Israel’s YouTube Rorschach for American Jewry

— by Ilan Chaim

Ordinary Israelis living in Israel can ask aloud what Israeli prime ministers and diplomats cannot: Why did so many American Jews react with such hysteria over some ads encouraging Israelis to come home?

Was it the atrocious, inaccurate hype in the headline of Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic kvetch? There was no statement in his blog that backed up the sensationalist head, “Netanyahu Government Suggests Israelis Avoid Marrying American Jews.” The word marriage was not mentioned in the ads.

I can only speculate as to why my former Jerusalem Post colleague was so hypersensitive to the topic and reacted so vehemently. “These government-sponsored ads suggest that it is impossible for Jews to remain Jewish in America.” Not at all, Jeff-they argue that it is impossible for Israelis to remain Israeli in America.

The only YouTube clip that featured a couple, the one above about Israel’s Memorial Day, did not say anything about intermarriage between Israelis and Americans. It was deliberately unclear whether the relationship was between a married couple or boyfriend and girlfriend. The Hebrew tag at the end referred to “partner.”

This is because the point was not intermarriage, but Israeli identity. Not that an Israeli risks losing his or her Jewish identity by marrying an American, but losing Israeli identity by living in America, no matter what the ethnic identity of the spouse. This point was perhaps made more clearly in the other videos: the danger of losing one’s Israeli identity-or that of one’s children-by assimilation.

The more subtle message in this example from a series of unsubtle messages is that a non-Israeli spouse, by definition, cannot understand what it means to be an Israeli. There is nothing insulting in this fact of life, nothing to take offense at. The male partner is presented as clueless-but neither American Jew clueless nor goy clueless, just non-Israeli clueless.

Memorial Day in Israel is coupled with Independence Day. A day of national mourning segues into a day of national celebration: The terrible cost of independence and freedom is inextricably linked to its joy in a dramatic, nationally observed cathartic transition. No American partner in a relationship with an Israeli can possibly fathom this while living in a country whose Memorial Day has long ago lost its memory. The chasm between drivers at the Indianapolis 500 and drivers stopping their cars and standing at attention at the sound of sirens throughout Israel is a fact.

Leaving aside the issue of inter-religious intermarriage, can an American Jew, even one who participates in an Israeli memorial ceremony at the local JCC, have anything but a vicarious understanding of what an Israeli feels?

The message in this clip is a rather brutal statement of the fact that, despite all the feel-good Zionist propaganda, we are not one. Our experience is not your experience; our understanding is direct and empirical-yours may be of the best intentions, but is theoretical. No American Jew should take offense if I point out the fact that I and my four children have served in the Israel Defense Forces.

More after the jump.
A word on journalistic integrity. Aside from the inaccurate headline, Goldberg’s lament begins with a rather unfortunate, snarky slant. It’s not “the Netanyahu government’s Immigration Absorption Ministry.” It’s not Netanyahu’s IDF, either. But if he makes this association because he assumes that Netanyahu knows what’s going on in all his bloated coalition government’s ministries, he’s obviously forgotten Shas minister Eli Yishai’s gift of housing developments to Vice President Joe Biden.

The Absorption Ministry is not making a statement on intermarriage, but on Israelis living in the Diaspora. The little girl who Skypes her grandparents in the homeland about Christmas in the video on the right is not engaged to marry an American. She is being raised by parents who apparently want to fit in with the majority culture, not by one of the many Israeli families who discover and benefit greatly from the rich variety of Jewish life in America.

You’ve heard of the brain drain? That’s what happens when lots of Israelis who start out studying or looking to strike it rich in America end up never coming home. We need Israelis in Israel, not in Palo Alto.

As crude and/or heavy handed as the videos may be, they reflect a sad reality: Israelis, particularly their young children, risk losing their identity surrounded by the American culture. A non-hypothetical example: A sabra couple I know are living in New Jersey, where the husband works for a hi-tech company. They are secular, but in their native Rehovot they wouldn’t think of driving, working, or going to school on Yom Kippur, because to do so would violate the norms of the majority culture. In New Jersey on Yom Kippur, the kids went to public school, the husband to work, and they have a Christmas tree to fit in with the neighbors.

