The ads were pulled, but the issue won’t go away

The ill-fated ad campaign unwittingly addresses US Jews’ disaffection with Israel.

Aliya ad campaign 311 (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
Aliya ad campaign 311
(photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

Last Monday’s Jerusalem Post editorial asked an important question about the advertising campaign that sparked the latest spat between Israel and American Jewry: Why did American Jews jump to the conclusion that the young man in the most controversial ad was Jewish? The answer to that question is crucial to understanding two of the major causes of disaffection with Israel among young American Jews.

The ad, one of three sponsored by the Israeli government in an ill-conceived effort to lure expatriates back home, shows a young Israeli woman attempting to observe Remembrance Day. The effort flops when her American spouse misinterprets the memorial candle as lighting for a romantic dinner. Nothing in the clip identifies the man as Jewish, but everyone from blogger Jeffrey Goldberg to the leadership of the Jewish Federations of North America concluded that he was a Jew.

In short, they considered it reasonable to assume that someone who both had seemingly never even heard of  Yom Hazikaron and couldn’t even recognize the highly distinctive yahrzeit (memorial) candle, was meant to be an American Jew.

Having been raised in the kind of non-Orthodox but identifiably Jewish community that once typified  American Jewry, I find the second half of that assumption almost inconceivable: I can’t imagine any of the Jews I grew up with not recognizing a yahrzeit candle. They likely wouldn’t know it was Remembrance Day, but they would know “Dafna,” the girl in the video, was mourning someone.

But American Jewish leaders must find this conceivable,  because, if they didn’t, the logical assumption would be that the oblivious male wasn’t Jewish. And therein lies the first problem: Outside of the Orthodox community, more and more young Jews are growing up ignorant of even the most basic Jewish traditions. Yet, without these traditions, the term “peoplehood” lacks even minimal emotional content. For what does being a member of the same people mean if not for having something in common that you don’t share with others?

For centuries, that “something in common” was Judaism, but many young American Jews today have little interest in religion. Persecution also filled the bill nicely throughout most of Jewish history but, thankfully, that isn’t a problem for American Jews. 

That left tradition as the last unique identifier: the fact that Jews worldwide celebrate certain holidays that non-Jews don’t, observe mourning rituals that non-Jews don’t and recite marriage vows that non-Jews don’t. Since all families share certain rituals unique to themselves, common Jewish traditions still gave Jews around the world the feeling of belonging to the same family. But now, even that is disappearing.

American Jewish leaders talk a lot about “peoplehood,” but there is no possible basis for Jewish peoplehood that doesn’t entail some level of Jewish knowledge and praxis. Unfortunately, too many young American Jews are growing up without either. Is it any wonder that they feel nothing in common with Israelis?

Now let’s return to the first issue: why American Jews saw themselves reflected in the man’s total incomprehension of Remembrance Day. Some disconnect would be basic human nature: most Israelis have friends or relatives in the army and most Americans don’t, so Israelis are naturally more emotionally invested. But the gap goes much deeper than that. The problem isn’t that young American Jews can’t share Israelis’ personal grief on Remembrance Day, it’s that they are also increasingly uncomfortable with the day’s national implications: Remembrance Day recalls the unpleasant fact that Israel has been at war since its inception, and still is.

American Jews find this uncomfortable for several reasons. First, unlike members of my parents’ generation – who, due to the draft, either served themselves or at least knew people who did – young Jews today rarely serve in America’s all-volunteer army, and the same goes for the liberal, well-educated non-Jews who comprise their social milieu. The result is that young American Jews tend to look at people who do serve – i.e., most Israelis – as people who aren’t like us.

Moreover, they have no conception of what military service entails: how difficult it can be, for instance, to avoid civilian casualties when terrorists fire rockets from a crowded urban area. Anyone who has served himself knows this. And anyone whose friends or relatives have served takes it on faith because he knows his loved ones aren’t cold-blooded killers and would avoid civilian casualties if they could. But if you have neither served yourself nor known anyone who has – if, in fact, you view people who serve as not like you – then it’s easy to assume those anonymous Israeli soldiers are cold-blooded killers, who don’t even try to avoid civilian casualties.

Finally, American Jews have never lived under attack. Never having known what it’s like to endure, say, daily rocket strikes, they can’t fathom why Israel sees a need to respond to such attacks militarily. After all, the rockets rarely even kill anyone; what’s the big deal?

Anyone who has served, or knows people who have, knows that reservists don’t rush to join wars that can kill or maim them unless they see real need for military action–and Israeli response rates to such call-ups typically approach 100 percent. But young Americans don’t know that, so they easily conclude that Israelis (who, after all, aren’t like them), are just warmongers who see military force as a solution to everything.

And if Israel is a country of murderous warmongers–people who truly aren’t anything like them–why should young American Jews care about it?

Ultimately, these two issues are closely related. The more American Jews see Israelis as members of the same family, the more willing they are to take it on faith that their overseas cousins aren’t murderous warmongers, but decent people like themselves. That’s precisely why Orthodox Jews are less bothered by Israeli “militarism,” despite a social milieu equally detached from army service: Bound by ties of Jewish knowledge and praxis, they still do see Israelis as members of their “family.”

The ad campaign was pulled, but the issue it raised can’t be waved away: Unless American Jews find ways to raise Jewishly knowledgeable and committed children, Israelis and American Jews really will cease to be one people someday.