, Volume 68, Issue 2, pp 267–278

From overt rejection to enthusiastic embracement: changing state discourses on Israeli emigration


    • Department of Geography & Regional DevelopmentThe University of Arizona in Tucson

DOI: 10.1007/s10708-007-9075-y

Cite this article as:
Cohen, N. GeoJournal (2007) 68: 267. doi:10.1007/s10708-007-9075-y


This paper deploys a critical discourse analysis methodology to examine the emergence of three (sometimes overlapping) discourses on emigration in Israel. It examines the linkages between the various discursive phases and processes of (trans-) national identity formation among emigrants. It argues that emigration discourses have often been strong predictors of subsequent changes in state policies—and other programmatic initiatives—aimed at Israeli citizens abroad. By juxtaposing the discursive construction of emigration (and its linkages to nation-forming political strategies in Israel) and the effects they have had on emigrant identities the paper contributes to the emerging literature on state-diaspora relations and transnational politics.


EmigrationIsraelDiscourseSending statesCultural diaspora

Migration scholarship has long recognized the critical role played by states through their political institutional apparatuses in facilitating and discouraging human mobility. However, despite much theorization of migration policies formulated and enacted by receiving states (Bartram 2004; Castles 2004; Freeman 1995; Martin 1994) relatively little has been written about the extent to which sending states’ policies succeeded in effecting patterns of out-migration (Sayari 1986). As Massey (1999, p. 303) convincingly argued, “…to the extent that state policies have been mentioned at all, attention has focused primarily on immigrant-receiving countries”. The inevitable result, he concluded, was that “[Sending] state’s role either in promoting or in limiting international migration is poorly understood and lacks adequate theoretical underpinnings” (Ibid).

In an attempt to fill this theoretical gap recent years have witnessed a flurry of studies theorizing migration from the sending state perspective (Biao 2003; Fitzgerald 2005; Levitt and de la Dehesa 2003; Ǿstergaard-Nielsen 2003; Panossian 1998). Scholars have generated much needed accounts of the wide range of transnational socio-cultural (Levitt 2001; Mahler 2001; Ong 1999; Vertovec 2004) and political (Itzigsohn 2000; Smith 2003) practices whose performance fundamentally altered social relations among various groups within countries of origin. Others have clearly shown that sending state policies often had meaningful effects on emigrants’ legal status (Grasmuck and Pessar 1987), will to return, assimilation, and levels of social and economic mobility (Heisler 1985; Ilahi 1999) in their new environments. Yet with few exceptions (Martinez-Saldaňa 2003; Panossian 2003), sending states’ relations with their emigrant populations were examined within the highly formalized politico-legal arenas and their effects measured by examining the formulation and enactment of migration laws and policies (Fitzgerald 2006). Much less attention has been paid thus far to the discourses surrounding—often preceding—the making of the so-called politics of migration (Cohen and Layton-Henry 1997; Freeman 1995; Geddes 2003). When mentioned, discourses about migration were often examined in the context of receiving countries to assess degrees of openness and likelihood of assimilation of incoming migrant groups (Chock 1995; Jacobs 1998). Discourses surrounding migration in countries of origin have been significantly under-theorized, leaving a substantial gap in migration literature.

This paper deploys a critical discourse analysis methodology (Blommaert and Bulcaen 2000; Fairclough 1995; Van Dijk 1993) to examine the emergence of three (sometimes overlapping) discourses on emigration in Israel. It argues that discourses have often been strong predictors of subsequent changes in state policies—and other programmatic initiatives—aimed at Israeli citizens abroad. It further examines the linkages between the various discursive phases and processes of (trans-) national identity formation among emigrants. By juxtaposing the discursive construction of emigration (and its linkages to nation-forming political strategies in Israel) and the effects they have had on emigrant identities in their new cities of residence the paper contributes to the emerging literature on transnational politics (Fitzgerald 2005; Itzigsohn 2000; Østergaard-Nielsen 2001).

In investigating the various phases of the discourse the article addresses the following questions: (1) how has the Israeli state discursively constructed the emigrant in light of the changing political dynamic within Israel? And, (2) has—and if so, how—this construction process effected Israeli migrants’ concept of national identity?

