Ruth Barbut of Randolph has been in the United States for 11 years. Her husband, Yossi, has been here over 20 years. Yet from time to time they still discuss going home to Israel.
“I want to go back,” she said. “In each Israeli it’s always something he has inside, thinking about going back.”
Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption was counting on that when it produced a series of billboards and YouTube advertisements that urge Israelis living abroad to come home. What they weren’t counting on were the objections of American Jews.
In one ad, an American granddaughter tells her saba and savta back in Israel that she celebrates Christmas; in another, an Israeli woman’s English-speaking boyfriend doesn’t understand why she is so upset on Israel’s Memorial Day.
After cable television’s The Jewish Channel ran a story on the ad campaign, the Jewish Federations of North America called the ads “insulting” to American Jews, and the head of the Anti-Defamation League said they were “demeaning.”
“The idea, communicated in these ads, [is] that America is no place for a proper Jew,” wrote influential Atlantic.com blogger Jeffrey Goldberg.
Last Friday, the Netanyahu government canceled the ad campaign.
Barbut saw the ads on the Internet but thought they “didn’t deliver the right message.”
For Barbut, the disassociation between Judaism and Israeli culture doesn’t jibe with what she’s seen in Israeli families in the States. Nor does the ads’ depiction of Jewish life in America.
Assimilation “can happen but everything is dependent on how you raise the kids,” Barbut said. “It pinched my heart” when Barbut’s daughter heard Christmas carols in class, but her mother felt better knowing she had already been asked by the teacher to come in and explain Hannuka.
And yet, while its American critics say the ads show disdain for the Diaspora, Barbut suggests that they tap real emotions among Israeli expatriates.
“I’m afraid from assimilation,” Barbut admitted. The family does their best to celebrate holidays and “we don’t send out the kids to any programs on Shabbat,” she said. She said there’s nothing wrong with American culture and is a U.S. citizen herself, but she still worries and said she is afraid her daughter will “go to college and bring me a non-Jewish boy…. I would have a very hard time with that.”
Noga Maliniak, executive shlicha, or emissary, of the Legow Family Israel Program Center in Whippany, understands the objections to the ads.
She said the ads, with their negative view of Disaspora life, would make her job of connecting American Jews with Israel a little bit harder.
“They could have taken the campaign to [show] the positives” about Israeli life instead, she said. A “call to action” would have been a better tactic, but she did note that “the fact that the campaign caused such a reaction means it worked. It got people talking.”
Phil Levey saw the ads but feels there is no emotional truth to them. “Like any good advertisement they go to an extreme,” said the Union resident, an Israeli who has been in the United States since 1988. “They’re trying to sell a product, and their product is Israel. It doesn’t reflect necessarily the true life” that an Israeli expat is living, he said. “No Israeli with a little bit of seichel in his brain” is going to move back because of an advertisement, he said.
Levey has U.S. citizenship and has no plans to move back. He visits Israel at least once every year. His son Ethan, 11, a sixth-grader at Golda Och Academy, is fluent in English, Hebrew, and Portuguese; his mother is originally from Brazil.
Levey said the “Christmas” spot may even have had it backward.
“Unfortunately, there are more and more young Israelis [in Israel] who know less about Judaism than Americans,” he said. “The people who live outside Israel have more of a connection to Judaism because that’s what unifies them.”
‘That’s just silly’
Much of the discussion about the ads was driven by Jeffrey Goldberg’s blog, where he complained that the ads suggested “that it is impossible for Jews to remain Jewish in America.”
But Adam Oded, a Philadelphia educational consultant formerly of Passaic, said Goldberg had confused their intent.
“I don't think the message is that you can't remain Jewish outside of Israel. That's just silly. I think the message is that you can't remain Israeli outside of Israel,” Oded, the former teen educator at the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life in MetroWest, wrote on his Facebook page.
Leaders of the JFNA, however, saw no such distinction.
“While we recognize the motivations behind the ad campaign, we are strongly opposed to the messaging that American Jews do not understand Israel,” wrote the federation leaders in a statement. “[T]his outrageous and insulting message could harm the Israel-Diaspora relationship.”
In pulling the campaign, Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, who was raised in New Jersey, said that the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption “clearly did not take into account American-Jewish sensibilities, and we regret any offense it caused.”
Maliniak said the conversation was worth having.
“I’m going to use it in the rest of my shlihut now as a point to discuss…Israelis and Americans and Jewish peoplehood,” she said.