by Erica Shaps
Last week, the Israeli Ministry of Immigration Absorption’s now-cancelled ad campaign directed at bring Israeli expatriates in American back home took the American Jewish media by storm.
The contents of the ads are, by this point, well known. My personal favorite shows a young family Skyping with their grandparents in Israel. As we look at the menorah in the background of the grandparents’ screen, they ask their granddaughter, in Hebrew, if she knows what Holiday they are celebrating. She enthusiastically responds, “Christmas!” Her parents look on in horror. The fear-mongering, offensive, inaccuracy-laden ads were almost comical. If I didn’t know better, I could have easily mistaken them for skits on Eretz Nehederet. These insulting advertisements showed Israeli disdain for Diaspora Jewry and a perception that we cannot live full Jewish lives.
Almost immediately, Abe Foxman, of the Anti-Defamation League, and the Jewish Federations of North America released statements deploring the ads. Only three days after Jeffrey Goldberg wrote his blog post, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ambassador Michael Oren issued an apology, and the ads were gone.
I think that a number of important conclusions can be drawn from this series of events
The ad campaign had been playing in Israel for months; even then, Israelis were not particularly thrilled with the campaign. My Israeli roommate put it this way: “Isn’t it nice that they do the right thing after they insulted all of you [Diaspora Jews] and not months ago when the Israelis said that it was a bad idea?
It goes to show that when American Jewish leaders are outraged enough and make a lot of noise, Israel listens. This phenomenon was also well observed last summer when Diaspora Jews’ campaign against the Rotem Conversion Bill led to a vote being postponed indefinitely. Although I don’t think American Jews should abuse their potential influence over the Israeli government, I do think it is fair for us to put pressure on government officials when their decisions have ramifications for worldwide Jewry and the United States, like legislation that restricts our government’s ability to allocate funds to organizations of its choosing.
American Jews place substantial money, resources and time into defending Israel’s best interests in the American political arena. Therefore, we have the right to advocate for the Diaspora and express our frustrations with the Israeli government from time to time. As this incident proved, when we do, it can be a powerful motivator and catalyst for change.
Second, Israel has the right (and good reasons) to try to court expatriates to return home–it has been reported that as many as two million Israelis are currently living in the United States. However, the too-cheesy-to-be-compelling ads are an insult to Israeli intellect. When the ads first aired here, many people saw them as hilariously over the top, disconnected from Israelis’ mindset, and completely ignoring the real issues that draw Israelis away. The ads offer no tangible incentives for Israelis to come back. One friend joked that the ads might have been more effective if they reminded expats that the weather is much nicer in Tel Aviv than New York.
Instead of attempting to play off Israelis’ emotions, the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption would be better off addressing the legitimate factors that might have led so many to leave Israel in the first place. If the young family from the “Christmas” ad lived in Israel, they probably would not live in a comfortable suburban home, but possibly in the apartment of the very grandparents they were Skyping. Their daughter might not have the same educational opportunities. If Dafna from the “Remembrance” ad was home, she might very well have pitched a tent on Rothschild this past summer to protest economic and social inequalities. If Israel is truly determined to bring expatriates home, instead of spending a reported three million shekels on a tacky ad campaign, it should allocate its resources to addressing the issues that made Israelis take to the street this summer and probably make the “land of opportunity” so enticing.
I hope these four days of tumult between the Israeli government and U.S Jews proves to be a teachable moment. The Israeli government should take more strides to understand both Diaspora Jews and the needs of her own people. U.S. Jews, on the other hand, should think carefully about their relationship with Israel and ability to influence its behavior; when the time is right for us to speak up, we make change happen.