Saturday, 10 December 2011

Jews, Israelis and Zionists: Thoughts about a Discontinued Ad Campaign‏

From Guest Blogger: DOUGLAS ARONIN


   Israel has enough problems to deal with right now, so it was hardly an opportune moment to pick a fight with the institutional leadership of American Jewry.  Then again, Israel's Ministry of Absorption didn't realize it was picking a fight with American Jewish leaders when it launched an advertising campaign aimed at persuading Israelis living in the United States to return home. The ensuing brouhaha reminds us, in case we needed further reminding, that Israelis and American Jews really don't understand each other.
   The ad campaign targeted Israeli expatriates, commonly known as yordim (literally those who descend), not native born American Jews, but it apparently touched a raw nerve among American Jewish leaders.  Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called it "heavy-handed, and even demeaning."  The leadership of the Jewish Federations of North America, the national umbrella for local Jewish federations, reportedly sent a letter of protest to the Ministry, calling the ads "insulting".  Once Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu learned of the controversy, he promptly stopped the ad campaign and sent Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, to do damage control.  Oren asserted that Netanyahu had not known about the ad campaign in advance and assured American Jews that "[t]he prime minister deeply values the American Jewish community and is committed to deepening ties between it and the State of Israel."
   What was it about this ad campaign that caused such a furor?  One of the ads depicted Israeli-born parents and their young daughter talking via Skype to the child's grandparents in Israel.  When the grandparents ask the girl what holiday it is, she responds "Christmas" as her parents look uncomfortable. The tag line of the ad follows in Hebrew: before Chanukah turns into Christmas, it's time to come home to Israel.  Another similar ad depicts a young boy trying to wake his sleeping father, calling him "Daddy" several times; only when he calls out "Abba" does the father  wake up, as a voice intones in Hebrew the tag line: Before Abba turns into Daddy, it's time to come home to Israel.
   It's easy to understand why some American Jews found ads like these offensive. Though it was directed at the yordim,, almost the same ad campaign (without the Hebrew) could have been used to target American Jews. The message is a familiar one, the same basic message that has been used to encourage aliyah (immigration to Israel) among Diaspora Jews since the early days of Zionism.  In the Diaspora, even in America, that familiar message goes, assimilation is inevitable.  Only in Israel can the Jewish future be assured.
   That message is a gross oversimplification, of course, but it contains more than a grain of truth.  The notion that the organized Jewish community is on the verge of extinction is wildly exaggerated.  It's reminiscent of the famous 1964 Look Magazine cover story, "The Vanishing American Jew", which predicted that the American Jewish community would disappear by the end of the twentieth century.  When that century ended, of course, the American Jewish community was still there; it was Look Magazine that had disappeared.  To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated.
   But that doesn't mean that the fears of assimilation are pure alarmism; I only wish that they were.  The experiences of the last half century have taught us that those Jews who place a high priority on Jewish continuity and build their lives accordingly can usually succeed in passing their Jewish commitment to the next generation.  But it has also taught  us that those whose lives do not reflect a substantial commitment to the Jewish future -- which almost always includes some form of religious commitment -- are at high risk of demographic disappearance.
   I suspect that it was the grain of truth underlying the ill-advised ad campaign, not the exaggeration that many Jewish leaders found so offensive.  Who wants to have their flaws pointed out to them?  How many of the prominent Federation leaders who were so quick to take offense live lives so infused with Jewish content that they can be confident of the Jewish continuity of their own family trees? How many of them, indeed, already have children who have intermarried?
   The specific examples reflected in the ads summarized above are laughable.  Transmitting the notion that Jews celebrate Chanukah, not Christmas, is one of the few indicators of Jewish identity that many marginally committed Jews do manage to pass on. It's really not that difficult to teach children to call their parents Abba and Eema, if that's what the parents want, even if most of their friends do not.  The problem is that such gestures by themselves are not enough to make transmission from one generation to the next likely, and many American Jews -- including, I regret to say, a fair number of American Jewish leaders -- are not willing to do much more than that.
   Offensiveness aside, the ad campaign was probably a waste of money.  I say this not because I don't believe that Israel should be trying to lure back its expatriates; of course it should.  But it's hard to imagine that long-term yordim are likely to be influenced by an ad campaign that somehow manages to be heavy-handed and trivial at the same time..   If they were that easily susceptible to Jewish guilt trips, they probably wouldn't have left in the first place.
   While we're on the subject, why are there so many expatriate Israelis living in North America, and elsewhere?  That question is something of a sociological Rorschach test, telling us more about the person answering than about the phenomenon he's supposedly analyzing. A particularly egregious example is an opinion piece published on line by Roger Cohen of the New York Times, who is (to put it mildly) no friend of Israel.  He claims to know "several Israeli expatriates or would-be expatriates" and he insists that they are leaving because of "the illiberal drift of Israeli politics, the growth of a harsh nationalism, the increasing influence of the ultra religious [and] the endlessness of the 'situation.'"  I am sure that some Israeli expatriates are motivated by such factors, and I have no difficulty believing that all of those with whom Roger Cohen is acquainted fall into this category.  With whom else would you expect him to be acquainted?   But Cohen's analysis, if you can call it that, ignores the inconvenient fact that the phenomenon of yerida (emigration from Israel) is not a new one.  Large numbers of Israelis have lived abroad throughout the State's history.  If yerida is, as Cohen appears to believe, primarily the fault of Prime Minister Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman (the foreign minister and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party), then how do you explain the large number of Israelis who emigrated before the current political leadership came on the scene?
