Thoughts On That Israeli Ad Campaign
Jewish Week Online Columnist
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Much ink has already been spilled on the ill-fated ad campaign launched by Israel’s Ministry of Absorption, aimed at convincing Israelis living here in the United States to return to Israel. I’m afraid I’m going to spill a little more.

At this point, there is little need to clarify how offensive the campaign was to so many members of the American Jewish community.  Once it was publicized widely on the web, the explosion of outrage spoke for itself.  Thankfully, the Ministry pulled the campaign, though I’m not completely sure it understood why so many were offended.  It issued that special kind of apology that’s not really an apology.  “If we offended anyone, we are sorry.”  Don’t you just love when people say that to you?  They know they’ve offended you, but all they can bring themselves to say is “if we offended anyone…

The question that begs to be asked and answered, of course, is why were people so offended?

If it was because of the implication in the ads that Diaspora Jewish life has no future, then those of us who have studied the history of Zionism and read the writings of its great thinkers are obliged to admit that we are hardly shocked by the attitude.  It’s totally consistent with classical Zionist thought. 

The Zionist movement was born out of a raging, explosive sense of despair with the Diaspora.  The proto-Zionists, who had witnessed the pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe and the stubborn anti-Semitism of Western Europe, became increasingly convinced that there was no future possible for Jews unless they took charge of their own destiny, and regained sovereignty over their historic homeland. Herzl, Pinsker, Gordon… No serious student of Zionism can be surprised that an Israeli government ministry thinks that the American Jewish Diaspora has no future.  And as long as we’re talking among ourselves here, I think we would do well to admit that their concerns are hardly unjustified.  One needn’t be a sociologist to know that intermarriage and assimilation- the fruits of our radical integration into this country- are exacting a tremendous toll on the Jewish community, and threatening its future.

And if we were offended because Israel wants to reclaim its citizens, and implied in the ads that marrying American Jews would hopelessly dilute their connection to the motherland, well- they might indeed be right there, too.  Of course many American Jews are Zionists, and passionate supporters of Israel.  But many of the Israelis who left Israel did so precisely because their connection to Israel was already tenuous, all protestations to the contrary, and they were looking to create new lives for themselves. 

Here, I think, is where we get to the real source of the problem.  As I see it, what was patently offensive in those ads was the implication that only in Israel can Israelis/Jews be guaranteed an unbreakable connection to their heritage and traditions, one that cannot be diluted with time.  In America, they would say, Christmas will overpower Chanukah, Gentile culture will overwhelm Jewish tradition, children will marry out of the faith, etc.

And to that I have to painfully say… who are they kidding?  How can any person with even the most rudimentary knowledge of the condition of Judaism in the State of Israel think, or even imply, that living one’s life there is any kind of guarantee of meaningful connection to Jewish heritage and tradition?  When day after day brings headline after headline speaking to the ever increasing alienation of so many Israelis from Judaism because of the repressive and regressive rabbinic establishment there, how can any observer of that situation- at least outside the Orthodox world- even dare to imply that Israel is a better guarantor of positive attitudes towards Judaism?   As regards caring about Yom Hazikaron- Israel’s Memorial day- they might be right, even if it’s not an adequate excuse for those commercials.  But knowing and caring about the difference between Chanukah and Christmas?  Does having a Hanukiyah on the roof of so many buildings say anything about the fostering of enduring attitudes to the Jewish religion as a whole?  I wish I could say that I thought it did, but I’m afraid I can’t.

Israelis have a lot of trouble understanding this, and few will admit to it, but here’s a bold statement.  I think we actually “do Judaism” better here than it’s done in Israel.  With our pluralistic community, and without government interference, we offer Jews multiple ports of entry into the splendor of Jewish life and tradition.  No coercion, no interference.  And even when there are occasional moments of friction between our different organizations and priorities, our communal plate is so rich, and so varied… You don’t like that synagogue, go to another one.  You’re not comfortable in Orthodoxy, find your spiritual self in Conservative, or Reform, or Reconstructionist, and of course vice versa!  Yes, we are fighting uphill battles against the radical “sovereign self” attitude of American Jews.  But we have many weapons, and our fight is by no means lost.

What’s so sad in all this is that foolish and ill-conceived programs like the Ministry of Absorption’s ad campaign needlessly add to the disinclination of too many American Jews to focus in on the real issues facing Israel.  As Iran continues in its efforts to go nuclear and the Arab spring turns into an increasingly cold winter, saner minds in Israel would do well to consider just how badly the State of Israel needs Diaspora Jewish support right now.  Why isn’t Israel strengthening those ties, instead of straining them?

