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Israeli women living in the UK - challenges to identity and
Yasmin Fulder-Heyd and Dr Deborah Rafalin
The recent rapid growth of immigration and mobility has elicited a wide discussion in
the current psychological literature.1 Such situations often involve threats to identity,2
and raise some basic questions: what are the important dimensions of our identity
which we attempt to preserve, and what dimensions are we willing to let go of, or
adjust and change? When faced with a radical shift in location and culture, how do we
manage our basic sense of self and others, and what are the experiences which impact
or challenge the process of identification and belonging?
This paper will explore the experiences of a particular group of immigrants – a unique
Diaspora – that of the Jewish Israeli woman living in the UK. In order to understand
her experience, first one has to look at the various challenges which she faces, and the
A much longer account is required to discuss the Jewish Israeli identity.4 It will
suffice to say here that the concept of Diaspora is woven deep into the consciousness
of Israeli society and its individuals. Most people in Israel are either immigrants
themselves to Israel, or second or third generation to immigrants. This implies that
mobility is an essential part of the history and culture of each family. And of course,
the Jewish Diaspora with its centuries of displacement can be seen as an important
cultural and historical narrative, promoting a sense of rootlessness.
Yet at the same time, Israel is perceived as the ultimate homeland, a place of refuge
This tension between the transitional and the ‘grounded’ home is an integral part of
the experience of Jewish Israelis. But what happens to those that decide to leave Israel
and live abroad? The challenges here are numerous. Firstly, Israelis living abroad are
described as being in a state of constant confusion and contradiction5 For example,
when considering the relationship between the Jewish and the Israeli components of
their identity, it seems that for some the national Israeli identity is more pertinent than
the Jewish.6 On the other hand, as mentioned by Steve Gold, their commitment to the
state stands in contradiction to their voluntary choice of being out of the country.7 In
addition, since religious Jews sometimes consider leaving Israel as against the Jewish
law, Israelis leaving the country can face criticism both by religious people in Israel,
and by Jews abroad.8 Furthermore, because of the political insecurity, there is a highly
ambivalent approach in Israel towards people who decide to emigrate, since they are
seen as ‘defecting’ or ‘running away’.9 This can cause a sense of rejection by their
families and friends back in Israel, and feelings of shame and guilt. In general, the
environment of continuous conflict there, can clearly have an impact on feelings of
belonging to Israel as a home when abroad.
For Israeli women living outside of Israel, the management of gender identity is an
additional struggle which can impact on their attempts at building a positive sense of
self.10 The Israeli Woman is described in the literature as facing somewhat
contradictory influences: on the one hand she is seen as ‘equal’ to the man, fighting
alongside him in the army for example. On the other hand, Israel being a very family-
oriented society, the woman is perceived as a somewhat ‘passive’ homemaker.11
Using direct quotes, I would like to show how these numerous challenges impact on
the identity and the well being of Israeli woman living in the UK.
The research described here is part of my Doctoral research project. This is a
qualitative project using interview material as the main data source.
Nine Israeli women were recruited from various backgrounds, ages (Mean=40.5
STD=13.26) and socio-economic statuses. They were recruited by a number of
methods, including the snowball technique, through fliers, through Israeli companies,
The main method of collecting data was a semi structured interview conducted
separately with each of the participants, lasting about 45 minutes.
The data collected from the interviews was analysed using Interpretative
Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). This method intends to draw out the personal
world view of the participant, looking at the phenomenology of their experience, and
adopting an 'insider's perspective'.12 Smith, Flowers and Osborn describe the method
as attempting "to tap into a natural propensity for self reflection on the part of the
participants."13 The researcher and the participant engage in self reflection, and the
analysis attempts to draw on that endeavour, so that the themes which emerge are the
result of the combined effort on the part of the participant (expressing their genuine
thoughts and feelings) and the researcher (reflexively interpreting the data).14 In this
way the participants are encouraged to explain their own story in their own words.
