Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"Real" Israelis

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 10 June 2005.

People who are born in Israel are called sabras, after the Hebrew word for the prickly pear fruit. The saying goes that, like the fruit, Israelis are harsh and abrasive on the outside, soft and sweet on the inside. Lately I've been wondering whether immigrants to Israel ever come to feel that they are "real" Israelis. I've spoken to alot of people about this over the last several weeks. I've also asked a number of sabras whether they ever perceived immigrants ("olim") as "real" Israelis. Every conversation took a different path, and each one was fascinating.

At first, I wondered if time would be the factor that made the difference between feeling like a foreigner and considering oneself a full-fledged Israeli. I talked to Ellen, who has been here for over 40 years. She has lived here, held a job here, and raised children here. She told me that not only does she not feel like an Israeli, she doesn't ever expect to feel like one.

Another person I spoke to speculated that army service might be the thing that transforms an immigrant into an Israeli. He contends that the whole culture and experience of serving in the army causes immigrants to be integrated into the larger society. Elihu, who moved here with his family at age 10, agrees. Ron, however, has a different reaction. He was born here, grew up elsewhere, then returned to serve in the army and to settle here. Even after years of living, working, and doing reserve army duty here, he still refers to Israelis as "them."

Perhaps growing up here, then, is the key. One of the results of moving to Israel as a child is a greater mastery of Hebrew. Most of the people I spoke to made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) as young adults. All said that a lack of fluency in the language made them feel awkward in their dealings with Israelis. Connected to that is the sense they have of not being aware of many customs. Tina, who moved here from England after graduating from high school, often feels out of touch with her Israeli co-workers. They have ways of communicating and socializing that she has yet to fully master.

Earlier this year, Tina (who is a lecturer at a teachers' training college) asked her students to write an essay on whether they feel Israeli society is more like a melting pot or a salad bowl. Every single student used the second analogy. Indeed, while there are dozens of different cultures and nationalities represented here, the various groups tend to remain discrete. People are almost always identified by their family's country of origin: Avner (a sabra) is labelled a Parsi (Persian), and Kalanit (also a sabra) is Moroccan.

So, who is actually a "real" Israeli? We have our infamous stereotype (aggressive, rude, selfish and impatient - yet Israelis are also generous, brave, caring, and good in a crisis), but of course not all sabras fit that mold. Those who don't fit feel they are not part of the mainstream; even those who may fit the stereotype don't believe they do. Meanwhile, the sabras I spoke to said that immigrants almost never seem to make the transition into becoming "real" Israelis. Perhaps, after all, a "real" Israeli is just a mythical creature.

It could be that immigrants, by their very nature, are not meant to feel the same as those who are born in the host country. It is enough that, rather than becoming "real" Israelis, we are ourselves, here. I think we immigrants tend to try to create a life here that resembles as closely as possible the life we left behind, albeit one that is free of the elements that caused us to leave our native countries in the first place. It's a way of convincing ourselves that our new country is as familiar, and natural to us, as the life we used to have.

One other interesting note is that every single person I spoke to said that while they don't feel they have become "real" Israelis, they do feel at home in Israel. I agree. We love living here, and believe with all our hearts that this is the place we were meant to be. We feel pride and patriotism when we see the flag waving, and when we sing Hatikvah, our national anthem. Maybe the fact that we took our old lives and chose to live them here is what makes us "real" Israelis.

(c)Amy Samin

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