Lessons From The “Come Home to Israel” Ads for a Liberal Jewish Zionist Elite

I confess that when I first read Jeffrey Goldberg’s post about the ham-handed advertisements produced by Israel’s Absorption Ministry imploring Israelis to “come home” I went right along with his sense of outrage and insult. I fulminated on my Facebook page. I egged on the outrage of others on their Facebook pages. I cheered the official letter of complaint from the Jewish Federations of North America. I saw in the ads a representation of years of insults large and small made by Israelis to the value of Jewish life in the diaspora and our understanding of the Israeli reality. I thought the artless execution and saccharine structure of the ads paralleled a similarly unsophisticated and condescending Israeli sense of superiority to the laflafim in the galut.  I obsessed over the similarity between my facial hair and the facial hair of the boyfriend who knew-not of Yom HaZikaron. I’m not going to recount point by point the commercials, because that has been done better elsewhere.

Did you notice how every sentence in that paragraph began with the word “I”?

Now that the ads have been pulled by the Netenyahu government, it turns out that really they served as a kind of Rorschach test.

I know this based on the responses of several Israeli friends and colleagues who provided intelligent and contrasting Israeli interpretations of the ads. Anton Goodman, the shaliach here in Washington, takes Jeffrey Goldberg to task for suggesting that the Ministry should be luring Israelis back home by dangling the country’s low unemployment, good weather and proximity to maternal guilt:

His suggestion is as offensive to me as an Israeli as he finds the adverts to be. To suggest that choosing to live in Israel is about standard of living or weather is a cheapening of Zionist ideology. The Ministry of Absorption chose messaging that touches on national, collective narratives. Come back to Israel, say the adverts, because only there can you speak the national language of Hebrew, take part in national remembrance days and celebrate Jewish holidays as a pinnacle of national culture. The choice of Chanukah as the Jewish holiday showcased also adds depth, as Chanukah is the national holiday of the Zionist movement, having been imbued with significance of sovereignty, bravery and pioneerism from Herzl, Ahad Ha’Am and Bialik until today. We cannot celebrate Chanukah in America as we do in Israel.

And of course Anton is correct. Even the dreydls are different in Israel: first of all they call them sivyvon; and more significantly, there’s a one-letter difference on the tops that turns “A Great Miracle Happened There” into “A Great Miracle Happened Here.”

Robbie Gringras, writing for Makom and on his new independent blog Questions of a Questioning Zionist first does an excellent breakdown of the commercials to see what they are really saying to Israelis, and then goes on to point out the real dilemmas faced by that ex-pat community in America.

But much of the critique I’ve so far seen of the advert goes further. The advert is somehow seen as proof that “it is impossible for Jews to remain Jewish in America”. So of course anecdotally the commercial is thoroughly unfair, but statistically it is spot on. Of all Jews in America, Israeli ex-pats have the greatest trouble identifying with their local Jewish communities. Several Federations are making huge efforts to reach out to Israelis in their midst precisely because they have recognized there is a problem. In particular secular Israelis find it very hard to parlay their secular Israeli identity into the strictly Protestant-Jewish-religious terms of the American community (see the debate explored by James Hyman and Yonatan Ariel).

Andrew Shapiro Katz writing on Facebook also points to the significant evolution in discouraging emigration that ads present:

They want to make “Aliyah” as popular as possible and “Yerida” as unpopular as possible.

But, they want to do it in a way that doesn’t speak critically of the individual Israelis who choose to live in North America. As the video says, “They will always be Israeli.” It doesn’t talk about their not being around for reserve duty, or the “brain drain” after their heavily subsidized university educations, or the negative effect on Israeli society of the loss of their secular-liberalism. After all, they have all likely paid their dues, and few of their peers in Israel begrudge their pursuit of economic opportunity. The ads seem to go out of their way not to demonize or stigmatize “yordim.”

But it was Andrew’s observation about who was most upset about the ad that struck me as significant:

They have clearly touched a nerve, especially among what I at least would term the liberal Jewish Zionist elite – those who are deeply committed to Israel and the Jewish people and work either professionally or in a lay capacity on their behalf. Most of this group is in North America, but some lives in Israel. And I count myself as one of its members.

And then it dawned on me, I am one of the liberal Jewish Zionist elite — and I think the “liberal” part is not gratuitous. As part of that elite I feel I have a role to play in any and all conversations regarding Israel’s destiny. Certainly, sometimes my voice counts more than others (I don’t live there and my children don’t serve in the IDF), but as part of that liberal elite I feel I have the right and obligation to speak-up when I agree or disagree with the direction of the Israeli government, its culture or position in the world. But there is growing polarization in Israel and the diaspora about who can speak for Israel — and certain members of this liberal Jewish Zionist elite have found their place in the conversation challenged both by staunch defenders of Israel in North America who have announced the impossibility of liberal Zionism and by anti-democratic legislation in the Israel Knesset.

To relate that back to the Ministry of Absorption videos, here we have a semi-viral video that seems to posit the impossibility of an informed, passionately Zionist American (possibly goateed) partner for an Israeli. Our greatest fear is not that Israelis don’t want to date us or raise families with us in North America — it’s that we have no place in a relationship with Israel.

And I get it. The advertisement isn’t about me. Leave it to a member of the Liberal Zionist Elite to make it all about themselves. It’s about getting Israelis to come home without judging them for the reasons they may have left. That explanation works for me. But beyond the 30-second video, when the Sabra has returned to Netanya or Tel Aviv or Haifa; what happens to the liberal Jewish Zionist?

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