Theoretical framework

States’ relations with their citizens abroad were traditionally discussed from the sending states’ perspective and in the context of labor-migration flows from less to more developed countries (Portes 1978; Stark and Bloom 1985; Todaro 1969). Migration scholars tended to highlight types of assistance rendered by sending state apparatuses to their labor migrants (Massey 1999). The institutional support provided by remittance-hungry states to their laborers abroad was deemed critical in facilitating the desired financial transference and, by extension, the country’s economy. Massey (1999) identifies a sending-country migration policy gap in the literature and argues that little has been written about the mechanisms of regulating, administering, and facilitating migration and return migration in countries of origin despite their important effect on flows in both ways. Accounts of state-emigrant relations, therefore, appeared to have been primarily economic in nature and overwhelmingly one-sided, depicting emigrants as passive recipients of homeland governmental aid.

The transnational approach to migration (Glick-Schiller et al. 1992; Kivisto 2001; Vertovec 2001, 2003, 2004) emphasizes more balanced, two-sided relations between sending states and emigrants (or trans-migrants as they are often called) in which continuous interaction takes place in more or less formal channels between the former and the latter (Ong 1999; Portes et al. 2002; Taylor 1999; Yoo 2000). Itzigsohn (2000), for example, analyzes the emergence and institutional structure of Dominican, Caribbean, and Salvadorian transnational politics.1 Despite key differences all three diasporic communities were found to have been significantly involved in the politics of their sending countries. Simultaneously, Itzigsohn identifies a pattern of continuous meddling by sending countries’ institutional apparatus (including political parties) in diasporic communal affairs. Similarly, Basch et al. (1994) note that in the Filipino and Caribbean diasporic communities,

“Transmigrants have all at various times made demands on their home governments for greater incorporation into the political processes of their countries of origin. In this they have responded to, but also have helped generate, state policies and practices that have implicitly or explicitly defined transmigrants as part of the body politic of their home nation-states. While transnational connections are actualized through the flows of money, material goods, ideas, and ways of thinking across national borders, such connections are reinforced by a language of allegiance and loyalty to nation created by the home states” (p. 260; italics added).

The growing numbers of studies on sending states’ involvement with their diasporic communities (and vice versa) notwithstanding, gaps still exist in our understanding of how these relations play out under different political regimes and economic circumstances. As Nagel and Staeheli recently noted,

“It would be useful to evaluate more fully the role of sending governments in transnationalism. It seems that much of the literature that addresses this issue focuses on states that attempt to foster linkages with émigré’s and to bind them to the country of origin. Yet these actions and their effects are surely dependent on the nature of the state...Discussions of transnationalism and post-nationalism, therefore, need to consider a range of relationships between the state and its émigré’s (2004: 20).

Inasmuch as state-emigrants’ relations take place at different socio-political spaces and under varying economic circumstances it is imperative that we examine the continuously changing patterns of (mutual) intervention. The Israeli experience makes an ideal case study for several reasons; first, as Jewish in-migration is the state’s Raison d’etre, emigration has always been a highly controversial subject although not a well-theorized one; second, Israel’s tumultuous geo-political conditions have had considerable effects on the state’s relations with its emigrants and thus make it a fertile grounds for the study of state-diaspora relations over extended time period; and finally, despite recent programmatic initiatives that recognize (once-shunned) emigrant concentrations as full-fledged diasporic communities, Israel still has not formulated an official policy towards its diasporic citizens.

Israeli emigration: key trends and figures

Israeli emigration is as old as the State’s independence. Outflows from the Jewish homeland began shortly after the establishment of the state in May 1948, yet their volume and composition have varied considerably over the years (Cohen and Haberfeld 1997; Della Pergola 2005; Herman 1988; Herman and LaFontaine 1983). In the first decade after independence (1948–1958), an excess of 100,000 citizens had left the country, many of whom were recent Jewish immigrants returning to their countries of origin in Eastern Europe (particularly Romania and Poland), Western Asia (Turkey and Iran), and North Africa (mainly Morocco and Tunisia).2 However, the percentage of Sabras (Israeli-born Jews) among the departing has steadily risen over the years, quickly increasing the numbers of Israeli emigrants in Canada, the US, France, and South Africa. Despite a severe economic crisis, it was found that economic considerations were not the most important push factor among emigrants in this early period. Instead, ethnic discrimination among Mizrahim (Jews originating in Arab and other Muslim states) alongside more general feelings of social exclusion and isolation experienced by newcomers were quoted as the major emigration driving forces (Zemanim, 10/19/1953).

