The hot topic of the week within the Jewish world is an ad campaign by the Israeli government designed to convince Israelis living in the United States to come home. Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg was probably the first one to publicize the campaign widely in this post. I posted something I wrote a couple of years ago about a similar campaign here and it is by far my most-widely read blog post as a number of people have linked to it from their blogs or their Facebook pages. Yesterday the Jewish Federations of North America communicated their distress to the Israeli government.
I don't want to rehash all the points I made in yesterday's blog post but let's take a look at the videos and the message they are trying to communicate.
The first one deals with Yom HaZikaron, the Memorial Day for those who have fallen in Israel's wars. It is set in New York, and a couple is coming into their apartment. The young woman seems sad and her boyfriend puzzled. The dialogue between the couple is in English so I don't need to translate. She sits down in front of a computer and from what she is seeing, it's clear that tonight is Yom HaZikaron. The voice-over says in Hebrew: "They will always remain Israelis. Their spouses will not always understand what that means. Help them come home."
The factual assumptions in this ad are not wrong. If you are in Israel Yom HaZikaron is a major event. The radio plays sad music and the TV stations present documentaries about Israel's wars. Restaurants and cafes are closed. In the morning a siren sounds throughout the country and everyone stops what they are doing and stands at attention. In the United States, Yom HaZikaron is barely noted and in cities where a Yom HaZikaron event is even held, almost all of those in attendance are Israelis.
It should be noted that Yom HaZikaron is the day before Yom HaAtzmaut, Israeli independence day. In many parts of the US, Yom HaAtzmaut has become a movable feast and independence day celebrations are often held on the nearest Sunday rather than on the actual day. Yom Hazikaron becomes an appendage and the independence day celebration will start with a five or ten minute symbolic observance before the falafel is served. (The inevitable serving of falafel on Yom HaAtzmaut would strike Israelis as strange. No true Israeli eats falafel on Yom HaAtzmaut. On Yom HaAtzmaut, all true Israelis eat בשר על האש.)
As an Israeli colleague noted in a discussion of this ad which took place on Ravnet (the e-mail listserv for Conservative rabbis), it is ridiculous to think that you can raise Israeli children in America. A child who grows up in the US with one Israeli parent and one American Jewish parent is going to be an American Jew, not an Israeli. That's a simple statement of sociological fact. The Israeli government is going to see this as a bad thing, the American Jewish community is not going to get particularly worked up about it. The ad may be problematic to us because we have been raised to believe that identity is a matter of choice, but that's a question of perspective and I already addressed that yesterday.
The second video is much more problematic. An Israeli couple, living in the States, has their young daughter in their laps. They are Skyping with Grandma and Grandpa (Savta and Saba) in Israel. The entire conversation is in Hebrew. It's snowing in the States; behind Grandma and Grandpa, a Chanukah menora is lit. Grandma asks the little girl, in Hebrew, if she knows what holiday today is and she responds, in English, "Christmas!". The parents and the grandparents exchange worried glances, and the voice-over says in Hebrew: "they will always remain Israelis. Their children won't. Help them come home."
Here the problem is the conflation of "Israeliness" and "Jewishness." The assumption that American Jews don't really "get" Yom HaZikaron and that children of Israelis who grow up here won't really "get" it either, is probably not wrong. U.S.-raised children of Israelis won't be culturally Israeli but the ad here implies that they won't be Jews, either. Obviously, assimilation is a problem in America but the implied assumption that American Jews celebrate Christmas rather than Chanukah is off-target and offensive. If the creators of this ad really believe that, then they really are clueless about American Jewry and we have a big problem.