Bringing some of America to Israel

On July Fourth this year my family gathered with other American expatriates living in Israel for a celebration at the Jerusalem Zoo. There were hot dogs and hamburgers, balloons and face-painting, relay-races and an American folksong sing-along.

I was oddly self-aware singing “This Land is My Land” with Americans who had decided to reside permanently outside of their native home.

As in previous years the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) sponsored the event.AACI is a non-profit organization representing and supporting the estimated 120,000 Americans who live in Israel. Offering activities and services throughout the country ranging from emergency loans and counseling to yard sales and picnics, AACI is just one of the organizations which makes up our American Israeli subculture.

This month, for instance, my wife and I also went to see “The Devil’s Disciple” by George Bernard Shaw performed by JEST (The Jerusalem English Speaking Theater). Formal American Israeli institutions such as JEST and AACI are complimented by a vast informal network of personal relationships and establishments popular with the “Anglo” crowd.

Like most Americans in Israel, I am proud of my American heritage and like most other ethnic groups in Israel, I remain an identifiable member of my ethnic group. I dress like an American, I eat like an American, I speak like an American and most of my friends are American. Most telling to Israelis is that I behave like an American.

Of course those of us who have chosen to make our homes in Israel are not like most Americans. We place our Jewish identity above our American patriotism, although that is not to say we are not appreciative of and loyal to our native land. Nonetheless, we have made a conscious choice that our future and the future of our children is in Israel and not in America.

Many of us try to live in both worlds. Without burning our bridges or cutting the proverbial umbilical cord, we maintain ties to our friends and family in the United States. Indeed, as summer vacation is upon us, there is an expectation in our American Jerusalemite community that at least one member of each family will go abroad to visit relatives in the States. With the current economic hardships facing most Israelis, however, it is rare that families travel together. As one of my friends, a father of three put it, “The days of us traveling to America as a family are gone – unless someone decides to be very generous.”

The tie between America and American Israelis goes deeper than the visits to “the old country” and the food we eat. Many American Israelis work hard on a daily basis to bring values that are perceived here as American to mainstream Israel. These include volunteerism, pluralism, tolerance, customer service and environmentalism – to name a few. Campaigns launched by American Israeli volunteers have reformed Israeli political, economic, health and social norms. Even American football and little league baseball are catching on promoting the values of sportsmanship and fair play.

While those of us living in Israel can certainly be labeled as idealists, we are not naive. Bringing “American” values to Israel is hard work and an uphill battle.

During a recent discussion about violence in Jerusalem’s schools, one of my native-born Israeli friends said to me about her son, “You will say that what I tell him is wrong, because you are American, but I tell him that if somebody hits you, you hit him back!”

Americans are known to play by the rules. Even the children of Americans are easy to pick out in a nursery school class or on a playground. It is not a bad reputation unless because of it others take advantage of you, which does happen – even in nursery school.

My four and a half year old recently began to complain that kids at school were hurting him. As a concerned parent I investigated it and discovered that “hurt” sometimes means that my son feels hurt because other kids do not share, but I also learned that like in every nursery school, there had been some scratching, pinching and biting.

I told my son that he should tell the teacher when someone hurts him. He answered me that he had told the teacher and that she did not do anything. I had already spoken to the teachers and while I saw that they did address the situation when they saw it, they did not always give credence to each complaint; probably justly so.

I decided to take my friend’s approach moderated with my own. While I want my son to follow the rules and do the right thing, I also do not want to put him at a disadvantage because of my own cultural biases. I told him, “When someone hurts you and you tell the teacher and the teacher doesn’t do anything, then and only then, you hit him back, hit him hard so he doesn’t bother you any more.”

“But,” my son objected, “grown-ups don’t allow that.”

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