Economic and political turbulence of the 1960s have accelerated emigration and—as it drew to an end—the Minister of Immigrant Absorption reported that a total of 180,000 Israelis had emigrated since the establishment of the state.3 Yet, the decade following the 1973 war had seen the most massive numbers of Israelis leaving the country (see Fig. 1). The 1980 Lahis report4 estimated that between 300,000 and 500,000 Israelis were living in the United States alone,5 primarily in the New York and Los Angeles metropolitan areas.
Fig. 1

Estimated emigration from Israel (total population, 1978–2002) Source: Lustick, Ian (2004). Recent trends in emigration from Israel: The impact of Palestinian violence. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Israel Studies (AIS), Jerusalem, June 14–16

More recently, the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption estimated that 760,000 Israeli Jews have left the country over the years. The vast majority of whom (60%) are believed to have settled in North America (mostly the United States), with other major concentrations include Europe (25%), Oceania, South America (predominantly Brazil and Argentina), and South Africa. Roughly 20% of the total emigrants are children under the age of 18 (Alon 2003).

Emigrants from Israel conform to many of the socio-economic patterns exhibited by other groups originating in industrialized nations. Gold (2002) notes that Israeli emigrants bear important similarities to other groups in terms of their educational and professional skills (mostly white collar, highly skilled occupations), eventual cities of settlement, rates of residential concentration and other socio-economic attributes—such as age, social class, and family structure (see also Gold and Philips 1996; Ritterband 1986).

The state and the discursive construction of Israeli emigrants

Similarly to other groups of international migrants (Totoricaguena 2003, Panossian 1998; Guttierez 1999), Israelis had over the years uneasy relations with both their left-behind co-nationals and their sending state apparatus, both of which had been at times highly critical of their move. The paper divides Israeli state-emigrants relationships into three phases and argues that each had been characterized by a distinct set of characteristics and dominated by a different public discourse within Israel. In the first phase (1948–1977), termed ‘Overt Rejection’, highly critical stances were embedded in the discursive construction of emigration as a social problem (Har-Even 1989) and emigrants as national delinquents. The second phase—‘Cautious Rapprochement’, lasting roughly from the late 1970s to early 1990s—witnessed a series of discursive ruptures culminating in the adoption of a more lenient official approach towards emigrants. Finally, a radical discursive shift in the conceptualization of Israeli emigration had taken place in the mid-1990s. Termed ‘Enthusiastic Embracement’, this phase has been characterized by a large number of state-initiated and funded programmes embarked upon as part of a discursive expansion of Israel’s incorporation regime (Shafir and Peled 2002; Soysal 1994) to re-assert its citizens abroad.

Migration discourses in Israel, I therefore argue, have always been used as political strategies aimed at demarcating the boundaries of the nation. The discursive construction of emigrants has been critically important to processes of national identity formation in and out of Israel; emigrants were instrumental in the state’s attempts to clearly distinguish between ‘us’ ‘here’ (in Israel) and ‘them’ ‘there’ (abroad). As part of this strategy and in line with changing socio-economic and political conditions in Israel, emigrants were ‘constructed’ differently at different times. These discursive changes, I contend, have had a major effect on both the public image of emigrants in Israel as well as the sense of national identity experienced by emigrants themselves.

Overt rejection: the construction of migrants as social deviants (1948–1977)

In the first three decades of independence migration of Jews from Israel had been overwhelmingly dealt with from the standpoint of the sending state (Lamdani 1983; Shokeid 1988). Out-migration was conceived as a major threat to the existence of both the Jewish state and society, second in importance only to the always-present fear of Arab neighbors’ invasion. Arguments against Israeli migration often quoted the damaging effect it had on both the state and society. Sobel (1986, p. 41) explains that, “In a country where the factor of a real physical threat to its continuance is present, every loss through emigration and every decline through lack of immigration or lowered birth rate is rightly conceived of as threatening.”