Since the questions raised here focused on the subjective experience of the women -
how they perceived and tried to make sense of their experience - this analytic strategy
I would like to start describing the participant’s experience from the wider context of
culture, both in terms of their experience of the host culture as well as their feelings
towards their country of origin. This will lead to a consideration of the ‘closer’
surroundings of interpersonal relationships. Finally I will consider the psychological
processes of the self concept and identity.
Looking at the wider cultural context, two main areas will be looked at. One is
attitudes and experiences of the UK, in terms of cultural differences, language
barriers, and lack of belonging. The other is attitudes and feelings towards Israel.
Ayelet15 describes feeling misunderstood because of cultural differences:
They’re not part of my culture and it takes more time to explain many things to them because you just need the background, the culture, the home.
Ofra asserts this cultural difference, claiming it causes her to feel she doesn’t belong:
I just don’t feel I belong, eh 16 maybe, em … not celebrating what the English are celebrating, I just … I can’t connect to it.
Liat describes the way this cultural barrier is affecting her relationship with her
husband’s family who are British Jewish:
His family is different from my family.  they’re not a close family, they’re not warm.  I don’t have anything in common with them  … they’re cold people.
Another experience shared by many of the participants was a sense that their language
difficulties create an unbridgeable gap between them and English people. As claimed
The main thing is the language – its always like I feel I have a fog in my mind here.  you don’t have the feel of the language.
Tali agrees, adding how this affects her sense of belonging:
I really feel like one sense in which I don’t completely feel at home in Britain is because the language I speak here is not my native language.
Feeling a sense of lack of belonging in the UK is coupled with very ambivalent
feelings towards Israel. On one hand there is a strong sense of attachment to Israel and
Ayelet describes her level of connection to Israel:
I keep in touch with what’s going on at home. I think I read about 4 times a day  I feel really involved and I really get angry with things …that happen there… the whole range of feelings that are involved in it, which I don’t here  it doesn’t touch me … it’s not mine.
Rachel talks about how much she misses Israel, and expresses her Zionist ideology:
You miss Israel. You miss the Israelis. … it makes you think that, yeah, we’ve got a piece of land and it’s … and it’s a better land and it’s better people and it’s better everything … everything … even if its shit there… it’s better than … than here.
Many of the participants described a sense of feeling guilty for leaving Israel. Tali
explains how this sense of guilt connects for her to being Zionist:
It was considered to be a terrible betrayal to go and  … something of that … still rubs in, I think.  I bought into a lot of this ideology and was sort of quite committed to it …and that sort of makes it hard in a way…  some sort of …Zionist passion …  that’s a little bit in the background of why I feel uncomfortable leaving.
Edna stresses this point further, talking about her sense of betrayal to her country:
It’s to betray my country more than anything else. To betray country. There’s so much blood, you know, we got to belong there because it’s a special … it’s a special country, it’s not a normal country.  It’s very important.  They [other foreigners] don’t have the guilt feeling. It’s haunting you. (LAUGHS)
Tali explains the background of this from her point of view:
My parents feel like sort of … their parents left everything they had and left Europe  they moved to Israel in the sort of beginning of the 30s  most of their families then told them not to go, and it turned out to be the sort of crazy move that saved their lives  they had a really difficult time and were very poor and my parents sort of built up a very successful life in this new country  that is what their … you know, their parents did this for. I really feel like there’s a sort of feeling that this is kind of cutting …  this endeavour, yeah.
Rachel describes the persecutions experienced by her parents leading them to flee
I never had … an idea, a wish, willing …  to leave Israel. I mean, I come from … very Zionist family that came from Russia in the 70s and struggled to go out of Russia. So for me, Israel … it’s more than a home.  I might cry a little bit. [crying]  I know that it hurts to them.  I was always raised as I should be thankful to my parents who brought me to Israel because  we were suffered anti Semitic and my father was in jail  I should be thankful to say that … to be Jews … between Jews … among Jews, you know.  But, yeah, then I left … (LAUGHS) … to go out completely of the country is something that is unforgivable  … yes, so for them to be in Israel, it’s a mission. It’s what they were raised for and what they fulfilled.  It’s part of my … bad feeling or how do you say? the guilt.  What keeps me is like I’m not doing that, I’m not really out of the country, I’m just a couple of years here.
