January 21, 2019

Israel-Diaspora crisis: Averted

This week, Shmuel Rosner joins The Journal’s regular contributors as senior political editor, writing weekly for the print edition and blogging daily, and exclusively, for jewishjournal.com from Israel on his newly re-created Rosner’s Domain. This blog, which he started in 2005 for the Israeli news daily Haaretz, features not only Rosner’s insights on political issues and the intersection of Israel and the larger Jewish world, but also many guest columnists and interviews with leading figures. Rosner comes to us from his previous post as columnist at The Jerusalem Post, and along with this move to The Jewish Journal, he will continue to contribute a weekly Hebrew-language column to Maariv, Israel’s largest daily newspaper; serve as a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute; and as the nonfiction editor for Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan-Dvir, Israel’s largest publishing house.

After revelations last week of Israel’s guilt trip on the Jewish Diaspora through a billboard and video advertising campaign that included, among others, a young Americanized girl mistaking Chanukah for Christmas, to the distress of her Skyping Israeli grandparents, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly shut the whole thing down, but not before an outcry that left Israel with one more public-relations problem on its hands.

This was not the first time Netanyahu has had to intervene on behalf of bettering Israel-Diaspora relations. Netanyahu has become detonator-in-chief of all recent Israel-Diaspora landmines. For some reason, the prime minister’s office is much more aware of the Diaspora’s sensitivities and importance than most other Israeli offices. This might stem from Netanyahu’s American background and his many contacts in the United States, or it might be because he’s the only one charged with looking at the big picture, while most other ministers only see the world through the relatively narrow lens of the mission they have to accomplish.

This difference was quite evident in my interview last week with Minister of Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver. She defended the campaign and explained why it should not be considered hurtful, but also clarified that the whole controversy was not hers to worry about. “Minister Edelstein [Yuli Edelstein, minister of information and Diaspora] is the one who needs to communicate with the Jewish community,” she told me. “I’m in charge of returning Israelis.”

The crisis at hand was over an Israeli campaign aimed at luring emigrating Israelis who live in the United States to come home, back to Israel. There were billboards placed in key locations in Los Angeles, Palo Alto, New York, Boston and Miami, and there were video clips. In the most circulated one of them, a family is shown Skyping Israeli grandparents at Chanukah, and their presumably assimilated granddaughter refers to the holiday as “Christmas.” The message of this clip and all the others is pretty straightforward: You can’t live in the United States and maintain your Jewish identity.

Why such campaigns make some American Jews uncomfortable is quite clear. The United States is home to a vibrant Jewish community, as well as to many Israelis who are able to maintain their Jewish identity far away from the homeland. Jeffrey Goldberg, raising hell over the issue in his popular Atlantic blog, the Goldblog, wrote that “the idea, communicated in these ads, that America is no place for a proper Jew, and that a Jew who is concerned about the Jewish future should live in Israel, is archaic, and also chutzpadik.”

The many comments I’ve gathered this week from many American acquaintances all followed the same line of thought, some more forcefully, some willing to forgive what they saw as merely typical Israeli ineptitude.

Among Israelis, most reactions were quite different. Israelis told me, “Well, if these Americans can’t face the truth, that’s their problem.” (The exception was an Israeli living in the Los Angeles area, Eli Tene, co-chair of the Israeli Leadership Council, who told me that the new campaign lacked “sensitivity to the majority.”)

Among Israelis living in Israel, though, “assimilation” is still the word most associated with American Jewry, as was evident in another ad campaign yanked two years ago — the “lost Jews” campaign. That campaign created by the Jewish Agency for Israel and co-sponsored by the government, was an attempt to make Israelis more aware of the MASA program, which is designed to bring young adults to Israel for long-term stays. In the advertisement, missing-person signs showed Jewish names and faces posted at a train station as grim-looking trains departed, while a narrator, speaking over haunting music, intoned: “More than 50 percent of young Jews overseas are assimilating, and we are losing them.” The ad asked anyone who “knows a young Jew living abroad” to call MASA so that “together, we will strengthen his or her bond to Israel, so that we don’t lose them.”

Criticism followed, and the campaign was pulled prematurely. Israelis, though, haven’t changed their minds. The way they see it, Diaspora equals assimilation. It is the classic Zionist position, and has always been a point of contention between the two greatest contemporary Jewish communities.

