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Israel Ad Campaign Targeting Expats Raises Troubling Questions of Identity

The fact that many Israelis have left the Jewish state to find new homes and opportunities in the United States has long been a source of tension for Jerusalem. In the past, some Israeli leaders, such as the late Yitzhak Rabin, castigated emigrants as being little better than traitors. Attempts to shame them into returning failed as have more recent efforts aimed at enticing the yordim (as they are known in Hebrew) with more positive messages. But as cable’s The Jewish Channel reports in this video, the country’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, which is responsible for promoting aliyah or immigration to the country, has taken a new tack in an effort to get some of what is estimated to be as many as 600,000 former Israelis living in the United States to come home.

The Ministry has created a series of commercials that are airing on cable channels likely to be watched by the Israelis that warn them they are losing their identity by staying in the United States. This is standard fare from a Zionist point of view, but one of the ads goes a bit further than the others and seems to be warning about the perils of Israelis marrying American Jews. If so, a government agency whose premise is supposed to be one that reinforces Jewish identity may be sending a message that contradicts that theme.

Each of the three ads attacks the sensibilities of Israeli expats in different ways. One warns that an Israeli who raises their children in America will call their fathers “daddy” rather than the Hebrew “abba.” Another portrays the child of expats telling their grandparents they are celebrating Christmas rather than Chanukah, which speaks to the fear of such children losing their Jewish identity as well as their ties to Israel.

But the third shows the plight of a young ex-Israeli with a boyfriend whom we may well assume to be Jewish (as Ben Smith of Politico does in a blog post) because we are not told otherwise. In the ad, the woman is commemorating Yom Hazikaron — Israel’s memorial day — but her partner doesn’t understand its significance and, the narrator reminds the audience, he never will.

It’s one thing for Israel to try and convince expats to come home lest they assimilate into a foreign culture. It’s quite another to send a message that hooking up with an American Jew will cause them to lose their secular Israeli identity. It’s true that many expats view themselves more as Israelis rather than Jews and fear losing their connection with the Hebrew language and the secular culture of the state more than ties with their nominal religion. But a message that seems to reinforce the notion that Israelis and American Jews have nothing in common runs contrary to the whole concept of Zionism, let alone traditional Judaism, and not to mention the political needs of a country that relies heavily on American Jewish support.

While it is possible the creators of this ad may not have intended to step on this particular land mine, their political masters in Jerusalem (who, The Jewish Channel reports, are spending little on trying to persuade American Jews to immigrate) need to rethink a strategy that seems to reinforce the divide between Israelis and Americans rather than bridging it.



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