reflects the United States’ melting pot in action. Flipping through its pages and browsing through the names of a million individuals, one realizes quickly that some of them do not melt very readily. Comparing the directory of 20 years ago and that of today reveals certain changes in the origins of immigrant groups and their meltability. The 1987 Manhattan telephone directory is filled with traditional Jewish names, and there is nothing new about that. But Israeli names are not Jewish, and that is why they stick out in Manhattan and elsewhere in the United States.

Orna Amir, Eyal Arad, Oren Aviv or Amir Peled are names that have nothing in common with diaspora Jewish culture. They represent Israeli culture and identity, created in a deliberate attempt to erase any diaspora connections. These names, which express an admiration for power and for nature, belong to Israeli-born individuals who are now Americans. Oren (“pine tree”) Aviv (“springtime”) and Amir (“treetop”) Peled (“steel”) are authentic Israelis and authentic hyphenated Israeli-Americans.

Not all immigrants arriving in the United States from Israel are Israeli-born. Some have spent a relatively short time there before moving on to the US. They may be carrying Israeli passports, but are classified in the US by their place of birth as Rumanian, Polish or French. We are concerned here only with those who were born in Israel or came at an early age, and whose primary language is Hebrew.

Over the past 15 years, an Israeli diaspora has been formed as Israeli emigrants have settled around the world, from Frankfurt to Canberra, but the two main destinations have been South Africa and the United States. The creation of an American-Israeli community and ethnic identity has implications for Israeli society, for historical Jewish identity, for Zionism as a political movement, and for US society and politics.

Estimating the size of the Israeli-American community is difficult. Many of its members are in the United States illegally, and so official immigration figures do not tell the whole story. Immigration and Naturalization Service statistics show that 100,000 Israelis have been granted immigrant status legally; most published estimates of the actual number living in the US are much higher. The Israeli Finance Ministry estimates (conservatively) that the number of emigrants from Israel between 1948 and 1984 was from 270,000 to 378,000, and a conservative estimate of the number of Israeli-Americans would be around 200,000, since the US has been the primary destination.

Masada Limousines

Immigrant groups to the United States have historically tended to concentrate in certain geographical areas and occupations, and stereotypes about them have developed accordingly. Scandinavian immigrants settled in the Upper Midwest, Chinese immigrants used to be over-represented among laundry operators, and Portuguese fishermen have populated New England port towns. Israeli-Americans have their largest concentrations in the greater New York and Los Angeles areas, and seem conspicuous as drivers and operators of taxi cabs and limousines. The Manhattanite in need of a ride can now choose from among companies with names like Masada, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, Carmel, Yamit, Sinai and Golan Heights.

The Israeli-American community constitutes a cross-section of Israeli society, rather than any particular segment. A recent, unpublished survey showed that 90 percent of the 6,595 Israelis who became legal permanent residents in the US in 1982-1983 were under age 40, and most were unskilled workers. This belies the notion that those who emigrate are privileged in any way. At the other end of the status scale, it has been reported that between 1966 and 1985, 400 Israeli government representatives have settled in the United States at the end of their official assignments. Moshe Shokeid, a Tel Aviv University anthropologist who spent two years in New York City studying Israelis living there, told the Jerusalem Post that he himself “narrowly escaped being seduced by the ‘good life.’” [1]

One can find a variety of famous, notorious and well-accomplished individuals in the Israeli-American community. Several Israeli entrepreneurs have realized the American dream, and their success stories have graced the mass media. These include the Nakash brothers of Jordache jeans; Menahem Golan of Hollywood fame and fortune; Eli Dayan, president of Bonjour Clothing; Rafael Ben-Aroya, president of Sizes Unlimited; and Meshulam Riklis, who barely missed being listed among the Forbes 400 list of the richest people in the US.

Another group of accomplished Israelis who have found a home under the wings of the eagle include those involved in a variety of financial scandals and criminal activities back home. The US has become a sanctuary for many notorious Israeli crooks, and there have been hundreds of reports in the Israeli media of Israelis who left huge unpaid debts and obligations behind them and can now be reached in New York, Miami or Los Angeles. Asher Yadlin, whose embezzlement trial played a role in the 1977 Labor Party defeat (and the rise of the Likud), settled in Manhattan after serving out his prison term. Ernest Yaffet, former president of Israel’s largest bank, Bank Leumi Le-Israel, left under a cloud of scandal in 1987 and settled on the Hudson River.

Former Israeli combat officers and intelligence operatives also boast US passports. Zvi Malhin, the Mossad agent who kidnapped Adolf Eichmann in 1960 in Argentina is now known as Peter Malkin, a Manhattan security consultant. [2] A better-known Israeli intelligence agent is Avri El-Ad. A major in the Israel Defense Forces’ intelligence branch, El-Ad was responsible for the ill-fated “mishap” of 1954, in which two Egyptian Jews were hanged, one Israeli officer committed suicide and several Jews were sentenced to prison terms after an amateurish attempt to blow up British and American institutions in Cairo. El-Ad has been a US citizen for many years. [3] Abraham Shalom, former chief of Shabak, the Israeli secret security police, who resigned following a major scandal, is another resident of the Manhattan sanctuary.

