Approximately 15,000 Israelis live in Australia, mostly in Melbourne and Sydney. Almost all of them are Jews and they constitute around 12% of the 120,000-strong Australian Jewish community. Yet several factors and recent developments give “Ausraelis” (Australian-resident Israelis) an importance that outweighs their numbers.
The first factor is demography, as reflected in Australian census data. Since the turn of the century, immigration from Israel to Australia has skyrocketed, leading to a 20% jump in the number of Ausraelis every five years. This trend escalated recently, with a possible 30% growth since 2011.
Israelis are by far the fastest-growing non-Australian-born group in the Australian Jewish community in recent years.
These Ausraelis make a range of positive contributions to the demographic profile of Australian Jews. Many are young families with children, who invigorate an ageing population. Recent Israeli emigrants are skilled and educated, and can integrate relatively swiftly as middle-class Australians.
From a Jewish community perspective, Ausraelis could be regarded as a healthy cadre for a new generation of active members. However, as a rule, Israelis remain estranged from organised Jewish Australia.
One reason for this is life in Israel, where the state provides all educational, social and religious services for the Jewish majority. Israelis abroad rarely go to or join synagogues, which are centres of social activity for diaspora Jews.
Most Israeli emigrants are secular. They associate synagogues with religion and its institutions and political parties. Both are unpopular in light of Israel’s long history of secular-religious tensions.
The lack of a community mentality is just the tip of the iceberg. Living in a diaspora setting determines the boundaries and content of the conversation between Ausraelis and Australian Jewry. The latter can be conceptualised as the Aussie subsidiary of a historic worldwide religious diaspora. The former is evolving a budding Ausraeli diasporic identity, part of the wider national Israeli diaspora.
This new identity is constructed around a triangle of affiliations: Israeli (homeland nationalism), Australian (new home society) and Jewish (religious). Each is internally debated: by individuals themselves and/or vis-à-vis the relevant sector of Israeli residents in Australia, other Australian Jews and the wider Australian society.
The state of Israel participates in, and even moderates, discussion between its national and historic diasporas across the globe. These days, Jerusalem is officially reaching out to and embracing its former residents. This is possible because current Israeli emigrants display features of confident transnational migrants, with a growing cross-border political awareness of issues facing the homeland.
Institutionalisation is the latest trend of the Israeli diaspora. Newly formed local organisations of Israelis abroad, including AIA (the Association of Israelis in Australia, co-founded by the author), are on the verge of creating a global Israeli diaspora roof body.
Reversing the Zionist narrative
Tapping into the inner voices of the Australian Israeli community reveals another interesting finding. Inside closed online social platforms, within their own Hebrew-only forums, websites and print media, Ausraelis are engaged in a dynamic redefinition of their identity in the diaspora setting. Specifically, among recent Israeli newcomers to Australia is a dominant group with a distinct self-perception, the “Ausraeli approach”.
This is based on a certain demarcation of Israel’s past and on a negative prognosis for its future. The Ausraeli approach challenges the original Zionist nation-building narrative, which stigmatised past emigrants as Yordim (descending) - a derogatory label. In 1976, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin described Yordim as “the fallen among the weaklings”.
Yerida (the act of emigration) revolved around guilt, shame and temporariness as embodied in cultivation of the “myth of return”, constantly contemplating resettling in Israel. The Ausraeli approach sees immigration to Australia as Aliyah (ascendance) – a term exclusively used for incoming Jews to Israel (Olim, ascenders). Aliyah further implies an improved personal status and a higher moral and normative character as a result of the homecoming.
The Ausraeli approach is a reversal of this. The classic Zionist discourse sees settling in Israel as the only path towards redemption for diaspora Jews and the only way to escape a deterministic fate in the “Mortified Exile” (Golah Dvuyaih). This idea of “negation of exile” was embodied by early Zionism’s adoption of “the wandering Jew” anti-Semitic myth.
The Christian fable of “the wandering Jew” holds that Jews are to always wander the earth. The Zionist version suggested that the Israeli – a new and reinvented national Jew – was supposed to lay his wandering forefather to rest.
On the other hand, the Ausraeli approach repositions leaving Israel as an escape to the diaspora from a deterministic fate of never-ending troublesome life in Israel with its ongoing security and social tensions (“the myth of no return”). It suggests that “the wandering Jew” did not find spiritual relief following Jewish national resurrection in Israel. Therefore, his journey continues.
What can be learnt from the Ausraeli approach? That Zionist success in manufacturing new Jews – the Israelis – was so great that Israeli emigrants feel detached from their forefathers, diaspora Jews. The emigrants themselves are evolving into a new segment of Israeli society, as Israeli diasporants.
Now it is high time to examine the identity of children of Ausraelis. As one vocal Ausraeli said in an internal online forum: “What is the relevance of an Israeli tradition for a child who is about to turn into an Australian?” I wonder.
This article is based on a chapter written by the author in the new book Australia and Israel: A Diasporic, Cultural and Political Relationship (Sussex Academic, 2015) launched in Sydney on August 9 and in Melbourne on August 13.