One can see that Rachel’s sense of temporariness helps her manage her feelings of
guilt for leaving, separating herself from those who ‘permanently’ leave Israel.
At the same time as talking about their loyalty to Israel, the Participants also describe
a growing sense of lack of belonging and distance from Israel, which stands in
contradiction to their attachment described above.
Liat describes this as a sense of being a visitor:
I’m like a visitor here and a visitor there. Where am I belong to? I don’t belong anywhere suddenly …
Ayelet talks about how feeling an outsider in Israel, interestingly expressed as a loss
of connection to social change, was a very awkward feeling for her:
I felt an outsider.  Which was very weird  because the years that I was away … many things have changed in Israel.  it just felt as if I wasn’t
there for something that was very constitutive of what being an Israeli today in Israeli is …
This uncomfortable feeling is echoed in Sara’s account:
I felt like my house was empty, was hollow… you know. It was a very, very strange, eh … feeling there.
Moving to consider the relationships in the participant’s life, the participants firstly
describe a strong sense of loneliness and isolation, a sense of feeling alienated and
Loneliness. Very, very lonely, em … (PAUSE) … I suppose I don’t have any family in England  so I think very, very, very lonely. Very alone. Not being able to, you know, share feelings … (PAUSE - Crying)
For Ofra this loneliness is a result of social encounters that failed, causing her to give
If I meet with English people, I … I stay very quiet … very, very quiet. Not … not who I am  I feel … like no energy, no confidence, em … and to be honest lately I don’t even do it because I’m not enjoying it any more.
Since many of the participants came to the UK (or stayed here) following their
husband, this occasionally created a strain on the relationship, as described by Tamar:
Sometimes I feel very angry with my husband, you know, why did you bring us here?
Rachel adds an important dimension, when saying that her husband does not represent
I am very happy with my husband, but … it used to be that wherever he is that is Home. But it is not like that any more … there is nothing to do about it … I even told him, I don’t care if you want to be in your work etc, that’s fine, just bring me back home.
Focussing on how the experiences affected the participants’ psychological well being,
many of the participants described feeling very depressed, tearful, and lacking in self
Em … at the moment, I feel very depressed. Very … I can’t make any decision by myself for myself or for the family because I’ve lost my confidence and I … I believe I lost my confidence because I don’t … I don’t feel at home here. I don’t feel good enough with myself at the moment or with the life here …
Sometimes when I’m really, really depressed, which happens quite a lot of time … like sit, closing the phone and crying, crying, crying …
The feelings described above are accompanied by a sense of life being on hold and a
painful lack of sense of control, for example by not actively choosing to come to the
I realised that I don’t … I … I’ve got nothing here to look for. I’ve finished all my business here but my husband still wanted to stay. (Tamar)
I’m not there and I want to be there you want to go home but  your partner say, let’s wait more. So you feel like you’re trapped. You want to go home now but you cannot … (Rachel)
One of the consequences of this is a sense of loss of self and identity, as described by
I feel like, em … I’ve lost my  Identity. Yes. I really feel like I’ve lost it . (Ofra)
I came with a very strong identity, em … what I want to do in life. I was very sure of myself. And this sureness, eh … fades away a little bit.  I don’t know who I am. I’m no longer Israeli and I’m still not British. (Tamar)
The emerging conflict in the participants’ inner world is accompanied by a puzzling
resistance to resolve it, not wanting to fully settle, fearing the loss or compromise that
will entail. The quotes below describe this resistance:
So this is not home and it’s not mine and I don’t want it to become mine. I really … I actually have very strong feelings that I don’t want it to ever become really home … (Ayelet)
