Distant relations

Distant relations

Ynet reported last week that the Knesset is scheduling a special workshop to teach Israeli lawmakers — I am not making this up — manners. The etiquette lessons teach Knesset members to “eat with a knife and fork and with their mouth closed” and “to avoid playing with their cellular phones in the middle of a meeting.”

One lesson they might want to add: Don’t go out of your way to insult your Jewish cousins in America.

Because at bottom, the brouhaha over a series of ads intended to lure expatriate Israelis back home is really about manners.

The ad campaign was the creation of Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. Two of the three YouTube videos take a negative approach to Jewish life in America. In the one that angered Americans the most, an American granddaughter tells her saba and savta back in Israel that she celebrates Christmas.

The story became a Story after Atlantic.com blogger Jeffrey Goldberg complained, “I don’t think I have ever seen a demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews as obvious as these ads.” Within hours the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Federations of North America also condemned the ads.

Last Friday, Prime Minister Netanyahu yanked the campaign.

I understand the upset over the ads, especially the Christmas one, whose essential message is that the Diaspora is a Jewish dead end. Defenders of the ad suggested they were only promoting “Israeliness” — which only rings true if Hanukka had become an exclusive Israeli holiday while I wasn’t looking.

But two other challenges are harder to deny. The first is that the ads are essentially recapitulating classic Zionism — what earlier Zionist thinkers called shlilat hagalut, or Negation of the Diaspora. For these pioneers, Israel wasn’t supposed to be another Jewish lifestyle, but the only solution to a world that had made Jewish spiritual and physical survival unsustainable. Hebrew poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik referred to the Diaspora as a seed “withered in its soil,” which would itself make a pretty harsh tag line for an ad campaign.

This hard-line doctrine softened after Israel’s founding and the growth of a remarkably secure and self-assured American-Jewish community. “Negation” was out, “partnership” was in. While the Jewish Agency pushed aliya, Israel resigned itself to the idea that American Jewry was not only there to stay, but a vital asset in promoting Israeli security abroad.

In that sense, the ads reopened an old wound.

The second challenge to the ads’ American critics is this: Aren’t they true? And are the messages of the ads really any different from what Jewish organizations are telling us all the time?

For decades now, “continuity” has been the bane, and buzzword, of Jewish organizational life. Whether we’re talking about Birthright, the federations, day schools, or summer camps, the message tends to be, “Do this, or your kids will grow up to marry a non-Jew,” or “Support this, or your kids will forget what it means to be Jewish.” If these ads were created by an American-Jewish organization to promote continuity, they would be considered daring, not “controversial.”

The ads fail, however, by smugly asserting that Jewish identity is an exclusive American-Jewish problem. In fact, Israeli educators and think tanks have for years fretted that secular Israelis have lost touch with their “Jewishness.” David Hazony, an American-born writer based in Jerusalem, wrote that the ads contained “a truth too painful for many American Jews to handle” — namely, that the odds of raising a Jewish grandkid are higher in Israel than America. And yet his brother, Israeli political theorist Yoram Hazony, also wrote an entire book, The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul, about “a lack of Jewish purpose and meaning” among Israel’s “post-Zionist” generation.

David Hazony also asserted in his defense of the ads that Jewish organizations that criticize Israel can dish it out but can’t take it. In fact, the federation movement and the ADL are perhaps the groups least likely to criticize Israel. On the rare occasions that they do, it is about status issues like Who is a Jew? and almost never about security or internal affairs.

Which raises one last point about the reaction to the ads: sublimation. Like a wife who blows up at a husband over a stray hair on the soap, the American groups’ angry reaction to the ads suggests that something else is going on beneath the surface. Over the past few weeks, Israeli lawmakers have put forth a number of actions — trying to eliminate Arabic as a national language, hobbling foreign funding of Israeli NGOs — widely seen as anti-democratic. At the very least, many American Jews quietly consider them terrible hasbara — public diplomacy — at the very moment when Israel has a chance to distinguish itself from the failed democratic aspirations of the Arab Spring.

It may be no surprise that Israel’s minister of immigrant absorption is a member of Yisrael Beiteinu, a nationalist party responsible for some of the most troubling legislation. At one level, the ads controversy is about bad manners — cousins don’t criticize cousins in public. But for groups loath to criticize Israel on security issues or internal affairs, the ads gave them a chance to tell their relatives how they really feel.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article confused David Hazony with his brother Yoram Hazony. The article has been corrected.

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