Nonetheless, when criticism threatened to ruin this newest ad campaign, Israeli Minister of Immigrant Absorption Landver was furious. How can anyone not like a campaign aimed at bringing back emigrating Israelis? How can anyone not understand its true motivation and meaning? Do I really have to respond to such “foolishness”? she asked me.

She later called the criticism “out of touch” and “tzimmes” (big fuss), and talked about a “journalist with zero understanding.” (While not mentioning him by name, she was obviously aiming mostly at Goldberg.)  Every journalist, she said, “needs to have some intelligence.”

I spent a fair amount of time on the phone with the minister and got the impression that she didn’t quite get it. “We took it upon ourselves to try and connect with Israelis abroad; this has nothing to do with American Jews, for whom I have the utmost respect,” she said. The American Jewish community is “dear to our hearts,” she told me. The campaign was about Israelis — not American Jews, she insisted. And, in fact, her position did made some sense: Second- and third-generation Israeli emigrants are in higher danger of assimilation than American Jews in general, because they often lack any ties to a strong and vibrant Jewish community.

Landver, however, was taken aback, because she didn’t expect all this criticism and, up until the outcry, she was very happy with the campaign. Her bottom line was: The response from Israelis is great, “more than 100,000” looked at the videos on the ministry’s Web site in the first week. (Her spokesperson later gave me an updated number: 155,000.) We managed to “touch all the right emotional buttons,” she added. That is, Israeli buttons. In May 2010, the Israeli government had made the decision to try to lure more Israelis to come back, and since then, 14,000 have responded to the call and returned, according to the ministry’s numbers.

“How would you like us to highlight all those things important to Israelis” without doing such a campaign, without arguing that being away from Israel might cause one to lose one’s identity? she asked. This divergence of views will now be the headache of the prime minister, as Netanyahu is torn between avoiding the criticism and possible further crises, while also wanting to bring more Israelis back.

Yogev Karasenty, a leading expert on emigrating Israelis, wrote in September,  “The numerical difference between Israelis who head overseas for a year or longer and those who return to the country after a sojourn overseas for a year or longer is not overwhelming. In 2009, the number stood at 4,900 — that is, 15,900 departing Israelis compared to 11,000 returning Israelis (not counting new immigrants). And here’s the best news: The 2009 figure represents the lowest such migration differential in over 30 years.” In other words, Israelis are coming back much more than you might think. The economy (better in Israel than in the United States) is probably the driving force. Campaigns such as the one we saw last week only ride an already existing trend. And Israel wants this trend to continue.

During my conversation with Landver, it was quite clear that she doesn’t bother to make this nuanced distinction between “Israeli” and “Jewish” identity. “We wanted to address the things that every Jew feels,” she said.

It is no surprise, though, that Netanyahu chose to cancel the campaign. He is in charge both of returning Israelis and of Israel-Diaspora relations. He can’t leave either entirely just to Landver or to Edelstein. On Dec. 2, the campaign and the negative press it was getting were brought to the attention of Netanyahu’s people. There was not time to do much before Shabbat, but a decision was made to pull the campaign and re-examine the goal and the strategy.

This story vividly recalls that of the conversion bill controversy of 2010, when Knesset Member David Rotem of Israeli Beiteinu (the same party to which Landver belongs) was trying to toughen the state’s conversion law. At the time, the bill was moving forward in the Knesset, and American Jewish leaders were scratching their heads trying to understand why the Israeli government would enter into such an unnecessary fight with Israel’s most important support group. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld of the Jewish Conservative movement described to me the lobbying campaign of American Jewry against the change of conversion laws:

“The prime minister received over 60,000 individual e-mails on this issue, as well as countless phone calls and letters from high-level officials around the world, including members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, philanthropists and business leaders. Congresswoman Nita Lowey, a member of a Conservative synagogue, who is also a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and chair of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, stated, ‘I don’t think there’s any issue that is of such great concern to American Jews as “Who is a Jew?” I have asked them to oppose this legislation.’ ”

The outcome was similar to what we’ve just seen with the current ad campaign: Prime Minister Netanyahu, wishing to avert both a coalition crisis in his government (with Yisrael Beitenu and the ultra-Orthodox parties supporting the law) and a crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations, suspended the bill. While still wishing to solve an urgent problem over the conversion of 300,000 Israelis from the former Soviet Union, the prime minister nevertheless acting as the responsible adult, had to clarify that solving one problem by creating another one, no smaller in scope, just was not worth it.

Likewise last week, the government remains clear that it wants Israelis to come back but hopes now to achieve this important objective without alienating American Jews.