Growing gulf between Israel and American Jews

December 7, 2011
Sarah Benton

For the background to this story, see America is no place for a Jew: that’s official

How Israel Can Stop Alienating American Jews: Jeffrey Goldberg

By Jeffrey Goldberg, Bloomberg News

Last week, Politico’s Ben Smith pointed me to a very strange Israeli government advertising campaign, which was aimed at persuading Israelis in the U.S. to go home.

By some estimates, hundreds of thousands of Israelis live in the U.S., including many exceptional scientists and physicians, and Israel believes they should be working at home. So the Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption placed billboards in several American cities that were meant to scare expatriates into believing that their children would cease to be Israeli if they remained in the U.S.

The campaign could have highlighted Israel’s low unemployment rate, or its thriving technology sector, or the quality of Israeli hummus, but instead it adopted the perspective of a fretting Jewish grandmother.

These billboards were accompanied by an Internet campaign designed to suggest, among other things, that Israeli children would eventually confuse Christmas for Hanukkah if they were exposed to U.S. culture for too long.

I wrote a blog post about this guilt-and-fear campaign, arguing that it showed contempt for American Jews, many of whose children, despite the multifarious attractions of assimilation, still understand that Christmas is a Christian holiday and Hanukkah is Jewish.

Seismic Reaction
The reaction in the American Jewish community was surprisingly seismic. Soon enough, the Jewish Federations of North America and other Jewish groups were denouncing the advertisements.

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

Within a day of the federation statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the ad campaign canceled.

I only wish that the prime minister’s alacrity on this issue would be matched on matters far more important than billboards. There are three issues the Netanyahu government must address quickly to prevent the bonds between Israel and its American Jewish supporters from fraying further.

The first is an unprecedented campaign by right-wing members of the Knesset, including some in Netanyahu’s Likud Party, to curtail aspects of Israeli democracy. This has included attempting to restrict the activities and fundraising abilities of human-rights organizations critical of government policy; proposing laws limiting free speech in a dispute over boycotts of products made in West Bank settlements; and waging a campaign to delegitimize Israel’s independent Supreme [Court] by giving the Knesset, instead of an independent panel, the power to appoint justices.

Netanyahu understands that Israel’s credibility in the U.S. rests largely on its claim to be the Middle’s only democracy. It’s shocking to think that just as Arab states such as Tunisia and Egypt move (albeit imperfectly) toward greater democratization, Israeli politicians are proposing laws that would circumscribe their country’s raucously open democracy.

Second, American Jews, the vast majority of whom are not Orthodox, are also growing uneasy about the concentration of religious power in Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate, which oversees such matters as conversion and divorce. It has been true for decades that Jews in the U.S. have more freedom of religion than Jews in Israel — in the U.S., after all, the state recognizes the validity of marriages officiated by Reform rabbis.

But now we’re seeing strikingly intolerant applications of ultra-Orthodox practice in Israel. The most offensive manifestation at the moment might be attempts to segregate women on public bus lines that pass through certain Orthodox neighborhoods. On many of these lines women have quite literally been forced to the back of the bus. If this sort of misogyny is tolerated, Israel will lose the support of battalions of American Jewish women (not to mention the current U.S. secretary of state).

Moral Disaster
The third issue creating unease is the ever-expanding Jewish settlement project on the West Bank. Many American Jews, especially those in their 20s and 30s, look on the settlements as a moral and political disaster. They believe that the Palestinians, no less than the Jews, deserve a homeland. They believe that Israel should be both Jewish-majority and democratic, and they understand that it won’t be either if Israel maintains its hold over the Arabs of the West Bank. They believe that Zionism is not mainly about the redemption of land promised to the Jews by God in the Torah, but about the national liberation of a persecuted people.

The permanent occupation of the entire Promised Land is not a theological requirement for national liberation.

The Obama administration seems to be arguing lately that the blame for stalled peace talks rests almost entirely with Israel. This clearly isn’t true. The Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas seems uninterested in even sharing its ideas for compromise with Israel. Yet this doesn’t excuse the Netanyahu government’s inability to curtail the settlements or the settlers, some of whom behave despicably toward their Palestinian neighbors. The occupation will come to an end only through direct negotiation. The West Bank settlers should, if nothing else, be brought under the rule of law, and be encouraged to come home.

