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  • From Nationality to Peoplehood:Adaptation and Identity Formation in the Israeli Diaspora
  • Steven J. Gold (bio)


Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe have been the paradigmatic case of successful assimilators in many Western countries. They have actively identified with the nationality and culture in points of settlement, had little propensity to return to the country of origin, and overcame discrimination to attain levels of educational, economic, and cultural prominence exceeding those of the native-born elite. While identifying with the host society, Jewish migrants have at the same time retained political, familial, residential, religious, and cultural characteristics that distinguish them from other middle-class members of the host society (Glazer and Moynihan; Lipset; Sowell; Steinberg; Gold and Phillips, "Mobility"; Hyman; Waterman and Kosmin). This pattern is to a large extent a product of Jewish migrants' de facto or de jure status as refugees who had little connection to their country of origin and, hence, strong reasons to join the settlement country (Gold and Phillips, "Mobility"). This record of assimilation is most often associated with Russian Jewish migrants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, several more recently arrived Jewish migrant groups to the United States and other countries, including those who entered from Europe before and after World War II and contemporary migrants from the former Soviet Union, South Africa, and Iran, appear to be maintaining this pattern as well (Gold, "Soviet"; Orleck; Feher; Breitman and Kraut; Kessner; Simon; Helmreich; Friedman). In fact, at least in the United States, an idealized version of Jews' assimilation experience is so often referred to by academics, by journalists, and in popular culture that it is treated as normative, not just for Jews but for nearly all immigrants (Gordon; Greeley; Rodriguez).

While Israeli emigrants-who are now among the largest Jewish migrant populations in many Western societies-share social, [End Page 331] cultural, occupational, and residential characteristics with native-born Jews in those societies, they reveal dissimilar patterns of adaptation (Gold, "Gender, Class"; Shokeid, Children). Most notable is their reluctance to identify with host societies. While they may remain in host societies for extended periods, achieve impressive records of social and economic mobility, raise their children in such settings, and acquire citizenship, they seldom describe themselves as nationals of the host country, socialize almost exclusively with other Israelis, frequently describe their intention to return home, and often do so.

Migrants' hesitation to identify with host societies is not an unprecedented finding. However, a sizable literature suggests that migrants' lack of identification with their new home is a result of their encounters with discriminatory treatment (Goldring; Waters; Portes and Rumbaut; Piore). Israelis-who are generally white, well educated, and Western in outlook-describe few encounters with prejudice (Herman, "The Jews"); their resistance to identification with the host society cannot be attributed to racism. The reason for Israeli emigrants' reluctance to identify with the country of settlement is that they have been socialized into Israeli culture and citizenship, a central tenet of which is that Jews, and especially Israelis, should live in and identify with Israel.

Despite their generally strong identification with the Jewish state and their reluctance to become Diaspora Jews, many Israelis nevertheless bear aspirations, outlooks, familial relations, and social ties that link them to major Western cities, including New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Sydney, and Toronto (Gold, "Transnationalism"). A fraction of Israelis act on these aspirations and, in so doing, confront strong and conflicting bases of identity associated with Western Jewish communities, on the one hand, and with Israel, on the other. As they consider their identities in places of settlement, they cannot help but be aware that their emigration has branded them as yordim ("stigmatized emigrants") and Jewish communal deviants in the eyes of at least some members of those social groups-Israelis and Diaspora Jews-with whom they bear significant social ties (S. Cohen, "Israeli"). This article describes how Israeli emigrants address conflicting identities associated with the country of origin and the host society.

Transnational and Bounded Identity Formation

Instructive in itself, the case of Israelis' confrontation with dilemmas of membership also offers an opportunity for evaluating contemporary theories about migrants' national and ethnic identities. In recent years...


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pp. 331-358
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