Beyond Guilt and Stigma: Changing Attitudes among Israeli Migrants in Canada

Date01 December 2015
AuthorBrent David Harris
Published date01 December 2015
Beyond Guilt and Stigma: Changing
Attitudes among Israeli Migrants
in Canada
Brent David Harris*
Over 60 years ago, the Jewish nationalist movement known as Zionism culminated in
the creation of the State of Israel. Millions of Jews immigrated to Israel over the twenti-
eth century, a process known as aliya (literally, ‘‘going up’’). Yet over the years, thou-
sands of Israelis have also chosen to leave Israel in a movement termed yerida (‘‘going
down’’). As the term suggests, this reverse migration has been highly stigmatized.
During the 1960s and 1970s, emigrants were publicly disparaged in the Israeli media for
having abandoned a struggling state. Consequently, Israeli migrants suffered strong feel-
ings of guilt that often, hampered their integration process abroad, a phenomenon
observed as late as the 1990s. This paper, however, reveals that feelings of stigmatization
have greatly decreased among Israeli migrants in recent years. The study is based
on research that I conducted in 2008–2009, involving nine months of participant obser-
vation in Vancouver’s Israeli community and 34 in-depth interviews. Unlike in previous
studies, most of my informants expressed no feelings of guilt over having left Israel. Of
those who did, most framed their guilt as a longing for family and friends rather than
the patriotic longing for the land as expressed by previous generations. Previous studies
have also found that Israelis harbour a ‘‘myth of return’’ – a continuously expressed
desire to return to Israel and a reluctance to accept their stay abroad as permanent.
However, I have not found that the myth of return is still strong today, despite the con-
tinued prevalence of a strong sense of Israeli identity among Israelis abroad. I suggest
that these changing attitudes are the product of shifting ideals in Israeli society that have
developed as the state of Israel has matured. This paper thus serves to update the
outdated image of Israeli migrants as it exists in the prevailing literature.
Canada is a nation of immigrants in which Israelis comprise only one group among many. It
is not known exactly how many Israelis live in Canada, but estimates place them at approxi-
mately 45,000 (Cohen, 2005: 137). Israelis are also a recent group to Canada. Although there
has been some Israeli migration to Canada since Israel’s founding in 1948 (Savan, 1955),
Israelis did not arrive in great numbers until several decades later. What, then, is noteworthy
about such a small and young community? Research has shown that Israeli migrants face a
* Department of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.
2012 The Author
International Migration 2012 IOM
International Migration Vol. 53 (6) 2015
Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd. ISSN 0020-7985
unique challenge in the guilt that many suffer over leaving Israel. The core principle of Zion-
ism, the Jewish nationalist movement, has been a return of the world’s Jews to Israel. The
State of Israel was born out of Zionism and has continued to promote this ideal. Conse-
quently, emigration from Israel has been highly stigmatized, despite the fact that over 10 per
cent of the Israeli population now lives abroad (Eichner, 2007). During the 1980s and 1990s,
a number of scholars found that Israelis carry this emotional weight with them as they
migrate. However, my research shows that the guilt and stigma of Israeli migration has
declined dramatically in recent years. I suggest that a shift of ideals has accompanied a
maturing Israeli society and created a climate in which migration is much more widely
accepted and even, at times, admired. As the stigma of migration has dissipated, so too have
Israeli migrants’ feelings of guilt along with their once widespread ‘‘myth of return’’. The
strength of their Israeli identity, however, remains unaffected.
My f‌indings are based on nine months of participant observation and in-depth interviews
that I conducted during 2008–2009.
This research took place in Vancouver, the third largest
city in Canada after Toronto and Montreal, but with a comparatively small Israeli commu-
nity. The available statistics do not give a complete picture of this community, because the
indicators (country of birth and mother tongue) leave out large numbers of Israeli migrants
who were born outside of Israel or grew up speaking another language at home. Neverthe-
less, the 2006 Canadian census does give us some clues as to the size of the population. It
indicates that 1,925 immigrants, permanent residents and work- or study-permit holders
residing in Vancouver were born in Israel (Statistics Canada, 2007c), while 760 Vancouverites
listed Israeli as their ethnic origin (Statistics Canada, 2007a). As for language, 955 residents
of Vancouver listed Hebrew as their mother tongue (Statistics Canada, 2007f), while 790
listed it as the language spoken most often at home (Statistics Canada, 2007d). In the nation
as a whole, the 2006 census showed 23,265 people residing in Canada who were born in
Israel (Statistics Canada, 2007b), while 11,355 listed Hebrew as their mother tongue (Statis-
tics Canada, 2007e). However, the true f‌igure of Israelis in Canada is probably much higher
(Cohen, 2005: 137).
I interviewed 31 Israelis, investigating issues of identity and integration, as well as an addi-
tional three Israelis who worked or were active in the community. Of my 31 primary infor-
mants, 16 were women and 15 were men. All had come to Canada between 1990 and 2007,
though most had arrived since 2000. All were born in Israel and ranged in age from 19 to
58, though most were under 40. My informants were also a highly educated group, in which
all but two had completed some sort of post-secondary education and the great majority
had one or more university degrees. All names of informants in the pages that follow are
As previously mentioned, Jewish immigration to Israel has been the cornerstone of the Zion-
ist project. As a result, leaving Israel has historically been seen as negating Zionism’s core
principle and abandoning the state (Gold, 2002: 5). While immigration to Israel has always
been highly praised, emigration from Israel has long been stigmatized and a unique, heavily
symbolic vocabulary of migration has developed. In Hebrew, the word for ‘‘immigration’’ is
hagira, yet this word is never used in relation to Israel or Israelis. Rather, immigration to
Israel is termed aliya (literally, ‘‘going up’’) and is the same word that is used in synagogue
when a man is called up to read from the Torah. In this case, aliya refers to the spiritual ris-
ing of one who has moved to the Holy Land. Likewise, one who moves to Israel is not called
42 Harris
2012 The Author. International Migration 2012 IOM

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