Jerusalem — On the eve of Israeli Memorial Day, my husband and I joined thousands of other Israelis at a Jerusalem memorial service — in English.
We stood at attention as the memorial siren wailed, and then listened to the testimony of bereaved families. Sherri and Seth Mandell spoke about their son Koby, who was murdered by terrorists in 2001, at the age of 13, along with a friend. Twelve-year-old Nava Kramer paid tribute to her cousin Nava Applebaum, 20, and her father, Dr. David Applebaum, who were murdered the night before the older Nava’s wedding in 2003.
The ceremony, which was organized by Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish National Fund/Keren Kayemet LeIsrael, was a somber tribute to the IDF soldiers and victims of terror. It was also a moving reminder that many “Anglos” (immigrants from English-speaking countries) have made the ultimate sacrifice for Israel.
Yet 70 years after Israel was created, many Israelis can’t understand why we Anglos, especially those of us from safe, secure North America, immigrated to Israel and continue to live here.
Nor do they grasp just how much Anglo immigrants have contributed to Israel, from its founding till today.
Few realize that from 1947 to 1949, more than 4,000 volunteers from 56 countries — many of them World War II vets from the U.S. — fought in Israel’s War of Independence via a program called Machal.
Vidal Sassoon, the famed British hair cutting mogul, fought in the war, and David “Micky” Marcus, a Jewish U.S. Army colonel immortalized by Kirk Douglas in the film “Cast a Giant Shadow,” trained Israel’s ragtag army before being killed by friendly fire just hours before the war ended.
Though few in number (of Israel’s 8.8 million citizens, fewer than 500,000 are native English speakers), Anglos are responsible for much of the social change in Israel. Yet native Israelis who aren’t employed in public service or the not-for-profit sector probably don’t know this.
It was Anglo olim who spearheaded legislation against smoking in public places and for improved road safety and consumer protection. Anglo olim are at the forefront of inclusion and accessibility for disabled people, programs for teens at risk, and the fight for women’s equality, for agunot, and, most recently, mamzerim.
Anglos, particularly American immigrants, “are disproportionately represented in the world of social activism in Jerusalem,” Rachel Stomel, herself an American olah involved in social justice and women’s rights advocacy, notes in a Times of Israel blog.
At every event Stomel attends, whether a proceeding at the Knesset, a conference, or protest, “I can always pick out quite a few directors of NGOs or other prominent activists who are originally from the U.S. This is true on both right and left ends of the spectrum. Why is that?” she wonders.
Stomel ponders whether these immigrants are raised on more liberal values than Israelis in general, and therefore more attuned to social injustice.
“Are the type of people who make aliyah a self-selecting group of ideologically driven people who are more likely to engage in activism and work at nonprofits? Have Americans just been conditioned to waltz into other countries and tell everyone how to run things better? Is there some sort of ideal combination of feeling simultaneously foreign while belonging that enables olim to have enough of a sense of detachment to notice a socially embedded injustice, but enough of a sense of identification to feel responsible for making it better?”
This drive to make a difference has drawn Anglo olim not only to social causes, but also to the settler movement.
In her 2017 book, “City on a Hilltop: Jewish-American Settlers in the Occupied Territories,” Sara Hirschhorn notes that an estimated 60,000 of Israel’s 399,000 settlers living on the West Bank (according to Peace Now) are American citizens.
Contrary to the prevailing Israeli stereotype of American settlers as religious and political extremists, those who came in the aftermath of the 1967 war “were mostly young, single, highly educated, upwardly mobile, traditional but not necessarily Orthodox in religious practice,” Hirschhorn told USA Today. “They were people involved and sympathetic to leftist social movements such as the U.S. civil rights struggle.”
While some of the settlement movement’s most extreme members, such as Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 murdered 29 Muslims in Hebron, were born and raised in the U.S., other, more moderate settlers like Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat, have been at the forefront of Palestinian-Israeli dialog, interfaith coexistence, and religious moderation.
Israelis seem to have forgotten that Americans and other Anglos were also among the founders of Peace Now. Yet they are quick to accuse Americans of “being behind” the Reform and “Conservative” movements in Israel, as if non-Orthodox Judaism were an unwelcome import.
“There’s a lot of push back and accusations of Americans interfering, even though we’re Israeli too,” Yael Levy, an olah from the U.S., told me.
While I think our activism is vital, I’m sure other Israelis are fed up with our griping about government bureaucracy and the national penchant for taking shortcuts. But many seem to share our angst at the uniquely Israeli practice of suddenly rushing to the front of a long line at the supermarket or bank (cappuccino in hand) as if those of us who have been waiting patiently for 20 minutes shouldn’t care.
Israel continues to infuriate native-born and immigrants alike, but 70 years after its founding, it is home.
At the Memorial Day Service, Seth Mandell, Koby’s father, recalled that right after his son’s murder, “I wanted to take my wife and kids to the airport and never see Israel again.”
What stopped him?
“We realized we weren’t going to allow the people who had killed Koby to destroy our other children’s lives,” he said.
Koby, who loved baseball, “was proud of being an American,” his mother, Sherri, said, “but was prouder of being an Israeli.”