Ad Wars

December 7, 2011 by

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Jeffrey Goldberg’s latest post in the Atlantic has caused a mini-storm in Diaspora-Israel relations.

Goldberg picked up on an advertising campaign which the Israeli Ministry of Absorption is spearheading in the States, calling on Israelis living in America to return to Israel; and he called it “a demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews.”

The effects of this blog were felt immediately, with American Jews voicing outrage at these adverts and a multitude of informal complaints lodged by high-ranking officials with the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

However, this advertizing campaign was not aimed at American Jewry nor was it overtly critical of American Jewish life. It addresses a clear and present problem: there are currently over half-a-million Israelis residing in the US who, for the most, part do not integrate well into the American Jewish establishment. Few go to Jewish Day Schools, and even fewer are members of synagogues.

The meaningful and thriving Judaism of the United States is not attractive or even understood by many of the Israelis living here.

Their Jewish identity is based on being Israeli. This is something that is considerably harder to maintain in America than in Israel. Consequently, we are witnessing a threat to the Jewish future of this population.

A colleague in Miami (where this campaign includes billboard space across the city) framed another important question which will lead to us to a greater understanding of this case-study. He shared with me the frustration of many that Absorption Ministry money was being spent on returning Israeli citizens and not on targeting American Jews to make Aliyah.

American Aliyah to Israel has been a sticking point between our two communities since the beginning of the State. As the AJC’s former president, Judge Joseph Proskauer, who led the organization from 1943 to 1948, prescribed, the AJC should “forcefully discourage Israeli propaganda for immigration from America.”

Abba Eban felt that as Zionist Israelis “We have absolutely no right to accept this demand and to forgo the ideological principle.” But eventually there was an agreement between Jacob Blaustein (the subsequent president of the AJC) and David Ben Gurion formalizing the State of Israel’s role in American Jewish life, and agreeing not to market Aliyah to American Jews.

Unsurprisingly Israeli officials continued to “talk Aliyah” to American Jewish groups and Blaustein wrote a blistering attack to Ben Gurion, threatening to reduce support. In a private letter to Jacob Blaustein (October 2nd 1956) Ben Gurion addressed his concerns. “While there are – and perhaps must be – certain differences in our philosophy and outlook on Jewish history and Jewish unity throughout the world, there is at least one view (it is not of course the only one) that we share in common…”

This view was one Ben Gurion had reiterated at an earlier meeting in 1950 in Israel: “. . . the State of Israel represents and speaks only on behalf of its own citizens and in no way presumes to represent or speak in the name of Jews who are citizens of any other country. We, the people of Israel, have no desire and no intention to interfere in any way with the internal affairs of Jewish communities abroad.”

In America the State of Israel has been true to this agreement for 60 years and the Foreign Ministry aims to delicately handle the American Jewish relationship without behaving paternalistically. Yet, the American outcry against this advert campaign seems to shake the agreement: now the State of Israel cannot speak on behalf of her own citizens when they are residing abroad.

Is there something fundamentally wrong with the State suggesting that the best place for an Israeli Jew to live is Israel?

These adverts did not suggest American Jews cannot fulfill their Judaism in America, just that Israelis can’t.

If the Blaustein-Ben Gurion agreement teaches us anything it is that we must deal with our own populations, those that we truly understand.

Additionally, it appears that the advert campaign is not just at fault in content but also in style. Goldberg suggests that the Ministry should have taken another tactic in enticing Israelis homewards: “How about, ’Hey, come back to Israel, because our unemployment rate is half that of the U.S.’s‘Or, ’It’s always sunny in Israel’”Or, “Hey, Shmulik, your mother misses you’” His suggestion is as offensive to me as an Israeli as he finds the adverts to be.

To suggest that choosing to live in Israel is about standard of living or weather is a cheapening of Zionist ideology.

The Ministry of Absorption chose messaging that touches on national, collective narratives. Come back to Israel, say the adverts, because only there can you speak the national language of Hebrew, take part in national remembrance days and celebrate Jewish holidays as a pinnacle of national culture.

The choice of Chanukah as the Jewish holiday showcased also adds depth, as Chanukah is the national holiday of the Zionist movement, having been imbued with significance of sovereignty, bravery and pioneerism from Herzl, Ahad Ha’Am and Bialik until today. We cannot celebrate Chanukah in America as we do in Israel.

It is more than possible to live a meaningful Jewish life outside of Israel, and nowhere more so than in the United States. And there is nowhere in the World where you can enjoy a pluralistic expression of Jewish identity as in the US. But it is impossible to live a Jewish identity that is built on nationhood and collective culture anywhere except for the State of Israel.

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