PM cancels government campaign to entice expats home

Ads by Immigrant Absorption Ministry receive harsh criticism from US Jewish media pundits.

December 4, 2011 04:04
ad campaign for Israeli expats

Ad campaign 311. (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)


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Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Friday canceled an ad campaign by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry aimed at convincing Israelis living abroad to return home after it received harsh criticism from US Jewish media pundits.

Launched in September with approval from Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, the campaign – which includes a series of billboards in several US cities and three commercials on TV channels popular with Israeli expats – sends a central message that the longer Israelis spend away from their homeland, the more chance there is of them losing their Israeli/Jewish identity.

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Reporter's Notebook: Aliya ads offend US Jews

Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev said Netanyahu put a halt to the campaign when he became aware that it was deemed offensive by American Jews.

“We are very sensitive to the concerns of the Jewish community, and when we understood that they had problems and concerns about the videos, the prime minister said to suspend the campaign,” Regev said.

JTA quoted a statement by Michael Oren, the ambassador to the United States, who said that “the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption’s campaign clearly did not take into account American Jewish sensibilities, and we regret any offense it caused.”

While two of the three commercials suggesting that the next generation of Israelis would not speak Hebrew or recognize certain Jewish holidays were deemed mildly acceptable, critics including a broad spectrum of writers such as Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic; Jonathan S. Tobin in Commentary; Politico’s Ben Smith; and Shmuel Rosner in the Jewish Journal, said it was the third video that represented an affront on US Jewry.

That clip highlights the plight of a young Israeli woman trying to commemorate Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars but failing to adequately explain its significance to her partner.

Many of the critics assumed him to be an American Jew.

The ad’s tagline reads: “They will always remember Israel but their partners might not always understand; Help them to come back.”

The Jewish Channel, which initially highlighted the disturbing angle in these commercials, called it a “semi-covert national campaign” and suggested that the ministry had failed to differentiate between marrying an American Jew and an American non-Jew.

Jonathan S. Tobin, writing in Commentary, pointed out: “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.”

Goldberg, whose blog post on the Atlantic website caused the most waves online, called the campaign “chutzpadik.”

“The idea, communicated in these ads, 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,” he wrote.

“The message is: Dear American Jews, thank you for lobbying for American defense aid (and what a great show you put on at the AIPAC convention every year!) but, please, stay away from our sons and daughters,” he added.

In its response, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry said that it had conducted widespread research into the issues that would encourage Israelis living abroad to return home and said that at no point did it consider turning its attention to the American Jewish community.

“The comments we have been hearing in the last few days that the Israeli government is trying to interfere with the personal choices of Jews in the US, have no basis in reality,” a ministry spokesman said.

“The ministry greatly admires the American Jewish community and recognizes its strong connection with Israel. The ministry respects the right of everyone to make personal choices.”

The spokesman said that since the campaign was launched in May 2010, some 14,000 Israeli expats have returned home, most of them enticed by a basket of fiscal benefits and tax breaks. He said that the current campaign had garnered more than 155,000 views on the ministry’s website.

“This debate only reinforces the position of the Jewish Agency that in open societies, a strong Jewish identity and identification with the core values of Israel is a precondition for making aliya or returning to Israel,” Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky said. “It is also a precondition for strong and vital Jewish communities and for their future leadership. We depend upon each other, and there should be no room for paternalism in our relationship.”

While the debate continued in the US, veteran immigrants also weighed in.

“I get what Goldberg is saying and I see his perspective, but I think he is taking it personally and people are reading into this campaign something that is not really there,” said Laura Ben-David, a blogger, writer and author of Moving Up: An Aliyah Journal.

She wrote on her blog: “Israel is not, as Goldberg suggests, showing contempt for American Jews. Nor for America or any Americans. The ministry is simply telling it like it is – take it as you wish. If you’re a Jewish Israeli and you leave Israel, something WILL get lost. Maybe now, maybe next generation, but it will happen.”

Ben-David told The Jerusalem Post, “I left America, but I still have a tremendous amount of love for America, but my children, some who were born there and some who were born here, do not get any meaning out of American customs such as eating turkey for Thanksgiving.”

Asked whether she thought the ads, as Goldberg and other US Jews have pointed out, only divide US and Israeli Jews, Ben- David said: “Clearly it has because people have reacted in this way, however I don’t think that it had to happen.

“I tried to put myself into the minds of everyone and it does seem to me that the more people are separated from their Judaism and Israel, the more offended they are by this campaign.”

Herb Keinon contributed to this report.

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