Israelis, and their American supporters, often argue that Israel’s problem is one of public relations. It is, to some degree. The world holds Israel to a higher standard than any other country. But here’s a secret: American Jews hold Israel to a very high standard as well, and if Israel ceases to be a free and open country governed by the rule of law, American Jewish support for Israel will dissipate, with dramatic and unpleasant consequences.

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the author of this column: Jeffrey Goldberg at

Israeli YouTube videos spoof the ‘anti-diaspora’ campaign

Lisa Goldman, +972

In case you haven’t been following the story, a brief summary: Last week a couple of Jewish-American journalists were shocked – shocked! – to discover that a 6-month old Ministry of Absorption campaign aimed at encouraging ex-pat Israelis to return home was predicated on what was perceived as a disparaging attitude toward American Jews. Alex Beam of the Boston Globe wrote an interesting story about the campaign, which was mentioned by Shmuel Rosner in his report. But the man who made the most noise about it was Jeffrey Goldberg, who was appalled at this “demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews.” Fast forward through a couple more editorials written by angry American Jewish journalists, plus an outraged letter from the powerful Jewish Federations of North America, and the campaign was pulled. All this happened in five days. According to the story – which might or might not be true – Ambassador Michael Oren called Netanyahu directly and got instant results.

A few thoughts on this incident:

>>This incident proves – in case anyone had doubts – that the US Jewish community wields enormous influence over Israeli policy. Imagine if the Jewish Federations and Anti-Defamation League invested the same energy in expressing their displeasure at Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank. Actually, Eli Valley does an excellent job of imagining that scenario in this piece for The Forward.

>> The expressions of outrage from US Jews seems a bit disingenuous to me. The cultural chasm between North American Jews and Israeli Jews cannot have escaped their notice. You can see it in the famous Saturday Night Live skit, “The Sabra Price is Right,” which is 20 years old, or in the more recent Adam Sandler comedy, “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.” Both portray Israeli men as pushy, macho and crude, with the SNL skit making them look dishonest in business, too (this was a spoof of the electronic shops that sprang up in heavily touristed areas of Manhattan in the 1980s and early 1990s; they were run by Israelis who were experts at fleecing their one-off customers). The Sandler film is a sendup of US Jews’ ambivalence regarding Israelis: They can’t decide whether to admire them for being war heroes defending brave little Israel from the Arab hordes, or belittle them for being rough-mannered and provincial. Both images, of course, are ridiculously one-dimensional.

Sabra Price is Right video

Secular Israeli Jews express their identity through the Hebrew language, army service, family and Bamba. The vast majority of non-Israeli Jews do not speak Hebrew, do not serve in the army and have no idea what Bamba is. For them, Jewish food is corned beef on rye, bagels and knishes. There is no corned beef in Israel, I never saw a knish there, and the bagels are just stale bread rolls with a hole in the middle. Only 30 percent of US Jews visit Israel once in their lifetime, Birthright or no Birthright; and their understanding of Israeli society often bears little resemblance to reality. Lately, I’ve noticed that hummus is making an appearance on the traditional Ashkenazi Shabbat table in the United States and Canada, as a condiment with the crudites, but it’s a strange, gray paste that does not at all resemble the hummus consumed in the Levant.

Israeli ex-pats tend not to assimilate easily into North American Jewish communities. The cultural clashes go both ways, with secular Israeli Jews not understanding the rituals and etiquette of the middle class North American branch of the tribe, with their high holy day synagogue attendance and their Jewish Community Centers.

The theme of the Ministry of Absorption’s video campaign – that Jewish life cannot be sustained outside of Israel – is clearly nonsense, and this is part of the reason US Jews are so insulted. Jewish life in the States is extremely rich, whether it is expressed as Orthodox religious practice or secular celebrations of Jewish history and culture.

Some Israelis decided to parody the Ministry of Absorption’s campaign, which Jeffrey Goldberg calls the ‘anti-diaspora campaign‘. The one below, which is in English, is set in “Manchester, London” – a joke about Israelis’ ignorance of the world, perhaps. The participants don’t even try to imitate a British accent. Note that the Israelis who play the polite ‘English’ shop clerk and customer have a slight Russian accent, indicating they are immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Note also the ironic tagline, “They will always be Israelis, help them go back home.”

“Manchester, London” (Hebrew and English)

Another video parody, which contrasts the ‘polite’ English manner of speaking with the hilariously exaggerated Israeli Hebrew, ends with the tagline, “They will always be Israeli; help them stay abroad,” adding that the campaign was conceived by the “Ministry of Rejection.”

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