Goldscheider (2002) notes that concerns over rates of emigration were largely and intentionally exaggerated. He argues that inflated estimates ought to be examined against their ‘deep-rooted ideological contexts’ (p. 61), namely fundamental Zionist assertions about the important links between territory and nation-hood. While certainly a minority, state officials who advocated a more realistic outlook on emigration did voice their opinion, but it was almost always in the seclusion of marginal parliamentary committees In the absence of a real political debate (Sabar 2000), let alone the making of pertinent policies, the emerging discourse on emigration in the young state was mostly confined to party-affiliated newspapers. In the vast majority of these accounts emigrants were construed as selfish individuals, antagonistic to both state and societal interests. Derogatively nicknamed Yordim (Hebrew for those who descend), Israeli emigrants were denounced as enemies of the Zionist enterprise and accused of profoundly debilitating the nation and its nascent identity (Hacohen 2003). The following is a typical portrayal of emigrants in the highly ideologized press of the young state,

“You can sugar-coat emigration as much as you want, the act itself will forever remain a disgrace and emigrants are worthy of our scorn and not the so-called explanation of the ‘objective’ psychological, social and economic motives that made them leave… [They] have emigrated not because of all of these reasons, but only because they were very weak, culturally hollow human beings who lacked any elementary human pride...”6

During this phase of overt rejection emotions often ran high as public officials decried those who had given up on the newly created Jewish state and consciously (if unjustifiably) decided to emigrate. Perhaps the most famous, but certainly not the only, statement made by an incumbent politician during this stage about emigrants was that of Yitzhak Rabin. Denouncing emigration in a 1976 televised interview, the then Prime Minister referred to emigrants as nefolet shel nemoshot (Hebrew for ‘the fallen among the weaklings’). Emigrants were also frequently accused of being socially and morally irresponsible and their act was seen as threatening economic productivity and communal cohesiveness, which, some argued, could eventually lead to the total demise of the Zionist project.7

The discourse surrounding out-migration reveals the enormously fragile nature of budding Israeli national identity. As a relatively new phenomenon, emigration was a socio-cultural anomaly state agencies were unsure how—or whether—to tackle. The notion that emigrants were renouncing their Israeliness stood in sharp contrast to the solid and deeply rooted national subject (pre)-state agencies had been striving to construct since early Zionism in the late 19th century. Interestingly, the discourse in this period bore uncanny resemblances and often blended with the traditional anti-diasporic trajectory aimed during pre-statehood towards Jews of the Diaspora (Shapira 1997). Almog (2000, p. 77), for example, argues that in the pre-statist Zionist discourse in Palestine “the Diaspora Jew was described as the diametric opposite of the pioneer of the Land of Israel”. Thus, Israeli Jews who voluntarily chose to leave the country were portrayed in similar terms as Diasporic Jews, namely lacking a sense of communal responsibility, greedy, and pre-disposed towards immediate gratification.

With very few exceptions (Cohen 1959), this phase of intricate relations has seen the state taking no real interest in emigrants. The written press of in Israel of the 1950s and 1960s was full of accounts ‘diasporizing’, criminalizing8 and in general devaluing9 emigrants. A collective mass of fleeting bodies, emigrants’ social identities were systematically repressed so as not to ‘legitimize’ emigration or render their motives ‘justified’. Thus, by removing themselves from Israel’s physical space, emigrants had also lost their rights to take part and influence the production of any meaningful public spaces within and sometimes outside Israel. Overwhelmingly, emigrants were discursively constructed as floating, placeless agencies whose act bordered mental illness. Narrated by the state or its representatives in the publicly-owned media, emigrants were denied a place in the nation.

‘Cautious Rapprochement’: emigrants as rational decision-makers (1977–1992)

As economic and political realities in Israel have changed towards the late 1970s so has the discursive construction of emigration. The swift victory of the 1967 war in tandem with the military fiasco of 1973 (and the subsequent socio-political unrest) shattered many Israelis’ deep-rooted beliefs in the integrity of their leaders and the stability of their state system. For many citizens, these dramatic events proved that Israel—the epitome of the Zionist project—was no longer the small, frail Jewish state for which existence they were led to believe they had been fighting. Consequently, dwindling human resources, once a cardinal anti-emigration argument, has all but lost its appeal. In fact, by the early 1980s, references to macro-level explanations and/or consequences of emigration (e.g., economic productivity, social cohesion) were few and far between; instead, the discourse has almost entirely shifted to micro (e.g., household), mostly economic motives and effects of emigration (Elitzur and Elitzur 1973; Fein 1983). Gradually, emigrants were seen as economically driven, rationale agencies that make individual and household decisions based on a wide array of practical considerations. This discursive shift, I argue, must be understood against dire economic circumstances, emerging trends of social and cultural atomization within Israeli society and the growing criticism towards the political and military apparatus, both of which prestige suffered major blows in the aftermath of the 1973 War. Bottom–up interest in emigration as a viable economic strategy was beginning to build and the need to better understand it became a pressing issue.

