December 11, 2018

The Minister of Absorption vs. American Jewish “foolishness”

Israeli Minister of Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver is furious. How can anyone not like the campaign aimed at bringing back emigrant Israelis? How can anyone not understand its true motivation and meaning?

Yes, she heard that there’s a growing amount of criticism directed at this campaign (I wrote about it yesterday). She heard about the Jewish Channel report, and about Jeffrey Goldberg’s harshly disapproving post. Her office is in charge of the advertisement campaign in a couple of American communities “that warn Israeli expatriates that they will lose their identities if they don’t return home”, as Goldberg described it, or to “call on Israeli emigrants to come back home”, as the minister describes it.

Goldberg wrote: “I don’t think I have ever seen a demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews as obvious as these ads”. And she says: Do I really have to respond to such “foolishness”?

Landver later calls the criticism (while not mentioning Goldberg by name, it’s obvious she’s aiming mostly at him – and in that regard, maybe this post’s headline is a bit of a stretch) “out of touch”, and “tzimmes”, and talks about a “journalist with zero understanding”. As I’ve said, she is angry. Every journalist, she tells me, “needs to have some intelligence”. (Post continues below video clip)

I spent a fair amount of time on the phone with the minister this morning, and I’m afraid to say that she doesn’t quite get it. She doesn’t understand why anyone would be upset with the ads and the videos and the message. “We took upon ourselves to try and connect with Israelis abroad, this has nothing to do with American Jews for which I have the highest respect”, she said. The American Jewish community is “dear to our hearts”, she tells me, but at the same time, it’s not her issue of concern. “Minister Edelstein (Yuli Edelstein, Minister of Information and Diaspora) is the one who needs to communicate with the Jewish Community”, she says. “I’m in charge of returning Israelis”.

That is one bureaucratic explanation that wouldn’t fly with critical American Jews. The minister, though, finds it hard to believe that many such critics exist. She’d agree with the report in the Boston Globe, three weeks ago, in which it was explained that “The message of the Cambridge billboard… is that Israelis who linger too long in the Diaspora risk losing their Jewish roots”. Israelis – not American Jews. In fact, this position of the minister does make sense: Second and third generation Israeli emigrants are in higher danger of assimilation that American Jews in general, because they often lack the ties to a strong and vibrant Jewish community.

She didn’t expect all this criticism, and up until two days ago was very happy with the campaign (she says she’s still happy with it). Her bottom line: The response from Israelis is great, “more than one hundred thousand” have looked at the videos on the ministry’s website in the first week (her spokesperson later gave me the current number: 155,000). We managed to “touch all the right emotional buttons”, she says. That is, the right Israeli buttons. The Israeli government had made the decision to try and lure more Israelis to come back in May 2010, and 14,000 have since responded to the call and returned, according to data provided by the ministry. “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 their identity?

During the conversation it was quite clear that Landver doesn’t bother to make the nuanced distinction between “Israeli” and “Jewish” identity. “We wanted to address the things that every Jew feels”, she says. Well, obviously it is not “every” Jew. Yet again – as I wrote yesterday – this little misunderstanding is a contemporary manifestation of the tension created by the classical Zionist position on relations between Jews in Israel and Jews in the Diaspora. It was always a point of disagreement between the two greatest contemporary Jewish communities.