One of the less talked-about aspects of Ehud Olmert’s envelopes-filled-with-dollars affair is the unsavory picture it presents of Israel-Diaspora relations. Here is the sycophantic Diaspora shnorer sucking up to his Israeli hero, buying a piece of Zionist glory by slipping him money. And here is the Israeli politician, turning with a mixture of disdain and envy to wealthy American Jews for the support that, perversely, validates his Israeli identity.
Olmert and Morris Talansky hardly invented this paradigm of Israeli-Diaspora relations; The Diaspora was sending money to the Holy Land 2,000 years ago. But the sordid affair has served as yet another reminder that Israelis, for all their Zionist ethos, have been unable to detach themselves from the Diaspora.
One need only look at the growing trade in another — and perhaps even more valuable — currency to grasp how deep the ties run.
A recent survey by the Jerusalem-based Menachem Begin Heritage Center found that 59% of Israelis had approached or intended to approach a foreign embassy to ask for citizenship and a passport. (Interestingly, though, only 22% acknowledged actually considering leaving the country for even a limited period of time.) The 41% of Israelis not lining up for a second passport presumably either cannot prove sufficient parental roots in a new Eastern European member state of the European Union like Romania or Hungary, or find this to be an unpatriotic or tainted act, somehow akin to Olmert’s taking first-class flight tickets and hotel suites from Talansky.
Why can’t we just rely on ourselves? Why do Israelis want second passports?
The most obvious reason is that, like the shnorr, you can’t easily get the Diaspora out of the Jews.
Two or three generations in Israel are apparently not always enough to implant roots where few existed for two millennia. In this regard Israel, like New Zealand or the United States or any other immigrant-based country, inevitably produces a certain percentage of “re-immigration” — a return of immigrants or their descendants to their country of origin. Israelis used to disdainfully call emigration yerida, or “descent,” but it is an altogether natural phenomenon, which is why a wealthier and more self-confident Israeli public no longer uses the term.
Then, too, immigrants to Israel in recent decades from places like Russia and America have been allowed by their countries of origin to maintain dual-citizenship and hold two passports. More veteran Israelis may just be interested in catching up.
Most countries no longer zealously insist on the exclusivity of their citizenship. In the E.U., in particular, European identity here and there appears to be as important for some in the younger generation as national identity.
This points to another explanation: globalization. Insofar as Israel is very much a part of the global economy, it is no longer unusual for Israelis to commute to work in Europe and even the United States. A European or American passport renders the commute that much easier.
A second-generation Israeli of Polish extraction might want a Polish passport so she can study and work freely throughout the E.U. for a few years. And an Israeli doing business in the Arab world would definitely need a second passport.
And then there’s this: Despite the aspirations of Zionism to create a safe haven for the world’s Jews, Israel is hardly the safest place in the world. Can we blame Israeli parents for wanting their children to have another option, an insurance policy, just in case Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes good on his threats?
Even though it represents the most human of motives, this is the only really troubling aspect to those lines outside the Bulgarian and Romanian consulates in Tel Aviv. Come to think of it, no place in the world is particularly safe anymore. In this age of existential dangers and growing restrictions on immigration, people everywhere might want a second passport.
Not all countries that allow multiple citizenship have the same attitude toward their passports. Israel, with its global Jewish links, has always been liberal. Forty-five years ago, when I immigrated to Israel from America and joined the Israeli military, I automatically lost my American passport. A few years later, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling eliminated separate classifications for American citizens, obliging the American embassy in Tel Aviv to give me a new passport, which I have to use to enter the United States.
The British, on the other hand, still have different classes of passport holders; I have met Yemenite Jews in Israel, born in Aden when it was under British rule, who hold British passports that are good for everywhere in the world except the United Kingdom.
I also have an acquaintance or two who are trying to collect third and even fourth nationalities, based on their parents’ origins and children’s places of birth — just for the sport of it. Does all this rush for passports diminish our identity as Israelis? Is there something sleazy about it, like Talansky slipping Olmert an envelope holding $5,000 in greenbacks?
I doubt it. On the contrary, one could probably just call it another national characteristic.
Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.