I always resent it. I don’t want to belong here. I feel I’m betraying myself. I don’t let it go. (Edna)
It’s like you don’t want to make changes that will leave you here or … or consciously say that you’re living … that’s it, this is your life.  part of me doesn’t want to be … a whole person … part of me wants to keep it fizzy, you know  Maybe I’m a little bit afraid  if I’ll be a whole person, that means I’m not going back and I’m happy here and I’m settled here … (Rachel)
This research shows the Israeli immigrant women to be in a constant state of
temporariness and transition, in which a number of core concepts of themselves are
questioned. They never fully leave and never fully arrive. However, it seems that
there is also a resistance to resolving this sense of the ‘carpet being pulled under their
feet’, a dependence on the painful transitoriness. It would be worth considering how
this tension between attachment and identification with the homeland for Diasporic
communities influences their ability to make the host country into a real home. It also
raises the question of how these processes influence the multiple facets of identity, for
people living in the Diaspora – not only their national identity, but also their identity
1 For a thorough examination of the psychological implications of immigration see J.W. Berry, A Psychology of Immigration, Journal of Social Issues, 57, 2001, pp. 615-631. 2 See G.M. Breakwell, Coping with Threatened Identities (London, 1986). 3 Identity in this context is approached from a social constructionist perspective, seeing it as a fluid and changing structure influenced by the social context. See K.J. Gergen, ‘Toward Self as Relationship’, in K. Yardley and T. Honess (eds), Self and Identity: Psychological Perspectives (Chichester, 1987), pp. 53-63. 4 For a review of the psychological literature on the Jewish Israeli identity see M. Tur-kaspa Shimoni, D. Pereg and M. Mikulicer, Psychological Aspects of Identity Formation and Their Implication for Understanding the Concept of Jewish Identity: A Review of the Scientific Literature (Ramat Gan, Israel, 2004). [Hebrew] 5 S.J. Gold, The Israeli Diaspora (Seattle, 2002). 6 Gold, ‘Gender, Class, and Network: Social Structure and Migration Patterns among Transnational Israelis’, Global Networks, 1 (2001), pp. 57-78. 7 Gold, Israeli Diaspora. 8 M. Shokeid, ‘One-night-stand Ethnicity: The Malaise of Israeli-Americans’, Megamot, 33 (1991), pp. 145-163. [Hebrew] 9 Ibid. 10 S.D. Walsh, & G. Horenczyk, ‘Gendered Patterns of Experience in Social and Cultural Transition: The Case of English-speaking Immigrants in Israel’. Sex Roles, 45, 2001, pp.501-528. 11 L. Hazelton, Israeli Women: The Reality Behind the Myth (New York, 1977). 12 J.A. Smith, P. Flowers, and M. Osborn, ‘Interpretative phenomenological analysis and the psychology of health and illness’, in L. Yardley (ed.), Material Discourses of Health and Illness (London, 1997), pp. 68-91. 13 Ibid., p. 68. 14 Ibid. 15 All names and identifying details have been changed to protect anonymity. 16 [ ] Indicates missing data; … indicate a short pause in speech.
Berry, J.W., ‘A Psychology of Immigration’, Journal of Social Issues, 57 (2001), pp.
Breakwell, G.M., Coping with Threatened Identities (London, 1986). Gergen, K.J., ‘Toward Self as Relationship’, in K. Yardley and T. Honess (eds), Self
and Identity: Psychological Perspectives (Chichester, 1987), pp. 53-63.
Gold, ‘Gender, Class, and Network: Social Structure and Migration Patterns among
Transnational Israelis’, Global Networks, 1 (2001), pp. 57-78.
Gold, S.J., The Israeli Diaspora (Seattle, 2002). Hazelton, L., Israeli Women: The Reality Behind the Myth (New York, 1977). Shokeid, M., ‘One-night-stand Ethnicity: The Malaise of Israeli-Americans’,
Megamot, 33 (1991), pp. 145-163. [Hebrew]
Tur-kaspa Shimoni, M., Pereg, D. and Mikulicer, M., Psychological Aspects of
Identity Formation and Their Implication for Understanding the Concept of
Jewish Identity: A Review of the Scientific Literature (Ramat Gan, Israel,
Walsh, S.D., & Horenczyk, G., ‘Gendered Patterns of Experience in Social and
Cultural Transition: The Case of English-speaking Immigrants in Israel’. Sex
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