Homecoming, Immigration, and the National Ethos: Russian-Jewish Homecomers Reading Zionism

Article excerpt

For immigrants entering a society characterized by a strong national ethos of homecoming, the interpretation of that ethos is essential to their making sense of their new lives and reconstructing their identity. Our case study explores how immigrants interpret the Israeli national ethos while struggling over their position in the old-new homeland. Analyzing personal narratives of Russian-Jewish university students in Israeli society, we discuss how their multivocal critiques of the "national-Zionist ethos" reflect and fuel the heated and dividing discourse over national identity in Israeli society of the 1990s. We explain how the homecomers read the national ethos, confront it, and participate in the local cultural discourse by their dual position as outsiders-insiders in the new society, together with their experiences as a diasporic minority group in the native land. We suggest that the interaction between two cultural systems-the Diasporic heritage of the Jewish Russian homecomers and the Zionist ethos-broadens and elaborates the Israeli national discourse. [national ethos, homecoming, immigration, personal narrative, Israeli society]

The national ethos of the host society defines from the outset the placement of the new immigrants and their type of affiliation to it. Entering a new society, immigrants must become acquainted with the national ethos that lies at its heart, and learn to decipher the cultural discourse of the society. The necessity to read the new collective boundaries, the meaning of society's collective identity, as well as the nation's moral demands is embedded in the marginal position of immigrant. The reading of the ethos is essential to making sense of their new lives and re-constructing their identity. This is particularly the case of immigrants who enter a society characterized by a strong national ethos of homecoming, such as Israel.

As a Zionist immigrant society Israel encourages all Jews to return to their homeland. Jewish immigrants are never formally considered "foreigners," rather they are perceived as "family relatives" who return to their natural home. Thus citizenship is granted to them automatically under the Law of Return upon their coming to Israel. The "homecomers," in turn, are expected to be committed to the Israeli national ethos and to become integrated in the society, essentially becoming Israelis (Golden 1996; Leshem 1998). This expectation is conveyed by state-related institutions (education, media) and communicated in informal day-to-day encounters.

Jewish Russian1 university students who have immigrated to Israel have voiced the Israeli national ethos but in a very particular way. Listening to their personal narratives, we were amazed to hear their resistance to the ethos. Their critiques of it reflect and fuel the heated and divisive discourse over national identity in Israeli society of the 1990s. Like other groups, but with some of their own twists, the immigrants are contesting the once seemingly implacable and uniting national ethos, yet at the same time they do not undermine or reject it.

The immigrant-homecomers' engagement with and their critical stance towards the Zionist ethos provoked our curiosity about the relation between homecoming and immigration. More particularly, we explore the manner in which Jewish Russian immigrants interpret the Israeli national ethos: whether they adopt or reject it, ratify or confront it. Is their interpretation uniform or divergent? What is their relation to the ethos as the imagined home becomes an actual home, as the national homeland becomes a personal homeland?

In tackling issues of immigration-as-- homecoming, we problematize the link between immigration, national identity, and home. The study of national homecoming is of a particular interest as this type of immigration deconstructs the boundaries between outsider and insider, stranger and "family member," foreigner and indigene.

Homecoming, Immigration, and the National Ethos

The literature on the relationship between immigrants and national ethos refers primarily to immigrants living in the nations of others, in which they are considered outsiders from an ethnic and national standpoint. …