Coming Home

December 1, 2011 by


Look, let’s be straight. I think that living in Israel is a good thing. I also, continuing to taste its fruits to this day, think that making aliya is a good thing.

I think that the Absorption Ministry is completely within its rights to try to encourage people to come to live in Israel – particularly those people who were born in Israel – and if Jeffrey Goldberg thinks that’s being mean to American Jews, then so be it.

You can’t get all uppity about Israelis saying that it’s good for Israelis to live in Israel, even if that implies they should leave America. It’s not “archaic” to suggest that aliya is good for the future of the Jewish people: It’s what we call debatable. That’s not the same thing, and it borders on cowardice to suggest it is.

Having said that… the two commercials that have many of my friends in America fulminating and my friends in Israel cringing are indeed problematic even for a Zionist such as myself.

I’m going to do what I’m not convinced the ad-firm really deserves. I’m going to try to analyze these commercials seriously.

The Grandparents video has a lit chanukiah in the background of the Israeli elderly skypers, and when they ask their Hebrew-speaking grand-daughter what festival it is, she cries Christmas! The concerned-yet-sympathetic voice-over points out: “They will always remain Israeli. Their children will not…”

Of course there are a few category confusions here. The kid has a good strong Israeli accent: her Hebrew is fine. What would seem to be in question is her connection to Jewish religion and culture, which is not necessarily exactly the same thing as her Israeliness. She will, after all, despite her identification with the goyim, still be expected to serve in Israel’s army when she reaches the right age, and will be allowed to enter Israel only on her Israeli passport.

Were we into philosophizing a little, we might ask if this girl with her perfect Hebrew, familiarity with all the Israeli music her parents play in the house, and call-up card to the IDF, is not Israeli? I’m not for a minute suggesting that an Israeli culture lacking a basic awareness of Chanukah is a rich or healthy culture for Israel, but it certainly exists.

But much of the critique I’ve so far seen of the advert goes further. The advert is somehow seen as proof that “it is impossible for Jews to remain Jewish in America”. So of course anecdotally the commercial is thoroughly unfair, but statistically it is spot on. Of all Jews in America, Israeli ex-pats have the greatest trouble identifying with their local Jewish communities. Several Federations are making huge efforts to reach out to Israelis in their midst precisely because they have recognized there is a problem. In particular secular Israelis find it very hard to parlay their secular Israeli identity into the strictly Protestant-Jewish-religious terms of the American community (see the debate explored by James Hyman and Yonatan Ariel).

And now for the second video. A young Israeli is going through Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) on her own. Her partner doesn’t understand what she’s going through. She is alone in her grief and far away from home. Jeffrey Goldberg is convinced her boyfriend is Jewish because he speaks through his nose and has a goatey beard. (Less said about what lies behind that set of assumptions the better…) The friendly pitying voice-over: “They will always remain Israeli. Their partners won’t always understand what that means.”

So let’s parse this one, too. First off, the scene lasts all of 20 seconds. It may well be (if their relationship is worth anything) that the next few hours in Dafna’s apartment is spent with Dafna talking to her partner about what Yom HaZikaron is and what it means to her. It may well be that by the end of the conversation he will understand far more what it means to be Israeli. (And if he doesn’t he’s welcome to check out our online activity on the subject called The Price…)

If he listens carefully, and if Dafna is able to express herself well enough, he will understand that of all the days in the calendar that fill Dafna with ambivalence about Israel, it is Yom HaZikaron. It is a day full of pain, loss, and unspoken anger – especially for many of those people who have chosen to leave Israel. While it is the day most likely to lead Dafna to miss the company of other Israelis, it is very unlikely that this is what she most misses about Israel.

She misses the friends, she misses the energy, she misses the openness, she misses what her American friends mistake for rudeness but she experiences as honoring honesty. She misses the tiyulim, the views, the weather, the dynamism and the fear and excitement that literally anything may happen at any time. Without necessarily admitting it, she also misses feeling connected to something important, even crucial. She misses the thickness of existence in Israel, where everything is symbolic of something else, where the new is old and the old is new, where her in-born connection to the Jewish People can be expressed far beyond the synagogue. She misses the language, the music, the culture. She misses home.

