Events and Projects

The Netherlands, with its large Israeli expat community, this year received Arzi - the country's first political, pro-Israeli association of Israelis.

Small though it is, Holland is home to one of Europe's largest concentrations of Israelis - approximately 10,000 people, who seem to share a strong sense of community. That community has recently founded its third association, and has begun drawing the attention of people trying to integrate Israeli expats into Jewish communities.

The abundance of Israeli associations in the Netherlands is not surprising to those familiar with the Dutch Jewish community's latest figures on the country's Israeli contingent ("De Joden in Nederland anno 2009", JMW).

This month, the Netherlands saw the creation of its third organization by Israelis for Israelis – Arzi ("my country" in Hebrew), which aims to give the majority of Israelis living in the Netherlands their own political voice for the first time, according to its founders.

A research from 2009 done by Columbia and Tel Aviv Universities conducted by Dr. Yinon Cohen of expat Israelis in OECD countries, lists the whole of France (500,000 Jews) as having only 6,600 Israelis, Belgium and Luxembourg (40,000 Jews) as having 2,350, and Spain and Italy as having less than 3,000 Israelis combined. Britain is estimated to have the largest number of Israelis; more than 40,000, according to the Israeli foreign ministry.

Eran de VriesThe JMW, the Dutch Jewish community's cultural organization, set up an Israeli cultural department in 2004, called Tsavta, which organizes Hebrew book markets, Independence Day celebrations and free Dutch language lessons. Kaits (registered in 2002) is an independent non-governmental-organization (stichting) offering similar services. "Before Arzi, the average Israeli living in the Netherlands had no one to present his or her opinion concerning current affairs in Israel and the situation in neighboring countries," says Eran de Vries, chairman and founder of Arzi, who heads an Israel desk at a prestigious Amsterdam law firm.

Israel, he argues, repeatedly demonstrates its commitment to peace and willingness for painful concessions in working toward a two-state solution. Yet anti-Israel activity continues to rise in the media, on campuses, in the churches and in the international community. As Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz states in his seminal work The Case for Israel, 'the time has come for a proactive defense of Israel to be offered in the court of public opinion.'"

Arzi's 10-point platform pledges commitment to Zionism, democracy, territorial compromise, recognition of Israel as the Jewish state, assuring Israel's security, opposing boycotts, upholding minority rights and freedom of expression, national service and fighting antisemitism. More than a 150 people joined the Arzi Facebook group before the official registration.

"The next step for Arzi is to create a presence both online and on the ground, through petitions, events, demonstrations and a short-film contest about Israel for its launching event later this year," said Arzi co-founder Alon Gilboa, a student at Amsterdam University College. According to Cnaan Liphshiz, another co-founder, Arzi also aims to strengthen ties between the Jewish community and the Israelis in the Netherlands.

Recreating the Dutch situation globally

And strengthening those ties is exactly what Dr. Israel Pupko, a researcher of immigration at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute – A Jerusalem-based think tank, is trying to achieve on a global scale. According to Dr. Pupko, this bond is growing stronger in parallel to the decline in numbers of Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Holland, he says "is full of potential for integrating the Israeli community with the Jewish one."

"Diaspora Jewish communities slowly begin viewing Israelis living in their countries as a demographic, political and financial reserve," says Pupko, who is also the founder of Mishelanu ("one of us") - an Israeli association working to connect Israelis abroad, Jewish communities and the State of Israel.

"If you believe Jewish marriages are important, you'll naturally start thinking of the Israeli community in your country as a reservoir of Jewish brides and grooms," says Dr. Pupko, 40, who immigrated to Israel from his native Mexico in 1991. Over the past three years, several large Jewish communities have opened up departments dealing with Israeli expats. "Striking examples are to found in California and Vancouver," he says. But with the exception of Holland, none of Western Europe's other Jewish communities has so far set up such departments, according to Dr. Pupko. From Israel, Mishelanu set up a new umbrella group: the Global Council of Israelis Abroad. The new umbrella group's launching took place in Toronto last January, with funding from the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, the Jewish Agency and Israel's Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. Many Israelis who leave Israel generally tend to be positive about their homeland and heritage, but it takes a few years before they seek to reconnect with Jewish life, according to Dr. Pupko. The Israeli expat tends to be educated and financially successful, though not always politically involved, he says.

The Israeli community in London has a pro-Israel weekly newspaper called AlLondon, edited by Mrs. Anat Koren. "We have seen shows of support by Israelis for Israel," she said. "But mostly reactive, not proactive, at crises like Cast Lead."

As Diaspora Jewish communities begin engaging Israelis, so is the Israeli government realizing its potential role in this process, according to Dr. Pupko. But the steps taken so far pale in comparison with investment by other countries in their expats.

Switzerland operates 17 Swiss schools worldwide which teach approximately 6,500 pupils precisely the same curriculum taught back home. An Israeli school in New York, Los Angeles or London would be a "hit" according Dr. Pupko.

Limiting Israel's willingness to invest in enriching the lives of the approximately 750,000 Israelis living abroad (60 percent in North America and 30 percent in Europe) according to Dr. Pupko, is the government's "bring-them-back- home" attitude.

Since 2008, Israel's ministry of Immigrant Absorption has invested hundreds of millions of shekels in its flagship program "Coming Home to Israel," meant to return expats. Together with the Ministry of Finance, the intention of this campaign was to attract Israeli expats living abroad by offering generous tax exemptions as well as other benefits. The goal: Bring back 5,000 Israelis per year.

Dr. Pupko calls the program "an anachronistic plan which doesn't fit the global village. An Israeli living abroad is not 'lost' and we do not need to bring him back. We only need to keep him close."