After introducing the fact that Jewish schools in the diaspora have a hard time attracting the large Israeli community, the author summarizes the reasons he has found them giving:
- The majority-minority issue: Israelis are used to living as a Jewish majority. They have no concept of what it is to live as a minority, or the effort or “investment” needed to preserve identity and culture. (“We don’t need Jewish schools; we speak Ivrit at home, and that’s enough.”)
- Israeli vs. Jewish: They see their identity as national, and not in any way religious. Diaspora Jewish education is almost entirely designed to relate to Jewishness as fundamentally—although not exclusively—religious. In multicultural Toronto, some Israeli parents are far more comfortable seeing their children as the “Israel contingent” in the public schools—relating to other ethnic / national minorities—than as relating to the Jewish community.
- “Jewish” means “ultra-Orthodox”: Aggravating this, many Israelis bring with them acrimonious baggage from the dati-chiloni (religious–secular) conflict in Israel. They see the word “Jewish” (as in “Jewish School”) as meaning “religious,” and “religious” as meaning charedi (“ultra-Orthodox”). They have no concept of the broader, more tolerant Jewish options of the Diaspora. Israeli parents ask me questions like “Do you teach secular studies in your school?” A major issue is the convention of boys wearing kippot in Jewish schools. “My son will never be forced to wear a kippah.” Even though I explain that in our school it is as much a sign of ethnic identification as it is a religious act, it is a major barrier for many.
- Private education; and “Israelis don’t have to pay”: Private education is almost nonexistent in Israel. Israelis do not understand that Jewish schools are private, and have to charge tuition fees. “We’re Israelis—we don’t have to pay” is a frequently heard declaration. The request for fees (however great the offered reduction) also runs counter to their perception that Diaspora Jews are very rich: “If the local Jews want us to send our children to Jewish schools, they should pay for us!” They also are puzzled that in Israel many institutions are free gifts to local Israelis by Diaspora communities, but here they have to pay for them. Unless the family has an unusually longer-term perspective, for “new arrivals” focusing on jobs-housing-education, the choice between free public schooling and the more complicated, fee-paying Jewish school option seems a “no brainer.”
- Jewish identity as a stigma: They often believe that attending a Jewish school will stigmatize their children. “Will my child be accepted at university if s/he has gone to a Jewish school?” Unfamiliar with North American religious and ethnic pluralism, they see Jewishness as a barrier to becoming Canadians (or Americans).
- Guilt: The conflicted feelings among some Israeli émigrés about leaving Israel generates complex, irrational and often highly defensive emotions in their relationships to all things Jewish in the Diaspora.
Trying to psycho-analyze the root cause of all these arguments the author suggests that:
Readers of the Ivrit newspapers or viewers of Israeli television will know that there is virtually no reporting of Diaspora Jewish life, with three exceptions: anti-Semitism, Jewish millionaires, and bathetic features about “The last Jew left in…”.The portrayed image of Diaspora Jews is primitive in the extreme. The same is true of Diaspora Judaism. Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism—even Modern Orthodox streams of Judaism—have complained for years that although they constitute a majority of North American Jewry they are ignored or misrepresented in the Israeli press. (The situation in the Israeli English-language media is rather better, but no Israelis read them.) Likewise, anecdotes abound of the lack of knowledge of Judaism or Diaspora Jewish life by political or cultural leaders of Israeli society.
The Israeli ad that started this discussion also fits in neatly with this assessment of how secular Israel sees the diaspora. In the ad the children of the diaspora are seen as having no chance of remaining "Jewish" culturally - a "last Jew" situation. This perception seems to be a relic of the very early days of the state, when Sabras were meeting mostly post holocaust survivors. Problem was that it wasn't true then - and is certainly not true now. To this day many Israelis are still certain that all Jews live in constant fear in the diaspora - and are not making aliyah only out of vain economic reasons.
It is time that the Israeli public learn about the dynamic and vibrant Jewish life that exists in some diaspora communities.
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