It’s not wrong to try to encourage these people to come back to Israel, nor is it wrong to suggest their lives might be richer were they to do so. What is sad is that we’re so rarely allowed to discuss this latter assertion in any intelligent way, and these two commercials certainly don’t make it any easier.


  1. Leon Morris says:

    Here’s a link to a third.
    Maybe I was drawn to this one since I’m not Israeli (not yet, at least), and still my children call me “Abba.” I’d love your analysis of this Robbie.

  2. Pam says:

    I am not offended by these commercials at all. They were not intended to insult anyone–they were intended to bring home Israelis who might be sitting on the fence about their living in America in the first place. What ever happened to the open marketplace of ideas? If the American Jewish community wants the Israelis to stay so much, we should create commercials that illustrate how our Jewish communities are vibrant and what we are doing to serve the Israelis who live among us.

  3. MHL says:

    Perhaps what has some people upset is the stereotypical presentation that one cannot live a meaningful Jewish life in the United States and be extension, outside of Israel. And, that this point of view is supported by and the view of the Ministry and government.

    I do not believe that people are concerned that the Israeli government would try to persuade Israelis to remain in Israel or even try to get Israelis to consider moving back to Israel. However, painting a distorted picture of Jewish life in America may not be the most appropriate way to do so.

    One’s Jewish connection has less to do with the situs of residence than the creators present. Even though I do not live in the Orthodox world, I know of no Jewish children or grandchildren of friends who would say that the holiday that they celebrate in December is Christmas as opposed to Chanukah. And, most of my American friends do not observe Yom HaZikaron.

    Perhaps a worthy message but a poor method of representing it.

  4. Robbie says:

    Leon – Yes, it’s interesting why that one didn’t cause as much of a storm… As you know, I live in Israel, and my Israeli daughter loves to call me Daddy…

  5. […] For other posts and links see Life in Israel; Makom Israel. […]

  6. Ramazatz says:

    About the first video: I wonder how many secular Israelis light the Hanukah candles every night. During the three years that I lived in Tel Aviv, I never did – but I started doing it after I moved to the U.S.

    I also take issue with your analysis of the second commercial. Maybe Daphna’s experience is one of being overwhelmed by American democracy and its respect for all of its citizens equally; or by a Jewish community that does not live in the false dichotomy between all-secular and Orthodox; or by a Jewish perspective that appreciates the two thousand years of the rabbinic project, and yet gives the Jewish tradition “a vote but not a veto.”

    As a proud Diasporic Jew, what offends me in the ads is that they assume a hierarchy between Diaspora and Israel that I personally reject, and embedded in that hierarchy is the perception that all the things you find in Israel are “important, even crucial” but the things you get in the Diaspora are expendable.

  7. Itzhak says:

    I write as an American Jew who made aliyah. I am not offended by these two commercials in any way. Having grown up in America and having seen and experienced the insecurity of American Jews vis a vis their identities in relation to the non-Jewish majority, I am not surprised by the strong negative reaction. This has touched a raw nerve.

    Further, I have seen firsthand Israeli-Americans intermarried with non-Jews, a child of one such union that has never been to any kind of Jewish school because “that’s religious!” asks at the family seder table, “Daddy, what is this cracker?” Or the Israeli-American married to a Christian woman who erects Christmas trees with his spouse, who makes of Hanukah a kind of Jewish Christmas as he absorbed American Jewry’s preoccupation and insecurity of trying to mimic their non-Jewish neighbors, lest the children feel “left out.”

    Israelis who live in the US, acquire US citizenship have become American Jews, whether they want to admit it or not. They may think they can pass on their “Israeliness” (Hebrew, schwarma, etc.) to their children who will equally, somehow, feel just as Israeli. Instead, what I have seen personally in so many instances is the children of Israelis losing their identity, both Israeli and Jewish. For the the grandchildren of Israelis living abroad, there is nothing left of Israeli identity, and unless they are sent to a Jewish school, they are lost to the Jewish people.

    So, let’s bring on more of these commercials, and let’s bring home as many Israelis as possible. What a shame our government capitulated to the insecurities of Diaspora Jews.

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