Alluding to the traditional lack of public attention towards Israeli emigration, Sobel (1986) notes, “not dealing with an issue of weight and importance does not lead to its going away, just as approaching it head on does not assure resolution” (p. 5). Thus, he argued, there is a pressing need “to shed some light on the why of these concerns and to explain some of the key factors underlying the emigration phenomena” (ibid). In a similar fashion, Ra’anan referred to emigration as a phenomenon, “the existence of which everyone admits, but no one discusses” (quoted in Sabar 2000: 3).

At a more personal level, this stage, which I termed limited acceptance, had been characterized by an ever-growing number of emigrants. By the late 1970s unofficial estimates put the number of Israeli citizens abroad at more than 200,000 (Levavy 1977). The rising number of departures gave rise to a largely bifurcated discourse; on the one hand, emigration as a phenomenon was still mostly discouraged in public; on the other hand, there appear to have been budding signs of reserved popular acceptance—and even encouragement of—emigrants as individuals. The dilemma is clearly expressed in the words of Shmuel Lahis of the Jewish Agency,

“It is easy to criticize the fact that one is sick and has a fever, but let us examine the reasons for the disease… [Let us] determine what made some of these people leave Israel and what kind of crisis did they experience. And - believe me - I know it was for many a crisis. I am not defending emigrants, but I do know that they have all suffered major crisis... [We need to] find the balance between ostracizing and excluding them on the one hand and [refrain from] legitimizing their act on the other hand…When you ostracize somebody you make your life much easier. But we must not let ourselves forget that it is partly our responsibility; Israel has a responsibility towards the diaspora, let alone Israelis who emigrated”10

The ambivalence expressed by Israeli officials has not gone unnoticed by emigrants. As Meyers (2001: 81–83) argues, emigrants themselves adopted this irregular trajectory, which sees emigration as a problem yet expresses sympathy towards individual emigrants. Analyzing 1980s articles appearing in Israel Shelanu (Our Israel), a New York-published Hebrew newspaper, he notes, “While, on the political-declarative level, the newspaper denounced the phenomenon [of migration] in accordance with the official Israeli line, it did not condemn individual immigrants, but rather identified and sympathized with them”.

These bottom–up, more favorable attitudes towards migration in general and individual emigrants in particular could not be completely ignored by state agencies. By the early 1980s, a flurry of state-sponsored studies reflected the slowly changing discourse about emigration. To the extent that it was still used, the ‘blame’ for emigration was now equally distributed between emigrants and the state. The latter, it was argued, failed to provide the former group with the appropriate skills necessary to compete in a tight labor market such as Israel’s. Consequently, emigrants were discursively constructed as loyal Israeli citizens whose wish to lead a quiet, comfortable life was not granted. Far from being ‘the fallen among the weaklings’, emigrants were depicted as successful and economically productive individuals whose talents were not being fully utilized in Israel due to its small labor market and limited opportunities.

In sharp contrast to the previous discourse, in which social identities of emigrants were suppressed by state agencies and effectively subordinated to a single, overarching, and territorialized Zionist national identity, by the mid-1980s a discursive rupture has taken place which permitted, indeed encouraged, a careful examination of the ‘faces behind emigration’. These initial signs of the disintegration of a single, cohesive national identity, I argue, forced the state to rethink its spatial strategies and introduced new meanings to Israeli identity. Thus, the discourse in this stage has gradually shifted from the national to the local, from the general to the particular, and from collective to individual responsibility.

The (still) conditional acceptance of migrants by their left-behind co-nationals aided them in their quest for re-incorporation into the Israeli nation. As Israel’s (once single) national identity slowly crumbled, emigrants were no longer seen as social outsiders; their de-territorialized status notwithstanding, emigrants were thought of as ‘citizens without the right to vote’. Simultaneously, the apologetic tone that in the past accompanied emigrants’ expressions has all but disappeared as many began to re-assert their national identity in a way that is congruent with their new geographic location. Emphasizing a de-territorialized national identity has been strategic in emigrants’ attempts to depict diasporic communities as a natural extension of the nation-state. Yet it would take some time (and many socio-political changes within Israel) before the state is ready to embrace them and recognize their move as legitimate and them as an integral part of the nation.