What a concept …

Last Update:

12/15/2011 - 19:11
Ministry of Absorption, Yom Hazikaron

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As an Israeli (42 years since my wife and I left Far Rockaway, NY) I can sympathize with the thousands and thousands of American Jews who may have felt slighted by the ad campaign.

Still, I am mollified by the knowledge that a similar campaign to be launched (let us say) ten years from now will only hurt the feelings of hundreds and hundreds of Jews. The same campaign to be initiated in (let us say) 2040 will cause discomfort to tens and tens of Jews.

Thereafter -- no need for a campaign.

Several addtional sad commentaries on the lack of Israeli insight into the realities of being Jewish in America and trying to be Jewish in Israel. Far too many of us have sent our children to Israel for a summmer or a year and had them encounter the ugliness of Israeli Jewish sectarianism as our children were harassed for trying to pray near the wall in mixed congregations or in some of the public synagogues that had no mehitza and insisted women stay out. And in my experience many Israelis only experience their Judaism when they come to North America. They are at first amazed that we --- "moderns" just like them -- belong to synagogues but then in many cases join in, try being Jewish and like it. Indeed who are they kidding, I"m afraid only themselves and they had better wise up for the sake of all Jews.

What the author and many other critics of that campaign miss is that Israelis who leave Israel may be at greater risk of assimilation, and the image of a granddaughter mixing up Chanuka with the Christmas is real, it is rooted in what is often observed by onlookers. Sadly, Israelis in the Diaspora affiliate less and marry out more, and if those clips are considered offensively by some, it behooves them to take the responsibility to reach out to Israeli expats and bring them near Jews and Judaism once again.

--Arie Folger, Senior Community Rabbi of Munich, Germany

Funny, it has not occurred to Jews to think how offensive this is to non-Jews. We now know what Israel thinks of our Great American Melting Pot.

Your advice to American Jews to focus on the "real issues facing Israel,"
is very apropos to the questions regarding the ministry's ad campaigns. This is not the most pressing issue facing American Jews and Israel, nor is it a flashpoint in Zionist history. This discussion is about advertisements, after all; And these ads clearly were directed to the non-American Jewish Israeli population and were framed in the Israeli cultural context with which they are familiar. By this I mean, the ads referred to the use of Hebrew at home, which is a language American Jews do not by and large utilize there, and to Yom Hazikaron which is not commemorated universally by American Jews, either. American Jews' sensitivity over the Christmas reference is probably shaded by the strains and issues American Jews have long experienced in a largely Christian US. It is more likely that the ad from an Israeli perspective related to the fact that while Chanukah is pervasive in Israeli institutions and streets, whether or not you celebrate it, Christmas is pervasive in US institutions and streets. The view that these ads are a commentary on the state of American Jewry does not bear a direct connection to the ads.

As you indicated, Iran indeed is a serious issue for the security of Israel, the Middle East and the West, however, other serious issues have arisen just this week which should capture the attention of American Jews and a call to action. US officials at all levels and in various contexts singled out Israel for pointed criticism regarding the State's diplomacy and relations with her Middle Eastern neighbors and her efforts at negotiations with the Palestinians. These officials included the US Secretary of State, the US Secretary of Defense and the American Ambassador to Belgium whose comments also seemed to whitewash anti-Semitism in the Arab World. As Americans, we should wonder to what purpose such united and conspicuous criticism is being directed against an ally by diplomats and by representatives of the Administration, particularly in light of the steps that Israel has undertaken to reach out to its neighbors and to negotiate with the Palestinians, during the particularly tumultuous times in the Middle East. The American Jewish Community should be asking our representatives about these seemingly irresponsible statements. By embracing a larger world view, we in the American Jewish Community will improve our communication with the Israeli community and enhance our own standing as an advocate on the issues truly important to our community.

This is classic Conservative movement doubletalk (probably a good reason why the movement is rapidly disappearing). In the first 6 paragraphs you all but admit that the PR campaign might be justified and accurate and one shouldn't be offended. Then you do a complete about face and critisize Israel for its dirty laundry. As a lawyer I deal with this semantic trick often - the lawyer admits something harmful to his case to get a bit of credibility in the argument and then proceeds to knock down the opponent with the counter argument "who are you to complain?'. In the end it amount to a neener neener neener childish argument for Israel to clean up its own house before it comments on ours.

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