The news reports about Israel’s latest, ill-fated public relations campaign have come and gone. But the impact lingers, and it’s worth exploring how Israeli and American Jews, despite all their professed connections, still misunderstand each other in troubling ways.
The most recent example, in brief: A $300,000 ad campaign to encourage Israelis living in America to come home, sponsored by the government in Jerusalem, became known to and immediately was criticized by mainstream, fervently pro-Israel American Jewish groups, and others, as deeply offensive.
The Jewish Federations of North America, responding to videos and billboards asserting that the children of Israelis living abroad will lose their Israeli and Jewish identities if they stay here, called the campaign “insulting.” The Anti-Defamation League said the ads were “demeaning.”
One commercial showed a young daughter of Israeli expatriates having a video chat with her Israeli grandparents who have a lit menorah visible in the background. When the grandparents ask the girl what holiday they are celebrating, she says, “Christmas.” The tagline (in Hebrew) is, “They will always be Israelis. Their kids won’t.”
Another short commercial depicts an American boyfriend who doesn’t understand why his Israeli expat girlfriend is sad on Israel’s Memorial Day, and a third shows a sleeping Israeli expat father who doesn’t answer to his young son’s attempt to wake him by calling “Daddy.” Only when the child says “Abba” does he respond. The tagline: “Before ‘Abba’ turns into “Daddy,’ it’s time to come back to Israel.”
Within days, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, quick to point out that the ads were done without the knowledge of his or the prime minister’s office, announced that the ads and billboards had been ordered removed. He said the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, which initiated the campaign, “clearly did not take into account American Jewish sensibilities, and we regret any offense it caused.”
Oren, born and raised in the U.S., added that “the prime minister deeply values the American Jewish community and is committed to deepening ties between it and the State of Israel.”
End of story?
Practically, yes. The short-lived campaign is over. But we American Jews are left to wonder, “what were they thinking?” in producing those ads. And, “what do they really think of us?”
Perhaps more than any other Israeli political leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spent a number of his formative years living with his family in America, respects the American Jewish community and understands its psyche. But it’s fair to say that during his tenure, troubling questions are being raised more frequently by younger American Jews about Israel’s commitment to democracy, particularly in regard to its treatment of Arabs, inside and outside the Green Line.
Justified or not, the concerns are out there, and labeling those who seek answers as “anti-Israel” only exacerbates the problem.
We need to address rather than hide these issues that divide us, just as we need to recognize the gap in perceptions that American Jews and Israelis have of each other. (One factor is that the Israeli media cares little about diaspora Jewish life beyond Washington’s political and financial support for Israel.)
Regarding the short-lived advertising campaign, it’s understandable why an Israeli government worried about the so-called “brain drain” would seek to lure home significant numbers of highly talented Israeli academics and entrepreneurs who come to the U.S. to advance their careers.
The advertising effort was built around a benefit package being offered to returning expats, including tax breaks and free tutoring in Hebrew for youngsters rusty with the language.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption defended the campaign, saying it was not intended to insult American Jewry, and justified it by adding: “We are a small country and can’t afford to lose a half million of our people,” the estimated number of Israeli Jews living in America.
But rather than characterize American life as leading to assimilation, it surely it would be more effective, and honest, to appeal to the expats’ sense of loyalty to family and country — the world’s only Jewish state — where each person’s contribution to society takes on greater significance.
In truth, Israeli and American Jewish tensions over their relationship are nothing new. They go back to the beginning of the state, when David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, angered American Jews in asserting that the Jewish state was the only safe haven for Jews in the diaspora.
“Ben-Gurion didn’t accept the notion of American exceptionalism,” that anti-Semitism, though it existed in the U.S., was not government-driven, notes Steven Bayme, director of the contemporary Jewish life department at American Jewish Committee.
“It was a negative message, that America was a dangerous place for Jews to live, rather than making the case to live in Israel as a return to our ancient homeland and symbol of our age-old aspirations.”
But Jerusalem also had a pessimistic take on those who left. They are known as yordim, Hebrew for those who descend (and the opposite of those who make aliyah, literally to go up to the holy land).
As prime minister in the mid-1970s, Yitzchak Rabin referred to the expats as “cowards.” Hardly the way to win them back.
The recent ad campaign appears to have had a similar effect.
“Instead of talking to us about what is positive about Israel and what is waiting for us should we come back, they are using fear tactics,” complained Yehudit Feinstein, a 36-year-old Sabra who has been living here 10 years.
Soon after she arrived in Brooklyn she started a social and cultural group for Israelis who were “craving Israeli connections” and “running away from American Jewish institutions.”
Concerts here by Israeli performers like David Broza or Idan Raichel, for example, are bigger draws for expats than local efforts to reach them.
But the AJC’s Bayme notes with irony that many Israelis discover Judaism when they move here, drawn to the diversity of the experience.
“There’s a dual narrative,” he says, in terms of the challenges and opportunities for Israelis living in an American Jewish community undergoing both worrisome assimilation and a vibrant renaissance.
And just as Israelis back home misunderstand us, we tend to oversimplify the Israeli experience. Some visitors from the U.S. glorify it as a kind of Jewish Disneyland, an exciting but unreal place to live out one’s fantasies, while most American Jews, who have never been to Israel, think of its citizens as either chasidic or completely secular, and living in a constant state of worry over threats from hostile enemies.
In truth, Israelis live in one of the happiest societies in the world, according to surveys, and somehow manage to compartmentalize their lives — worried about the short-term but optimistic about the future.
The only way we’ll understand each other better is if we care to make the effort, through visiting back and forth and talking to each other instead of about each other. If that begins to happen as a result of this foolhardy ad campaign, maybe the $300,000 was worth it.