Enthusiastic embracement (1990s and beyond): an emerging cultural diaspora?

The roots of the third and final stage in Israeli state-emigrants relations can be traced to the early 1990s. An emerging Israeli-Palestinian peace process along with a stronger than ever national economy gave rise to a transformation in public attitudes and policies towards Israeli emigration. For the same reasons, this phase, which I termed enthusiastic embracement, had also been characterized by a substantial number of returned migrants, estimated between 10 and 15 thousands annually in 1992–1995 (Alon 2003).

Once again, regional and international events have significantly contributed to a new theorization of international migrants, namely transnationalism (Bailey 2001; Schiller et al. 1992; Massey et al. 1998; Vertovec 2003). In the Israeli context, transnationalism was mobilized to refer to the existence of Israeli diasporic communities in North America and Western Europe (Cohen 1999; Cohen and Gold 1997; Gold 2002; Lahav and Arian 1999). Emigrants were theorized as Israelis on the move whose time-space axes as well as national identities were spanning more than one nation-state. Owing to transnational migration theory, Israeli emigrants were thought of as bridging the ever-shrinking gap between Israel and their cities of residence. The physical distance between Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem on the one end, and Los Angeles, London, or Toronto on the other had shortened not only as a result of the advances in transportation and information and communication technologies, but, more importantly, because migrants in these and other global cities were seen as floating agencies who engage in multiple transnational strategies, benefiting from the advantages of both places and hybridizing their cultural identities as a result.

This shift has not gone unnoticed by the Israeli state; as transnational Israelis were becoming ever more apparent in the economic, political, and cultural landscape of such cities as New York, Toronto, Miami and Sydney, so were their relations with the homeland state—and, consequently, their own identities—being negotiated and constantly reshaped. The discursive construction of emigrants as simultaneously Israeli and global citizens in the most influential Western urban centers became one of the underpinnings of this period. Israel’s emigrant communities were increasingly seen as an indispensable resource strategically positioned to link the holy land with the lands of multiple opportunities. On its part, the Israeli state was constantly looking for ways to capitalize on its emigrants’ success abroad and drum up their support for various national causes. Global cities soon became spaces of state-diaspora negotiations on the meaning of national identity and loyalty.

The quickly warming relations notwithstanding, it is important to note that significant differences continue to exist in the state agents’ perceptions towards various groups of emigrants. Some have attributed this differentiated stance to narrow, politically motivated sectarian interests. Thus, Yuri Stern, a Member of Israel’s Knesset (parliament), argued in a recent discussion on absentee voting that despite major progress made in official attitudes towards emigrants the state’s approach is still plagued with hypocrisy. He was especially enraged by the inconsistencies in public policies towards different emigrant groups based on their present level of economic success.

“We all know that these pseudo-ideological statements [by politicians objecting absentee voting] are hypocritical. It is a well-known fact that politicians socialize with emigrants whenever they are abroad. The even raise funds among wealthy emigrants. It is all about personal status. If he is a criminal then he is a ‘yored’, a lousy emigrant; but if he built the tallest building in New York or won some prestigious film award then he is an Israeli residing in New York or residing in Los Angeles, that’s how he is portrayed in the media”11 (Italics added).

Similarly, a 1990s skilled labor shortage in Israel’s booming high-tech industry prompted the government to embark on a massive transnational campaign to recruit Israeli professionals residing abroad.12 Full-page ads in US editions of Israeli newspapers inviting scientists to state-sponsored professional recruitment fairs in San Francisco, Seattle, and New York were a daily spectacle. Lucrative compensation packages and extended socio-economic benefits tailored to the specific needs of returning Israeli families were some of the strategies devised by state agencies to attract emigrants. Nationalist rhetoric was often used to appeal to what was defined as emigrants’ strong psycho-cultural bond with their country of origin. Israel’s cultural diversity, sense of community, and prospering national economy were recurrent themes in many of these ads.13 The idea was to appeal to young, professional emigrants and their families by portraying Israel as a communal space that stands in sharp contrast to the alienated suburban neighborhoods in global cities.