No formal organizations represent Israeli-Americans, because members of the community do not wear this label proudly. Modern Hebrew, the product of Zionism, refers to immigration to Israel as aliyah, or ascent, while leaving Israel for the diaspora is yerida, descent. It is a descent, from the Zionist vantage point, into a less secure existence, into the alienation of exile.

Guilt Feelings

Contrary to the Zionist plan, some immigrant Israelis seem to feel less oppressed in the diaspora than in Israel. Yerida, for them, connotes liberation from the mission of official Zionist ideology, a victory of private concerns and ambitions. Many emigrants describe their decision as a private matter, similar to emigration from any other country, but just as often claim to be in the US temporarily. Losing the commitment to the national mission is difficult, and involves guilt feelings.

In areas where Israeli-Americans are concentrated, the development of a new ethnic culture is much in evidence, with Israeli restaurants opening up, Israeli Independence Day balls held every year in New York and Los Angeles, and Israeli-American psychotherapists offering individual and group counseling sessions to help with adjustment problems in the new country. Names such as Orna and Yaron have begun appearing on the society pages of American newspapers, as Israelis marry Americans and become fully integrated into the new world.

Once a year, on the Fourth of July, US newspapers perform the ritual of featuring new immigrants who are about to become US citizens. In the late 1980s, a typical list of new citizens is likely to include both Soviet Jews and Israelis. When USA Today, for example, reported on 50 new Americans on July 4, 1987, one was an Israeli, and three were Soviet Jews.

Fascinating confirmations of this new reality are found in the dialect spoken by the immigrants, American Hebrew, which is used in the media outlets serving them. The term Israeli-American can now be found both in scholarly writings [4] and in the new Israeli-American media. As of 1988, there were radio and television programs in Los Angeles, Miami and New York, as well as several Hebrew periodicals addressing a growing audience.

The New York and Los Angeles Hebrew television programs run commercials featuring expert Israeli immigration lawyers who offer surefire ways of obtaining a coveted Green Card, the official US permanent residence permit. A nightly news program in Hebrew in New York City, “Here Is Israel” on WEVD, divides its time between rebroadcast news from Israeli state news media and commercials for Israeli-owned businesses. It claims to have 250,000 listeners in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. This program, launched in its present format in 1981, was preceded by an earlier, shorter version begun in 1979.

Two Israeli dailies now have New York editions, beamed via satellite and printed in New York, with several pages of local advertisements. They are on sale in all major North American cities, with an estimated circulation of at least 200,000. Israel Shelanu (Our Israel), a Hebrew weekly appearing since 1979 in New York City, appears to be the primary mouthpiece and mirror of the Israeli-American community. Hawkish and nationalistic, its editorials regularly call on Israeli leaders to stop being so nice to everybody, to get tough and knock Israel’s enemies (the Arab countries, the Soviet Union, the rest of the world) out of the ring. Its editorial fervor has no match in the Israeli press.

A major topic for both news items and editorials in Israel Shelanu is Israeli immigration to the US, which it deplores and berates. The paper soundly criticizes the Israeli government for economic policies which drive Israelis away, and soberly condemns those who have emigrated (i.e., its readers) for their lack of patriotism. It is rare to find a publication which so openly and consistently chastises its audience for being its audience, but it seems that super-patriotism is the hallmark of first generation Israeli-Americans. To judge by its growing readership, many enjoy such criticism. Israel Shelanu sells 100,000 copies a week, and is now sold in Israel as well, presumably to those contemplating emigration.

Mother Country

The emergence of the Israeli-American community confirms again the closeness between Israel and the US, a relationship that some would characterize as that of a colony and a mother country. It is expressed more and more in terms of psychological and cultural continuity, with the larger partner naturally affecting the smaller one and its inhabitants. The striking Americanization of Israeli culture and society in recent years is certainly a factor behind the significant cultural and ideological continuity between the two countries. Israeli immigrants, who usually settle in big US cities, seem to adjust very well.

The continuity is not between Israel and Anyplace, USA, but between Israel, with the majority of its population in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, and Big City, USA. This cultural continuity is what makes the US so attractive. Growing up in Tel Aviv, it seems, is ideal preparation for living in New York City. As more Israelis have emigrated to the US, the act has acquired a degree of legitimacy and normalcy. Moving to the United States, or at least spending time there, has become part of the Israeli experience. The American dream seems to be alive and well in Israel.

The evolution of a permanent Israeli-American community, and the institutionalization of moving to the US as an option within the life span of every Israeli means, among other things, that your back is not up against the wall (or the Mediterranean). You have someplace to go when things get too rough in the Middle East. This is a major change in one’s life situation. You now have a mother country to go to, and this mother is ready and hospitable. You also have relatives in that country — not Jews of another culture, who may be your cousins but do not really speak your language, but your own brothers and sisters, persons who share every nuance of your experiences and dreams. You can go home again, this time to Queens and Los Angeles.

