Navigating the Uproar: Campaign to Bring Israelis Home

December 7, 2011 by

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The past two weeks have seen an eruption of responses to the recent ad campaign commissioned by Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. The campaign, targeted at Israeli ex-pats living in the United States, sought to convince the Israelis to return “home”. Though the ads were in Hebrew and clearly intended for Israeli ears in the United States, it seems that the real audience was North American Jewry. Aside from the Jewish Federation’s statement last week (and Netanyahu’s subsequent cancellation of the campaign), countless blog posts and editorials have been popping up each day since this story came to light less than 2 weeks ago. One thing is certain: these videos have struck a nerve among North American Jews. 

The campaign itself:

 In case you missed the videos, you can watch them here:

  1. Yom Hazikaron
  2. Daddy
  3. Hannukah

Note: the campaign also included billboard advertisements like this one:

 

Let’s try to map out some of the more thoughtful opinions that have been circulating.
 

Critique:

 The first notable response to this campaign came from Jefferey Goldberg in the Atlantic. Goldberg felt that the message that Israel was sending was one of disrespect and ignorance for American Jewish life. In his view, the campaign was “a demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews” suggesting the only place a Jew can really remain Jewish is Israel.

The idea, communicated in these ads, that America is no place for a proper Jew, and that a Jew who is concerned about the Jewish future should live in Israel, is archaic, and also chutzpadik (if you don’t mind me resorting to the vernacular). The message is: Dear American Jews, thank you for lobbying for American defense aid (and what a great show you put on at the AIPAC convention every year!) but, please, stay away from our sons and daughters.

More recently, Goldberg published a second piece, this time in Bloomberg, criticizing the Netanyahu government. If only Netanyahu would react as swiftly and decisively about bigger issues as he did about this campaign, commented Goldberg. He warned that if Israel does not improve its image and actions, it would lose American Jewish support for good.

Israelis, and their American supporters, often argue that Israel’s problem is one of public relations. It is, to some degree. The world holds Israel to a higher standard than any other country. But here’s a secret: American Jews hold Israel to a very high standard as well, and if Israel ceases to be a free and open country governed by the rule of law, American Jewish support for Israel will dissipate, with dramatic and unpleasant consequences.

 

A similar sentiment was expressed by Roger Cohen in the New York Times. Cohen believes that what keeps Israelis from returning to Israel is not a lack of patriotism, but rather a loss of hope over Israel’s ability to be a place that they are proud to call home.

Here’s a suggestion for an ad campaign that might fly: A smiling Netanyahu shaking hands with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, beside the slogan: Come home to peace.

Forgive me for dreaming.

 

Gal Beckerman in The Forward, wonders why Israel felt the need to go about its legitimate endeavor to bring its citizens home in the way that it did. Why focus on what’s bad about Jewish life in America, as opposed to what’s great about life in Israel?

The worst part about this campaign is that it points to something deeply defective in the Israeli psyche: the notion that fear is the only motivating factor that anyone can come up with for selling the country. In this case it’s fear of assimilation, of oblivion, of erasure. It betrays a terrible insecurity.

 


 Maybe the Videos were on to something…

 

Andrew Shapiro Katz posted his defense of the campaign, saying:

…the ads say A LOT about Israel and Israelis. And what little it says about North America is something we all already know.

 

Anton Goodman also blogged in defense of the ads. Israel is fully entitled to speak to its own people, and this campaign did not address American Jewry.

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.

 

But Josh Ford disagrees with Anton, and argues for his right to take a stand on the matter, even while acknowledging that the video was not targeted at him.

…as part of that liberal elite I feel I have the right and obligation to speak-up when I agree or disagree with the direction of the Israeli government, its culture or position in the world.

 

Yishai Fleischer wrote an op-ed for Yediot facetiously apologizing for any hurt feelings the ads may have caused, but lauding the campaign for bringing the important questions to the fore.  

Far from being divisive, this media campaign actually brings to light a concern that all Jews living in America share: Jewish cultural and physical assimilation in the Diaspora. Most Jews want their kids to know Hanukkah more than Christmas, most Jews want their children to marry in the faith, most Jews understand that the Hebrew name “Abba” has value, and most Jews care about Israel. Seen in this light, the videos actually address the common concerns of all Diaspora Jews and contain nothing that should offend American Jewry.

 

Another angle came from Spengler by David P Goldman, which considered the truth that may lie behind the campaign. With statistics on American Jewish demography, and reflections on American Jewish liberalism, he argues that it would seem that the ads were not far from the truth.

Gil Troy commented on the uproar in his column in the Jerusalem Post, hinting that the American Jewish public has blown the issue out of proportion. After all, there is truth to the Israeli ads, and why should Israel have to tiptoe around it?

This American Jewish freak-out is strange given all the talk lately about how Israelis must learn to take criticism from Americans and American Jews without freaking out. The “big tent” looks less welcoming if the criticism only flows, like the donations, from enlightened America to benighted Israel. “Hugging and wrestling” must be mutual; otherwise it becomes moralizing and finger-pointing.

 

Yet with all the brouhaha surrounding this campaign, one may begin to wonder when commentators will stop talking about talking about the deeper underlying issues, and actually talk about them.

Amy Skopp Cooper posted a “letter to the Editor” admitting that indeed, being Jewish is a challenge in America, and that perhaps Israel was right to bring things to the surface.

Your videos made us feel guilty and forced us to confront what we hate to confront — that being a Jew in America is easy and maybe, just maybe, a copout.

 


How have Israelis Responded?

 

Israelis have been less forthcoming with their reactions to the ad campaign than their American brethren.

One post said that the Immigrant Absorption Minister, Sofa Landver reported that they did in fact do market research among Israelis before going public with the campaign, and that it was received quite well.

An article in Tablet Magazine written together by an American Jewish woman and her ex-pat Israeli husband expresses their exasperation and skepticism that Israel can ever be home to their liberal, progressive sensibilities.

In addition, we have seen several parody videos created by Israelis. Are they making fun of the campaign, or the American Jewish response to it?


 

Makom’s responses:

  1. This short blog looking at the campaign through the prism of the classic Zionist question of “Negation of the Diaspora”
  2. Robbie Gringras blogged about the thin coverage the commercials allowed for the deep and real issues they raise.
  3. In a similar vein, Makom challenged the public to “fill in the blanks” and do some of the deeper educational work: how should Dafna respond to her boyfriend?
  4. Makom’s new feature “Pushing the Button” allows several noted commentators from the Jewish world to weigh-in in one place.

 

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