December 18, 2018

Israel-Diaspora landmine detonator in chief

This is not the first time Prime Minister Binyamin Netayahu has to intervene on behalf of bettering Israel-Diaspora relations. Netanyahu is detonator in chief of all recent Israel-Diaspora landmines. The PM’s office is much more aware of Diaspora sensitivities and importance than most other Israeli government offices. It might be Netahyahu’s American background and his many contacts in the US, or it might be the fact that he’s the only one in charge of looking at the big picture, while most other ministries see the world through the relatively narrow lenses of the mission they have to accomplish.

This narrow view was manifested in the interview I conducted last week with Israel’s Minister of Absorption, Sofa Landver. Landver defended the controversial ad campaign aimed at bringing Israeli expatriates living in the US back home and explained why it should not be considered hurtful. She also clarified that the whole controversy was 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 told me. “I’m in charge of returning Israelis”.

Thus, it is no surprise that Netanyahu has decided to cancel the campaign designed to “guilt” Israelis back home as Jeff Goldblog describes it (Jeff Goldberg should be given the credit for making most of the noise, the Jewish Channel should be given the credit for being the first that raised a red flag). On Friday, the campaign and the negative criticism it was getting were brought to the attention of Netanyahu’s people. There was no time to do much before Shabbat, but a decision was made to pull the campaign off the air and reexamine the goal and the strategy. Netanyahu is in charge of both returning Israelis and Israel-Diaspora relations. He can’t leave it to Landver or to Edelstein (but he does, even though this is not the first embarrassment he had to deal with).

It is a story not much different than the one about the yanked “lost Jews” ad campaign from two years ago, or the one of the conversion bill controversy of 2010, when MK David Rotem of Israeli Beiteinu (the same Party Landver belongs to) was trying to alter 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 go into such an unnecessary fight with Israel’s most important support group. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld of the Jewish Conservative movement described for me the lobbying campaign of American Jewry against the change of Conversion laws:

“The Prime Minister received over 60,000 individual emails on this issue, as well as countless phone calls and letters from high level officials around the world including members of the US Senate and House of Representatives, philanthropists and business leaders.  Cong. Nita Lowey , 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, similar to the one we’ve just seen with the ad campaign: Prime Minister Netanyahu, wishing to avert both a coalition crisis in his government (with Yisrael Beiteinu 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 with the conversion of 300,000 Israelis from the former Soviet Union, the PM was the responsible adult having to clarify that solving one problem by creating another, no smaller problem, was just not worth it. Likewise today, the government still wants Israelis to come back, but should try to achieve this important object without alienating American Jews.