The immigration and retention of Jews is now and always has been a major priority for Israel. But a recent government campaign in the US targeting Israeli expatriates infuriated a broad swath of American Jews.
By some estimates, 2 million Israelis live in the United States, and the Immigration Ministry apparently decided to do something about it.
Hebrew billboards in at least five US cities warned Israelis to come home before they lose their identity, and a series of slickly produced videos drove the point home.
In one, a clueless American boyfriend of an Israeli woman doesn't understand why she's mourning on the day Israelis mourn fallen soldiers. In another, the child of Israeli Americans answers "Christmas" when asked what holiday her family is celebrating, while her grandparents look on in horror, a Hanukkah Menorah on the mantle behind them. In a third, a father ignores his young son's entreaties of "daddy" until he reverts to the more acceptable "Abba."
The ads were pulled yesterday, after the Jewish Federation of North America said in a letter to supporters that "we share the concerns many of you have expressed that this outrageous and insulting message could harm the Israeli-Diaspora relationship" and the head of the Anti-Defamation League said they were "demeaning."
Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren apologized for the campaign in a statement, writing: "Prime Minister Netanyahu, once made aware of the campaign, ordered the videos immediately be removed from YouTube, and he ordered that the billboards be removed as well. The prime minister deeply values the American Jewish community and is committed to deepening ties between it and the State of Israel."
Minister for Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver oversaw the campaign. Ms. Landver is a member of Yisrael Beiteinu, a right-wing partner in Mr. Netanyahu's coalition government. The party's leader, Avigdor Lieberman, currently Israel's foreign minister, is emerging as a possible future rival to Netanyahu.
The flap illustrates a growing reality – that there are real and growing differences, of both style and substance, between American Jews and the Israeli state. The rise of the ultra-orthodox right in Israel is having an influence, and younger American Jews don't appear to identify with Israel in the same way that their parents and grandparents did.
The underlying message of the campaign certainly seemed to be you can't really remain Jewish in the US. The Jewish Channel called it a "semi-covert national campaign" carried out in at least five US cities with large Israeli populations to "convince them that their heritage will be lost if they don't soon go back to Israel."
The Jewish Channel said the ads suggest that "marrying American Jews could make Israelis lose their sense of identity" and ended the segment by segueing into growing Israeli complaints that it's hard to live there unless you pursue an "ultra-orthodox lifestyle."
Jeffrey Goldberg, an American Jew and ardent Zionist, wrote:
I don't think I have ever seen a demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews as obvious as these ads. ...
These government-sponsored ads suggest that it is impossible for Jews to remain Jewish in America. How else are we supposed to understand the "Christmas" ad? Obviously, assimilation and intermarriage are issues in America in ways they aren't in Israel. Israel has other problems of course, such as the fact that many of its rabbis act like Iranian mullahs. ...
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.