In this post, I examine the notions of ethnicity and identity basing my thoughts on personal observations and experiences while living in Israel.
At the beginning of Americanah, a book, written the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Efimelu, one of the central figures of the narrative talks about how she would add some extra years to the number she already spent in the US when she needed to introduce herself to new people. She would do so to sound more native, more legitimate. If it was only two, she would say five, if it was eight, she would say ten and so on.
The theme of cultural acceptance and belonging that accumulates over time is central to many foreigners. While for the immigrants themselves the process of assimilating or at least, familiarizing themselves is relatively fast, in the eyes of natives, it takes years to recognize an individual as assimilated. Sometimes, it is not enough to grow up in the country; you must be born in it to be eligible to carry the title of country’s nationality.
Identity Politics and Ethnicity in Israel
Israel is one of the countries where to be considered native and free your identity title from dashes (American-Israeli, Russian-Israeli and so on) you need to be a child of an Israeli- born. Obviously, Israel is not the only country with such denominal settings in its core, albeit, it makes a strong case. Like the US for example, Israel is made up of immigrants, and even more so than in the US, it puts identity politics ahead of other things. These things may include personality, personal achievement or languages that one speaks.
Throughout my years in Israel, I would look at the natives who could identify themselves with the country the earlier generations of their family came from almost with envy. They could say “I am Russian” or “I am Polish” or anything you wish, without withstanding any implications afterward. Everybody around them would know that in their mentality, language and even features they did not match their honorary identity hence, no one treated them according to one.
I often have to avoid the subject out of discomfort of dealing with labels, jokes attributed to my background and predicted behavior patterns. In other words, because I am a foreigner in Israel, the pride of my background has to be suppressed. I am an American born to Russian parents, and I am still far from being called Israeli at heart, my identity in Israel is ambiguous. And, in the society, I am aspired to pick one line and act accordingly. Because of that, I cannot joke about dishes of Russian cuisine that have become the cliche, or Boston accent with Israelis – I am instantly taken seriously and labeled.
My experience has made me realize, only after a certain point, when the gap between the generations of newcomers and the ones born in a country widens, we are allowed to embrace the culture of our families’ lineage. We become immune to associative thinking of others because we are already far from the title we associate ourselves with. We all want to remember where we come from, but we want to be openly enthusiastic about it as far as we do not declassify ourselves from our achievements or status.
Avoiding Hypocrisy and Making a Conclusion.
I know, I do the same sometimes. Currently, many people are living in Israel that had to flee Ukraine to escape the war. On my crippled, foreign Russian with a distinct Moscovian dialect, I try to offer them the words of comfort. I try to convey to them my empathy and the fact that I understand how difficult it is for them….except I don’t have any idea.My desire to comfort them comes from a place of humanity, not nationality. Yes, I cannot relate to the life in Ukraine or the apparel of the Ukrainians, but I know I would have been traumatized had I been tossed out of my country. This perspective has made the process of communication with them easier.
We are all humans. We do not control where we are born, but we control who we become. We don’t give ourselves honorary nationalities and identities because we want to be distant, we just want to cover up every part of us and celebrate it, because diversity should be celebrated. As Chinua Achebe, another Nigerian author said: “The whole idea of a stereotype is to simplify. Instead of going through the problem of all this great diversity – that it’s this or maybe that – you have just one large statement; it is this”. Which means, that by putting stereotypes ahead we are missing out getting only half of the picture….