   The primary reasons for yerida are really not that hard to figure out.  Israel is a small country, and living there can produce a sort of claustrophobia; that's why in recent years, it has become de rigueur for secular Israelis, after completing their army service, to trek to remote parts of Asia for a while before returning home to commence the rest of their lives.  Considering its size and the circumstances in which it has lived, Israel's economy is remarkably robust, but highly educated Israelis in many fields can find better professional opportunities outside the country than inside it -- or at least they could before the onset of the current recession. (This is not so unusual in our increasingly mobile and interconnected world.  There are plenty of Americans living temporarily or permanently abroad, and many citizens of other countries as well.) And of course, while Israelis seem to bear up well under the strain of the security threats that are a normal part of life there, living in a constant state of siege with no end in sight can take its toll...
   Most Israelis living in the United States come here intending to stay for a while and then return, or at least that's what they tell their families and friends in Israel.  Some have gone back, but others, not surprisingly, have found the comfort and relative safety of the US hard to give up; such is human nature.  It is certainly appropriate for any country to seek to reduce the "brain drain" resulting from the emigration of highly educated citizens by encouraging its expatriates to come home.  For Israel, there is the added concern of the demographic balance between Jews and Arabs among its own citizens.   In his opinion peace, Cohen claims that "[t]he ads play to Israeli patriotism, but it’s not patriotism that expatriates lack."  By framing the issue as one of "patriotism", Cohen manages to evade the issue that is at the heart of both the ad campaign and the American Jewish response to it -- the issue of Jewish identity.  If the ad campaign was addressed merely to Israeli patriotism, then why would American Jews who are not Israeli citizens take offense?  But the risk of Chanukah morphing into Christmas is not a matter of the expatriates' patriotism, but rather of their core identity as Jews.  Maintaining that identity despite the temptations of assimilation in a pluralistic open society like ours is a challenge that faces yordim and native born American Jews alike -- and the implication of the ad campaign is that it can't be done in the Diaspora, even in America, an implication that many American Jews understandably find offensive.
   Only in a Jewish homeland, classical Zionists have always insisted, can Jewish identity be sustained in the long run without dependence on religion.  Secular Jewish identity, they have argued, has no future in the Diaspora.  In this argument classical Zionism was partly right but fundamentally wrong.  It was right that secular Jewishness in the Diaspora is ultimately unsustainable, but it was wrong in assuming that it was the Diaspora rather than the secularism that was the problem.  What has become apparent over the decades of Israel's existence is that in the long run secular Jewishness is not sustainable in Israel any more than it is in the Diaspora.   In the absence of religious commitment, secular Zionism is simply too weak a foundation on which to build an ideology capable of motivating the sacrifice necessary to defend a state under siege.  It is hardly surprising that Zionism as a serious ideology, at least among secular native Israelis, has been weakened almost to the point of disappearance.  Indeed, for many, the very word Zionism has developed pejorative connotations.
   I do not mean to suggest that secular Israelis are not loyal to the State of Israel.  The vast majority serve in the army, often heroically.  But allegiance to the country where you were born and in which you live, and even willingness to risk your life in its defense, does not require an ideological commitment.  It is, rather, the normal human instinct to which we attach the label patriotism. Most secular Israelis remain patriotic citizens, who are loyal to the State.  A growing number, however, have little sense of Jewish identity beyond their identity as Israelis.  They know little of Jewish history before the birth of modern Zionism and have no knowledge or understanding of the Jewish communities of the Diaspora.  They are patriotic Israelis but they are not Zionists.
   The problem with relying solely on patriotism as the glue holding the people together is that patriotism is not immutable.  Over the course of the last century, after all, many millions of people have left the lands where they were born and settled in other, often distant countries.  Some came to escape persecution, others to better themselves economically.  Many have retained cultural or nostalgic ties to the countries of their birth, but after an adjustment period (admittedly, one of variable length), they have usually shifted their primary political allegiance -- their patriotism -- to the countries in which they live.   Of course, human experiences are varied, and human emotions are complex.  Not everyone who has emigrated from the countries of their birth has initially intended that move to be permanent.  Many temporary migrants, for a whole host of reasons, do return to their native countries; others consider it for a while and ultimately decide, whether consciously or by inertia, to stay where they are.  Those countries who wish to avoid "brain drain" by enticing their expatriates to return home are far more likely to meet success during each emigrant's emotional adjustment period, before his or her primarily allegiance has shifted.
   Historically, this basic paradigm of the immigrant experience has applied to Jews a little differently than to others.  Most Jews had little or no residual allegiance to the countries from which they had emigrated and little or no temptation to return there.  Indeed, during the largest period of Jewish immigration to the United States, the so-called Third Wave (1880-1924), most Jewish immigrants were not native speakers of the languages of their native countries but instead spoke Yiddish, a language unique to the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe.  Thus there was little adjustment period in the usual sense before Jews who immigrated to the United States became, in their own estimation, American Jews, patriotic citizens of the United States.  To the extent that they retained any other residual loyalty, it was to a land they had never seen, one that their ancestors had left centuries earlier.  That residual loyalty arose not from instinct but from ideology -- the ideology we call Zionism.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One wonders

If Israel's Government is heavy-handed towards fellow Jews


How does it treat allies such as the USA?

What Kind of Diplomacy does it display to enemies such as Palestinians?

Is it possible that these tactics are infuriating others in that region?