The outbreak of regional violence in 2000 and the subsequent downturn in Israel’s economy have solidified the changing discourse on emigration. Emigrants were often constructed as a potential human pool into which the state might tap during periods of security instability and economic depressions. At the same time, public officials repeatedly admitted that the state must do its utmost to make itself worthy of its lost citizens. The chairwoman of the Parliamentary Committee on Immigrant Absorption recently urged the government to “focus on solutions [for emigration] like budget allocation towards organizing in-migration campaigns, improving absorption and making Israel a more attractive place for scientists and high-technology professionals”.14

In line with this official proactive approach towards its emigrants a variety of state-funded, reach out programs were initiated that targeted emigrants. The ‘Bo HaBayta’ campaign is one recent example. Hebrew for ‘Return Home’, Bo HaBayta is a public–private initiative to populate communal settlements with young, professional Israeli families. The program’s marketing campaign appealed to Israeli emigrants in order, “to absorb families in a familiar, supportive setting in order to enable them a more ‘easy landing’ in Israel”.15 Against background images of blooming fields and smiling toddlers, emigrants were called upon to return home to “…fulfill their dreams, aspirations and abilities when close to their family and friends…in an ‘enabling environment’, in a supportive community”. Meaningful community life was to substitute the alleged urban alienation experienced by Israeli emigrants in various global cities.

While actively appealing to emigrants’ feelings of national pride towards Israel’s strong economy and solid technological industry, the state also strives to re-vitalize its relationship with those who have no intentions of ever returning to Israel. Realizing the political and economic benefits of well informed and loyal transnational communities, the Israeli state had begun to allocate additional human and financial resources towards strengthening ties with its citizens abroad. Perceived as the extension of the nation-state, Israeli emigrant communities in large North American and European cities receive occasional guidance and assistance through state-sponsored programmes aimed at “maintaining connections with the Israeli population abroad”.16

Thus, for example, a dozen cultural centers have been opened since the early 1990s in Israeli embassies and consulates in various US and Western European cities. Named ‘Israeli Houses’ (Batim Yisraelim), they sponsor and organize a range of communal events and activities—including Israeli holidays and memorial days, Hebrew book clubs, and drama groups for both adults and children—in order to strengthen the relationship between Israel and citizens who reside in these metropolitan areas. Having abandoned the judgmental attitude long characteristic of the state towards Israelis abroad, staff in these centers encourages the active participation of emigrants in their activities as a way to support the country and retain some sense of Israeli identity.

Recognizing the multiple advantages embedded in their new de-territorialized status, a growing number of emigrants now struggle to make sense of their new transnational identity. Their Israeliness notwithstanding, many feel at home in their new environments and celebrate their diasporic mode. Being of Israel and being in Israel no longer clash in emigrants’ conception of identity. This idea is nicely captured in the words of an Israeli émigré describing her identity,

“Once and again the same questions resurface – who are we, what are we doing here. And while it is very tiring to hear the same questions and make the same responses, let me try one more time. So, we’re Israelis, that’s who we were born. But life is too short and everyone has to make his own decisions and if we - or anybody else - decided to leave Israel it is perfectly fine. But let us not forget that you can get the person out of Israel but you cannot get Israel out of the person, and the truth is that I don’t think I would even want to. So what’s my point? Well, I say, next year in Jerusalem or Haifa or Tel Aviv, but most importantly, I wish that when I am 60 years old I’ll be back home in Israel.”17


Emigration discourses in Israel have come a long way since the state’s early years of independence. What began as an utter exclusion of emigrants from the public sphere (and the nation itself), gradually changed to capture emigration as a rational economic strategy and recently culminated in the construction of a de-territorialized Israeli citizen. As I have shown, the discursive constructions taking place within Israel have had important impacts on emigrants’ identity formation processes.

The recent conceptualization of emigrant communities as viable cultural diasporas (Cohen 1997) embedded in loosely connected transnational spaces (Pries 2001), is now accepted by most state agencies in Israel. More importantly, this discursive transformation has paved the way to a small—yet significant—number of state-conceived and funded initiatives that emphasize emigrants’ (trans)-national cultural identity. Thus, not only does the state recognize its diasporic citizens as legitimate part of the nation, but further sees itself responsible for maintaining their national identity. On their part, emigrants are eagerly (re)-embracing their identity as Israeli citizens, yet no longer feel compelled to shun their new status as or justify their course of action. In fact, in a self-initiated move towards adopting a transnational identity, some long time emigrants in the West Coast of the US define themselves as Israeli-Americans (IsrAmericans).

