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The recent kerfluffle over Israeli government video ads and billboard posters, designed to entice wayward yordim to return home, instead exposed the troubled psyche of American Jews.
One might say – if verbal treif is permitted – that a ham-handed attempt by the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption to guilt-trip wandering Israelis into leaving their American promised land backfired. The ministry had good reason for concern lest American society continue to corrode the loyalty of Israelis to their homeland and culture. The benefits of assimilation, as American Jewish history (and the current intermarriage rate) reveals, exact high costs.
In the ministry videos a young Israeli woman solemnly contemplates Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance for fallen Israeli soldiers, while her American boyfriend is clueless. A sleeping Israeli father does not awaken while his youngster calls “daddy,” but not “abba.” The child of Israelis, Skyping with grandparents back home, is oblivious to the meaning of their Chanukah candles and imagines that it is Christmas.
For months these ads elicited no discernible response, either from wayward Israelis or American Jews. But once the video clips appeared on the Jewish Channel, prompting a tirade from Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg, gevalts resounded throughout the land.
Goldberg was appalled: “I don’t think I have ever seen a demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews as obvious as these ads.” Their message was clear: “it is impossible for Jews to remain Jewish in America.” He added, gratuitously, that Israel has its own problems: many rabbis “act like Iranian mullahs.” And intermarriage can be “understood as an opportunity” – although for what he did not specify.
The Board of Trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America was furious. Rejecting any notion that “American Jews do not understand Israel” (which hardly was the primary thrust of the ads), they warned that “this outrageous and insulting message could harm the Israel-Diaspora relationship.” Anti-Defamation League National Director Abe Foxman found the videos “demeaning.”
There may also have been a political subtext to the belated outrage. The New York Times noted gratuitously that the Israeli ministry responsible for the ad campaign is headed by a Russian immigrant named Sofa Landver. She belongs to “the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party [that]…takes a hard line on the peace process with the Palestinians and advocates exchanging parts of Israel heavily populated by Arab citizens for Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank.” Therefore, presumably, the ad campaign must be a bad idea.
With some 500,000 Israelis estimated to be living in the United States, it is no small problem that the Immigrant Absorption Ministry tried to address – if too bluntly for American Jewish insecurities. The Ministry, expressing its respect and appreciation to the American Jewish community, reiterated the obvious: the ad campaign targeted Israelis who had succumbed to the allure of American enticements, not American Jews.
But Prime Minister Netanyahu, responding to the squall of outrage from American Jewish precincts, quickly aborted the ad campaign. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, engaging in damage control, appeared on CNN for an interview with John King – on Shabbat, no less – to apologize for the failure of the Immigration Ministry to “take into account American Jewish sensibilities.”
As Jerusalem-based journalist David Hazony perceptively observed about the video ad fracas, “in the hysteria of the response, the insecurity of American Jewish life is laid bare.” That is the real story of the video ad contretemps, which the fury of American Jews inadvertently confirmed.
Israel has long been an integral part of that story. Two years after Israel’s founding, American Jewish Committee President Jacob Blaustein wrested his famous agreement from Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion that Israel would neither presume to speak for American Jews nor attempt to entice them to make aliyah.
More recently, whenever Israel has incurred the wrath of an American president for permitting another settlement in its biblical homeland American Jews have writhed with embarrassment and hastened to distance themselves from Israeli “zealots.”
Assimilated American Jews remain ever anxious lest they be held guilty by association with Israel’s perceived misdeeds. Their loyalty to the United States must never be impugned. Any implication that American Jews are without a sustainable Jewish identity is infuriating. They seemed shocked that exposure to Jewish life in their promised American homeland can corrode the Jewish identity of Israelis.
Israeli yordim are the proverbial canary in the mineshaft, warning of imminent danger ahead. Yet the ads were intended as a warning to Israelis, not to the American Jews who quickly jumped to the conclusion that it is “about us” – a clear indication, as Hazony wrote, that Israelis “stepped on a live wire in the American Jewish psyche.”
For American Jews of a certain persuasion, Israel once again was the big bad Jewish bully whose reckless actions jeopardized their deep yearning for recognition as good Jews and acceptance as loyal Americans. But when an Israeli and an American Jew are paired, the ads suggested, the Jewish deficiencies of American Jewish life become glaringly apparent. That stung – precisely because there is truth to it.
American Jews have always needed, above all, to defend their loyalty as Americans. They must also fend off disparagement of their Jewish identity, especially when Israel is its source. But Israelis, too, have cause for concern: the United States will welcome them but its enticements will exact their price – as assimilation inevitably does.
Jerold S. Auerbach is Professor Emeritus of History at Wellesley College. His blog is www.jacobsvoice.tumblr.com.
About the Author: Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Jewish State/Pariah Nation: Israel and the Dilemmas of Legitimacy,” to be published next month by Quid Pro Books.
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