Close your eyes, breathe in deeply, now exhale slowly… That was easy, wasn’t it? Not for everyone…
Dear American Jews,
I wish to apologize in the name of the State of Israel. We have heard our ad campaign encouraging ex-pat Israelis to come home has offended many of you. That was certainly not the intent, and if it did offend, we are sorry.
Israel created this ad campaign in order to address a major issue. We have almost a million Israelis living abroad, mostly in North America, and our tiny country, the one both you and we love so much, is in desperate need of manpower to feed the economy, serve in the army, and buttress our demographic advantage, not to mention that the ingathering of the Jewish people from the four corners of the world is a central tenet of Zionism.
Alas, America’s magnetic pull has attracted many to leave the shores of the Holy Land in search of success and fortune and they have settled there. Yet we want to call many of these Israelis back to Israel.
So how do we reach out to our fellow Israelis living in the U.S.? What messaging resonates with this target demographic? Well, we can take the economic tack. Israel’s economy is booming, but the perception persists that it’s hard to make money here. Maybe we should pursue the safe haven tack? That holds water for those few Israelis living in openly dangerous places, but it is hard to convince an Israeli living in Los Angeles or Boston that it is safer in Israel.
Then there is the family and culture tack. Israeli ex-pats may have left the homeland, but they remain deeply Israeli. They love and miss Ima‘s Moroccan cooking, going on Miluim (IDF reserves) and, most of all, they miss the holidays, which include national holidays like Yom Ha’Atzmaut and Yom HaZikaron. They care about their culture and they fear losing their connection to it.
And so the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption conceived of and executed a series of ads targeting the sensibilities of Israelis – to touch their hearts, make them miss home, remind them of the risk of cultural assimilation and, maybe, help convince them to come back.
Let us examine the three videos that were produced.
The first features a boy trying to get his napping father’s attention. The child says aloud “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” But the father continues sleeping. Finally the boy whispers “Abba” and the father awakens and smiles.
The message is that the father responds to “Abba” because he is culturally Israeli, that is, in this case, someone who identifies more with Hebrew than English. The ad ends by saying that ex-pats will always remain culturally Israeli; however, their Diaspora born-children will not be. The presumption is that this will cause pain because of the cultural rift, so instead, Israelis should come home.
While this ad is provocative, it certainly cannot be seen as offensive to American Jewry. It directly targets Israelis and asks them a tough question: Do you want your child to say Daddy or Abba? Fair enough.
If, however, American Jewry was offended at the idea that Hebrew may be more culturally Jewish than English, that is something certainly worth debating. Clearly, Israelis living in Israel and abroad feel more comfortable with Hebrew and therefore the video is spot on.
The second video features a Skype conversation between two Israeli grandparents living in Israel and their older children who live in the U.S., now parents themselves. In between the young U.S. couple sits the beloved granddaughter. The grandparents have Chanukah paraphernalia in the background and ask their granddaughter, “Nu, so do you know what holiday it is?” to which the little girl proudly responds “Christmas!” The couples exchange uncomfortable glances.
Here, the Christmas/Chanukah conflict is more sensitive than the Abba/Daddy dichotomy. This video touches on the problems of the decaying Jewish identity and the forces of cultural assimilation affecting American Jews and Israelis in America. Can there be any doubt that the powerful pop culture of America wreaks havoc on authentic Jewish or Israeli culture? Can anyone seriously claim that this video created boogie men where none existed? Why else would there be constant talk of funding Jewish education, Hillel houses, Birthright trips etc.? There is a real challenge to keep Jews Jewish today – and who understands that better than American Jews? This video unflinchingly addresses a phenomenon that afflicts all Jews living in America.
The video that has the most potential to offend is the one that led Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic to post the loud headline: “Netanyahu Government Suggests Israelis Avoid Marrying American Jews.”
Let’s go to the videotape: in the ad, a couple is seen entering a big city apartment. The room is dark, except for a single lit candle. The man tells the woman, “Now I understand why you didn’t want to go to the party” intimating that a romantic evening was planned by her. She, on the other hand, looks sad as she silently goes to her computer, where we see she is viewing a Yom HaZikaron (Israeli memorial day) website. As she quietly mourns the soldiers who have died to defend Israel, the young man asks “Dafna, what is this?” The narrator says: “They will always stay Israeli, but their partner won’t – help them come home.”
To any sane viewer, one without a massive chip on his shoulder, it is clear the man in the video is a non-Jew, a gentile whom the Israeli girl is dating. Had he been a Jew, Dafna would have simply explained to him: “Today is Israel’s memorial day, when we remember those who have fallen in the fight for the Jewish state.” If he were a Jew he would have been profoundly moved because most Jews care about our homeland and have feelings for the young IDF soldiers who have given their lives.
Goldberg’s shallow analysis, in which he is “certain” the Israeli government is caricaturing and castigating American Jewry through the male character, borders on the conspiratorial. Clearly, the Netanyahu government did not tell Israeli Jews not to marry American Jews. I am sure Bibi would like nothing more than for Dafna to marry a nice American Jewish boy, bring him on aliyah, and help him become a part of everything that she holds dear, including Yom HaZikaron.
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 Chanukah more then Christmas, most Jews want their children to marry in the faith, most Jews understand that the Hebrew term “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 contains nothing that should offend American Jewry.
Some American Jews may have been offended by the insinuation that Israel is the land of the Jews, and somehow preferable to America. Indeed, that idea is not always easy to swallow but keep in mind that the love of the homeland is a deep-rooted value in our ancient Jewish texts and is a fundamental tenet of modern Zionism. The Netanyahu government did not exceed its mandate when it called on Jews to come home, especially those who already have Israeli citizenship. And one cannot deny that aliyah does combat assimilation by helping Jews come home to the land of the Jews where Jews marry Jews and make beautiful Jewish culture together.
At the very least, the videos succeeded in generating some discussion in the Jewish world about major issues facing our people: Israel’s ongoing challenges of yerida (Israeli ex-pats), the Diaspora’s rampant assimilation, and even the cultural distance between America and U.S. Jews. It would be a shame if we took the childish and easy way out of this debate by simply saying “you hurt my feelings!”
So, my American Jewish brothers and sisters, again I am sorry if my government’s efforts hurt you; it was certainly not intended to do so. This campaign’s objective was to help reunite the family, but sadly it ended up dividing us. Let us pray this episode will, in the end, help the Jewish people come closer and buck the trend of growing farther apart.
Yishai Fleisher is managing editor at The Jewish Press Online (www.jewishpress.com) and Israel’s only English language broadcast radio show host (Galey Yisrael 106.5FM). He is also an Israeli paratrooper, a graduate of Cardozo Law School, and the founder of Kumah (“Arise”), an NGO dedicated to promoting Zionism and strengthening Israel’s national character.
About the Author: Yishai Fleisher is the Contributing Editor and PR manager at the JewishPress.com, and Israel's only English language broadcast radio show host (Galey Yisrael 106.5FM). Yishai is an Israeli Paratrooper, a graduate of Cardozo Law School, and the founder of Kumah ("Arise" in Hebrew), an NGO dedicated to promoting Zionism and strengthening Israel's national character. Yishai is married to Malkah, they have two children, and they live on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
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