The existence of an Israeli diaspora is bound to affect Israel first and foremost. For that country, immigration and emigration statistics are a question of survival. The Israeli cabinet devoted its meeting of May 11, 1986, to the “demographic question” — the prevailing euphemism for the perceived danger of a future Arab majority in Israel. Data presented to the cabinet showed that 56 percent of the babies born in the previous decade in Israel and the occupied territories were Palestinian. Economic Planning Minister Gad Yaakobi stated that in the year 2000 the Palestinian proportion of the population under Israeli government control will reach 43 percent (a low estimate). Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ response was to call on all Israeli (Jewish) parents to have at least four children.

The cabinet raised emigration as another crucial part of the demographic equation, because the rise in emigration has been accompanied by a decline in immigration in the mid-1980s. 1985 saw the smallest number of immigrants to Israel since 1953. Only 12,500 Jews entered the country, while 17,500 left. The recent upswing in Soviet Jewish emigration has not affected this equation much, as a steadily greater percentage of those leaving the USSR go to the US rather than Israel.

Israelis coming to the US may seem to enjoy a special means of integration into American society through the Jewish community, but this actually is neither easy nor simple. The Israeli-American ethnic group, a living repudiation of Zionism, is likely to aggravate the crisis of American Jewry inasmuch as Jewish identity in the United States since World War II, and certainly since 1967, has become almost synonymous with Zionism and support for Israel. Many American Jewish communal activities have this Israel-centered orientation. The presence of former Israelis in these activities suggests a major failure of Zionism, creates an obvious embarrassment, and is thus discouraged.

Another major problem for US Jews is the direct encounter with Israeli-Americans and their authentic Israeli culture. The clear cultural gap between the two groups leads to a growing alienation, as time goes on and more Israelis settle in the US. Immigrants from Israel who are European-born and have spent only a short time in Israel may be easily integrated into the American Jewish community, since their identity and their culture are those of diaspora Jews. But the overlap between Jewish identity and Israeli identity turns out to be minimal. What do Israeli immigrants have in common with American Jews? Language? Few American Jews know Hebrew. Lifestyle? Hardly. Education? No similarity there. Religion? Not at all. While both groups are overwhelmingly secular, religious activities in Israel are very different, and Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism (the two denominations to which most US Jews belong) are almost totally unknown. One thing that the majority of both groups do have in common is a vague Zionist credo, but even this credo is experienced and expressed differently. The Israelis are the true but strayed children of Zionism, while US Jews are its second cousins once removed.

This new ethnic group proves, paradoxically, that there is indeed a new Israeli identity distinct from diaspora Jewish identity. Israelis remind Jews and non-Jews alike that they are not just Jews. Just like other immigrants to American shores, Israelis are first interested in economic security, and thus are often regarded as materialistic. American Jews, the most wealthy, educated and liberal ethnic group, are very different from their Israeli cousins, who are notoriously conservative. The Israeli-American ethnic group, in its ideals, values and economic situation, may be closer to various “white ethnics” than to the Jewish community.

Despite their active rejection of life in Israel, public opinion polls show that Israeli-Americans have remained loyal to Israeli nationalism, and there is little political disillusionment among them. Thus, they will join forces with the Jewish community in support of the Israeli lobby, and will oppose Arab-Americans, another new ethnic group on the American scene.

How long into the future will this separate identity survive? In the foreseeable future, a flow of new Israeli immigrants is likely to continue and even increase, thus keeping the new identity distinct. The first generation has had no trouble retaining its original culture and language, but the second generation, the immigrants’ children, is fast being assimilated. The Jewish community is a natural end point for some of the children of the wandering Israelis. It is possible in the future that Israeli immigrants, together with Soviet Jews, and Jews from Iran and South Africa, will provide Jewish communities in the United States with the new blood they need to survive as viable groupings. This will be another great paradox of Jewish history, one that Zionism has tried hard to avoid.

The creation of a new Israeli diaspora shows most clearly a continuity which points to the real failure of Zionism, which had been created precisely to avoid it. It is a failure of Zionism in its primary and essential task, that of creating a new Jewish experience and a new Jewish identity, explicitly tied to a territory in Middle East. When an Israeli diaspora is growing, and Israel is exporting Jews to the diaspora, it seems that the Zionist solution to the Jewish Question simply is not working. The established diaspora in the United States offers an obviously attractive and viable alternative to living in Israel and demonstrates again that Israel may not be the only haven for Jews under stress. The survival of the new Israeli identity, even for a short time, in Los Angeles or New York paradoxically reminds the world of this grand failure.


[1] Jerusalem Post, October 3, 1987.
[2] New York Times, April 28, 1986.
[3] Avri El-Ad, Decline of Honor (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1976).
[4] C. Goldscheider and A. S. Zuckerman, The Transformation of the Jews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

How to cite this article:

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi "From Tel Aviv to LA," Middle East Report 150 (January/February 1988).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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