Israel is trying, albeit in a rather clumsy way, to encourage its citizens to return home. It is not out to insult Americans or show contempt for American Jewry.

“The idea communicated in these ads,” Goldberg writes, “that America is no place for a proper Jew, and that a Jew who is concerned about the Jewish future should live in Israel, is archaic, and also chutzpadik.” Wrong again: The campaign was not aimed at American Jews, but at expatriate Israelis.

Classic, not archaic, Zionism argues that Jews truly concerned about the Jewish national future should live in Israel. American Jews can live full and meaningful Jewish lives in America; Israelis cannot live full and meaningful Israeli lives in America. The difference is being part of the majority culture. Secular or religious, Israel is, at least for the time being, a majority Jewish state.

Lobby for us in Washington, marry our sons and daughters, but live in Israel. Maybe that’s the key to this overreaction: Could American Jews be insulted at being reminded that Israel wants its citizens to come home-and feel guilty at not availing themselves of the same opportunity?

The Jewish Federations of North America joined the indignant misunderstanding:

While we recognize the motivations behind the ad campaign, we are strongly opposed to the messaging that American Jews do not understand Israel. We share the concerns many of you have expressed that this outrageous and insulting message could harm the Israel-Diaspora relationship.

Not to be left out, Abe Foxman pronounced the ADL’s verdict:

We find these videos heavy-handed, and even demeaning…we are concerned that some may be offended by what the video implies about American Jewry.

I’m still at a loss to understand the ferocity of the reaction to this campaign. Is it the intermarriage thing? Is it because people who are divorced (no pun intended) from their Jewish identity to begin with feel some kind of guilt at being reminded of there being a much stronger Jewish identity in Israel? Is it people who are perhaps proud of being among the less than 15 percent of American Jews who have ever visited Israel, but nevertheless feel uncomfortable that we want to live here, and by implication, want them to also?

It’s instructive to note that Israeli wags have instantly responded to the bloggish hullaballoo by producing matching satirical takeoffs on the three insulting videos. Their treatment on YouTube for Hebrew speakers shows why the ministry’s heavy handed, mawkish approach actually insults Israelis — not American Jews. The counter-videos shown on the right, featuring caricatures of familiar obnoxious Israeli behavior, are produced by the fictitious “Ministry of Escape.” Their message: These Israelis should stay abroad. The real ministry’s message should extol the joys of living in Israel, where Jews whether secular or religious are part of the majority culture.

No secular Jewish Israeli child fails to know when each Jewish holiday is, just as no secular Jewish American child could possibly fail to know when Christmas is; but does that secular Jewish American child know the Jewish holidays?

Are American Jews really insulted by what they perceive as Israeli ethno-centricity and chutzpa, or are they having an allergic reaction to the strength of a dearly purchased Israeli Jewish identity that they, despite their celebrated free birthright, don’t have?

For that matter, we Israelis have noticed that the much (self-)touted communal answer to the failure of America’s Jewish educational system and its over-50 percent intermarriage rate is a program called “Birthright Israel” — not “Birthright New York.”

This deal is not about American Jews. It’s about Israeli expatriates. It’s not about you, it’s about us. It’s not about us not being able to maintain a sense of Jewish identity in America; it’s about us not being able to maintain an Israeli identity in America. It should not be insulting to you if I want to be me.

The writer is a former chief copy editor of The Jerusalem Post and consultant to Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

Cartoon reprinted courtesy of Yaakov (Dry Bones) Kirschen



  1. Hannah Lee says

    — by Hannah Lee

    Your comments succinctly articulated the same views of my husband, the son of Israelis now living in the United States.  I am his giyoret (convert) wife.  By joining the Orthodox community, I’ve learned to adopt Israeli attitudes towards Eretz Yisrael and the da’atim (frum in Yiddish) do consider it a higher goal to live in Israel.  So, we took no offense at the aborted ad campaign aimed at expatriate Israelis.


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