Despite these seemingly idyllic relations, Israel is still a long way from having a clear body of policy towards its emigrants. Chronic shortage of funding, fragmented institutional framework, and short electoral cycles in the recent decade have thus far prevented any serious attempts to formulate a cohesive policy towards emigration and emigrant communities.. While virtually every state representative I have interviewed recognized, indeed supported, the importance of a strong and influential Israeli diaspora, very few could recall any serious discussion in Israel concerning the topic. It appears as if the programs mentioned in this article were, for the most part, isolated initiatives that do not necessarily represent any systematic policy-making on the part of the Israeli state.

Further research is still needed to determine whether the recent changes in state discourses towards Israeli citizens abroad is a reflection of a fundamental, more progressive approach that would lead to a clearer stance supporting the emergence of an Israeli cultural diaspora. The concentration of Israelis in a fairly small number of Western countries—and even a smaller number of global cities—could facilitate state efforts to reach out to its citizens in order to re-assert their cultural identities. As well, the enthusiasm on the part of many diasporic community activists should accelerate this process of cultural de-territorialization. However, none of these factors could sustain the project in the absence of a proven political will.


Transnational politics is defined “as a realm of recurrent and institutionalized interactions and exchanges between, on the one hand, immigrants and their social and political organizations and, on the other hand, the political institutions and the state apparatus of the country of origin” (p. 1130).


The Minister of Interior estimated that in Israel’s first 5 years of independence (1948–1953) roughly three quarters of emigrants were Jewish immigrants and only one quarter were Israeli-born Jews (Protocol of the Proceedings of the 197th session of the 2nd Knesset, 02/25/1953, p. 817).


Minister of Immigrant Absorption Nathan Peled in response to a query by Member of Knesset, R. Arazi in Divrey HaKnesset, 12/14/1970, p. 485 (Hebrew).


Shmuel Lahis, the Jewish Agency’s General Manager accompanied the Israeli Vice Prime Minister (Simcha Ehrlich) to ‘a tour to study Israeli emigration’ in New York and Los Angeles. His findings from the 10-day 1980 tour were published the following year in a report bearing his name.


In a 1982 interview to the Jerusalem Post Lahis was asked how—in the absence of reliable data—he arrived at these figures. His reply was, “There was no argument about the claim that there were at least 300,000 yordim. Everyone in the US insisted that the figure was closer to 500,000. But because no one really had proof, I resorted in my report to the range of 300,000 to 500,000” (in Goel (1982).


Bar-Yosef, Y. [Salchanut Muzara Bemiktzat] A somewhat strange forgiveness. Davar, 12/17/1957 (Hebrew).


Leket, Y. (1980) Neged HaYeridah [Against the Emigration]. LaMabir: HaHistadrut HaKlalit shel HaOvdim B’Eretz Yisrael [General Federation of Laborers in the Land of Israel] (Hebrew).


Steuchinski, A. [Matzavam Shel Hayordim MeYisrael] The conditions of Israeli emigrants. Davar, 2/3/1953 (Hebrew).


Aviel, Y. [Yordim “Yerudim” BeOstryia] Morally diminished emigrants in Austria. HaBoker,1/4/1955 (Hebrew).


Proceedings of the Parliamentary Committee on Immigrant Absorption, 2/15/1983, p. 10 (Hebrew).


Proceedings of the Parliamentary Committee on Immigrant Absorption, 2/10/1997, p. 24–25 (Hebrew).


Metzapim Lecha Babait, [Waiting for You at Home] (2005). (The Department for Returning Residents, Jerusalem: Ministry for Immigrant Absorption Press). (Hebrew).




Member of Knesset Collete Avital, Proceedings of the Parliamentary Committee on Immigrant Absorption, 12/20/2004 (Hebrew).


Bo Habayta website []; last accessed on 09/01/2006 (Hebrew).


Ministry of Immigrant Absorption English website []; last accessed on 08/12/05.


Israelis AbroadForum; []; last accessed on 08/21/05 (Hebrew).


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