Analysis: Sharansky uses his Diaspora wisdom

How Jewish Agency chairman resolved the Masa 'Lost Jews' ad crisis.

sharansky in russia thinking 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
sharansky in russia thinking 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Masa acted quickly to abandon its "Lost" ad campaign this week in the wake of the deluge of complaints over the reference to assimilated Diaspora Jews as "lost." But the damage may have already been done. The question that now stands before the organization is: has Masa, which was seeking to attract more young Diaspora Jews to its long-term educational programs, learned its lessons from the debacle, foremost among them being to understand the profoundly different cultural assumptions about Jewish identity issues that Israelis have compared to their Diaspora counterparts? It's too early to tell. For one thing, there is as yet no public agreement on the part of Masa as to the reason for the rapid dismantling of the "Lost" campaign in favor of more positive ads simply declaring that Masa works to "strengthen the connection of Diaspora youth to the state of Israel and the Jewish people." According to the Jewish Agency, the campaign was ordered taken down on Saturday night by agency chairman Natan Sharansky. Three days later, on Tuesday, the new, gentler, campaign was already running in Israeli media outlets. But if you asked a Masa official or spokesperson during those days what happened to the campaign, you got a categorical denial that the ads were taken down because of complaints. It was merely "the next phase we had planned all along," according to more than one Masa representative. This despite the announcement at its launch last Wednesday that the "Lost" campaign would last 12 days. The announcement from Sharansky's office that he had ordered the campaign halted on Saturday night only came on Wednesday, apparently in order to clarify that it was, in fact, out of concern for Diaspora feelings that the campaign was changed, and not as a mere "next phase" in a preplanned roll-out. Sharansky apparently had misgivings about the campaign all along. According to a well-placed Jewish Agency source, he declined to participate in a planned press conference to launch the campaign because he felt it "wasn't his campaign, since it was developed before his time," and due to its relatively high budget in a time of widespread funding cuts to the agency. The press conference was canceled and a quiet briefing with journalists was planned instead. As of Thursday, Masa's leadership was still refusing to discuss publicly the significance and fallout from the ad campaign, so it is left to Sharansky, apparently more politically astute and certainly more Diaspora-conscious, to rescue both Masa and the Jewish Agency from the bad press of recent days. (In the Israeli media, the campaign was often cited as a "Jewish Agency" campaign without more details, and it was the Jewish Agency that was accused of "racism," a further sign of the ignorance and disdain through which the Israeli media usually views Diaspora organizations and communities.) Sharansky released not one press release on Wednesday, but two, and the Hebrew didn't quite match the English. In the Hebrew-language statement, he told Israelis that "we must avoid hurting the feelings of Diaspora Jews, and we must find a shared language between them and the citizens of Israel." He affirmed that the fight against assimilation was, in fact, the Jewish Agency's goal - a response to the occasional Israeli critic who called any effort to prevent assimilation "racism," and even, such as publicist Sefi Shaked, compared the effort to Nazi Germany's Nuremberg Laws. Meanwhile, the English-language press release contained a paragraph not present in the Hebrew, in which Sharansky was quoted saying he has "always believed that not only should Jews of the Diaspora be exposed to an Israel experience, but that Israeli Jews should be exposed to the Diaspora experience so as to understand better the meaning, depth, challenges and sensitivities that Jewish life in the Diaspora poses." To the Israelis, he affirmed the battle against assimilation and called for a shared language. To the Diaspora, he politely explained that Israelis are, in fact, ignorant about the rest of the Jewish world. Masa will hold a series of meetings in the coming days and weeks "in a proper and serious effort to learn lessons from what happened," according to a Masa official who would not speak by name. While Masa seeks to uncover what it did wrong, it would do well to examine carefully what Sharansky did right.