A misunderstanding

Many US Jews were upset by 'aliya' campaign; in 1 video Israelis living in US are warned against the potential danger of cultural and religious assimilation.

By
December 5, 2011 07:55
3 minute read.
Israelis celebrating Independence Day

Yom Haaztmaut Israeli flag 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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Many US Jews, spurred on by a group of prominent American Jewish media pundits, were apparently upset by an Israeli campaign to encourage Israeli expats living in American to return home.

Admittedly, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry campaign, which resorts to blatant scare tactics, is aggressive.

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In one short video, Israelis living in the US are warned against the potential danger of cultural and religious assimilation that could result from raising children in America.

One ad shows a pair of Israeli grandparents seated before a hanukkia and Skype-ing with their granddaughter, who lives in America. The grandparents’ faces are transfixed with sorrow when their precious granddaughter refers to the holiday being celebrated in Israel as “Christmas.”

Yet the sad fact is that for Israelis, in particular second-generation Israelis born in America, rates of assimilation are worryingly high. Recent studies by Dr. Lilach Lev-Ari, head of the Sociology Department at Oranim College and a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, have shown conclusively that these second generation Israelis – like the little girl Skype-ing with her Israeli grandparents – tend to define themselves as Americans and do not identify with American Jewry or with Israelis.

One reason for this high rate of assimilation is the fact that their parents – first-generation Israeli emigrants – tend to define their Israeli identity more in national terms and less in religious terms which more readily accommodate the idea of a “portable homeland.”

Army service, the Israeli landscape, the people are all elements that are enlisted to maintain a unique Israeli (not necessarily Jewish) identity. But this sort of identity is hard to pass on to children, unless, of course, fairly frequent trips are made to Israel or active attempts are made to maintain contact with what is going on “back home.”



The fragility of Israeli identity in a Diaspora setting – the target of the ministry campaign – seems not to be fully appreciated by US Jewry. Unfortunately, even among US Jews, who have developed a multitude of creative ways of maintaining Jewish continuity in a super-liberal, multicultural environment have nevertheless been assimilating at high rates for some time now. Israel is, after all, the only place where the Jewish population is actually growing.

However, what really seemed to rouse the ire of the organized Jewish community was an ad depicting a young Israeli woman attempting to commemorate Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers. The moment is ruined by her American boyfriend (husband?) who, we are told, is unequipped to fathom the idea that expats mourn for their fallen soldiers.

True, the message was vacuous, but it hardly seemed to justify US Jewry’s anger, which eased only after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stepped in and stopped the campaign. Michael Oren, ambassador to the US, said it “clearly did not take into account American Jewry’s sensitivities, and we regret any offense it caused.”

While Netanyahu was right to be attuned to American Jewry’s hurt feelings and stop the campaign, the magnitude of the reaction seems to be based on a mistake.

Nowhere in the video depicting the young Israeli woman is it implied that her boyfriend is Jewish.

Nevertheless, numerous media personalities inexplicably jumped to the conclusion that he was. This led normally level-headed commentators to claim that the campaign equated marrying an American Jew with marrying a non-Jew. The ad seemed to be saying that neither will fully understand your Israeliness.

Why would so many smart American Jews be so receptive to a questionable interpretation? Why didn’t they assume that the young man in the video could not be an American Jew because an American Jew would immediately identify with the young woman’s mourning? Could it be that American Jewry have their doubts? The campaign was rightly shelved.

But the need to prevent the assimilation of second generation Israelis remains. Strengthening Jewish continuity of Israeli expatriates might be accomplished by integrating them into the Diaspora’s many Jewish communities.

Another option is social frameworks tailored especially for Israeli expats such as Tzofim Garin Tzaban, run by the Friends of the Israel Scouts, through which children of Israelis maintain social ties with one another in the Diaspora and volunteer for IDF service together.

Still another option might be extending the right to vote in Israeli elections to some Israelis living abroad as a means of fostering their involvement and connection with Israel. Whatever the method, reaching out to Israeli expats is an honorable endeavor that mustn’t be discontinued because of an unfortunate misunderstanding.

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