Thoughts On That Israeli Ad Campaign

Much ink has already been spilled on the ill-fated ad campaign launched by Israel’s Ministry of Absorption, aimed at convincing Israelis living here in the United States to return to Israel. I’m afraid I’m going to spill a little more.

At this point, there is little need to clarify how offensive the campaign was to so many members of the American Jewish community. Once it was publicized widely on the web, the explosion of outrage spoke for itself. Thankfully, the Ministry pulled the campaign, though I’m not completely sure it understood why so many were offended. It issued that special kind of apology that’s not really an apology. “If we offended anyone, we are sorry.” Don’t you just love when people say that to you? They know they’ve offended you, but all they can bring themselves to say is “if we offended anyone…

The question that begs to be asked and answered, of course, is why were people so offended?

If it was because of the implication in the ads that Diaspora Jewish life has no future, then those of us who have studied the history of Zionism and read the writings of its great thinkers are obliged to admit that we are hardly shocked by the attitude. It’s totally consistent with classical Zionist thought.

The Zionist movement was born out of a raging, explosive sense of despair with the Diaspora. The proto-Zionists, who had witnessed the pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe and the stubborn anti-Semitism of Western Europe, became increasingly convinced that there was no future possible for Jews unless they took charge of their own destiny, and regained sovereignty over their historic homeland. Herzl, Pinsker, Gordon… No serious student of Zionism can be surprised that an Israeli government ministry thinks that the American Jewish Diaspora has no future. And as long as we’re talking among ourselves here, I think we would do well to admit that their concerns are hardly unjustified. One needn’t be a sociologist to know that intermarriage and assimilation- the fruits of our radical integration into this country- are exacting a tremendous toll on the Jewish community, and threatening its future.

And if we were offended because Israel wants to reclaim its citizens, and implied in the ads that marrying American Jews would hopelessly dilute their connection to the motherland, well- they might indeed be right there, too. Of course many American Jews are Zionists, and passionate supporters of Israel. But many of the Israelis who left Israel did so precisely because their connection to Israel was already tenuous, all protestations to the contrary, and they were looking to create new lives for themselves.

Here, I think, is where we get to the real source of the problem. As I see it, what was patently offensive in those ads was the implication that only in Israel can Israelis/Jews be guaranteed an unbreakable connection to their heritage and traditions, one that cannot be diluted with time. In America, they would say, Christmas will overpower Chanukah, Gentile culture will overwhelm Jewish tradition, children will marry out of the faith, etc.

And to that I have to painfully say… who are they kidding? How can any person with even the most rudimentary knowledge of the condition of Judaism in the State of Israel think, or even imply, that living one’s life there is any kind of guarantee of meaningful connection to Jewish heritage and tradition? When day after day brings headline after headline speaking to the ever increasing alienation of so many Israelis from Judaism because of the repressive and regressive rabbinic establishment there, how can any observer of that situation- at least outside the Orthodox world- even dare to imply that Israel is a better guarantor of positive attitudes towards Judaism? As regards caring about Yom Hazikaron- Israel’s Memorial day- they might be right, even if it’s not an adequate excuse for those commercials. But knowing and caring about the difference between Chanukah and Christmas? Does having a Hanukiyah on the roof of so many buildings say anything about the fostering of enduring attitudes to the Jewish religion as a whole? I wish I could say that I thought it did, but I’m afraid I can’t.

Israelis have a lot of trouble understanding this, and few will admit to it, but here’s a bold statement. I think we actually “do Judaism” better here than it’s done in Israel. With our pluralistic community, and without government interference, we offer Jews multiple ports of entry into the splendor of Jewish life and tradition. No coercion, no interference. And even when there are occasional moments of friction between our different organizations and priorities, our communal plate is so rich, and so varied… You don’t like that synagogue, go to another one. You’re not comfortable in Orthodoxy, find your spiritual self in Conservative, or Reform, or Reconstructionist, and of course vice versa! Yes, we are fighting uphill battles against the radical “sovereign self” attitude of American Jews. But we have many weapons, and our fight is by no means lost.

What’s so sad in all this is that foolish and ill-conceived programs like the Ministry of Absorption’s ad campaign needlessly add to the disinclination of too many American Jews to focus in on the real issues facing Israel. As Iran continues in its efforts to go nuclear and the Arab spring turns into an increasingly cold winter, saner minds in Israel would do well to consider just how badly the State of Israel needs Diaspora Jewish support right now. Why isn’t Israel strengthening those ties, instead of straining them?

What a concept …

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.