My Word: Hitting close to home

Immigrant Absorption Ministry campaign is not effective at bringing us together as Jews – those who live here, and those who live there.

Hanukka decorations adorn Jerusalem 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Hanukka decorations adorn Jerusalem 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ouch. Double ouch. It was a message that hit home. Very painfully. The Immigrant Absorption Ministry campaign aimed at enticing Israeli emigrants to come back to Israel was carefully designed to reach out in terms they could most identify with. Among the “yordim” it seems to have touched a chord; among the American Jewish community it seems to have touched a raw spot. So raw, that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – a media whiz even in the eyes of many of his detractors – gave the order to can the campaign, rather than being perceived as trashing US Jewry.
The campaign gave out one dominant message: The longer Israelis live outside the country, the more likely it is that they or their children will lose their Israeli/Jewish identity. It ran in a series of billboards in various US cities and in three commercials on TV channels popular with expats.
One ad, particularly noteworthy this time of year, showed a pair of Israeli grandparents sitting in front of Hanukka candles and Skype-ing with their “American” granddaughter, who talks of “Christmas.” Another showed a young woman lighting a memorial candle on Israel’s Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers while her boyfriend/husband/significant other looks on, apparently unable to identify with the way Israelis mourn their dead on “Memorial Day,” rather than go shopping to take advantage of the sales.
American Jewish media figures blasted the campaign in articles and blogs. Israelis – those actually living in Israel, at least – were mystified.
“But why are these ads considered offensive? Aren’t they accurate?” asked one puzzled Israeli journalist.
The ministry might be effective at bringing the expats back home – a spokesman said that since the campaign was launched in May 2010, some 14,000 Israeli expats have returned, most of them attracted by a basket of fiscal benefits and tax breaks. It is not effective, however, at bringing us together as Jews – those who live here, and those who live there.
Part of the problem was, of course, the very different way we look at the world. Israel has been called “the dugri society” – a country that says what it thinks. We call a spade a spade, even if seems to hit you on the head. Political correctness does not suit our temperament: But at least you know where you stand with us.
Also – and this is possibly the hardest part to understand if you haven’t spent time both in Israel and abroad – for Israelis one of the most attractive aspects of living in the Jewish State is not having to constantly worry what the neighbors are thinking.
The Jewish community abroad, of necessity, is highly attuned to how something looks to everyone else.
I am among those who thought the campaign could have been more sensitive. But if it hurt, it might have been because it hit too close to home. Assimilation is a problem.
There, I’ve said it. So is Jewish identity, although, of course, there is always someone around to remind you.
While immigrants from North America discussed whether the ads portrayed home truths or distortions, my attention was momentarily distracted by events in my former homeland.
Labour parliamentarian Paul Flynn a week ago questioned the allegiance of the British ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, suggesting that the position should be held by “someone with roots in the UK who can’t be accused of having Jewish loyalty.”
It was the “someone with roots in the UK” that really riled me. How far are those roots meant to go – when it comes to Jews – to avoid suspicion of dual loyalty? Two generations? Three? Perhaps you have to have arrived with the influx of Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese Jews escaping the Inquisition. Maybe it’s all right as long as you are not too openly Jewish.
’Tis the season when I am particularly glad that I made the move to Israel. True, on December 25, a Sunday no less, I will be working, but my family, friends and neighbors will be celebrating Hanukka in the most natural way and place.
In Jerusalem, it’s common to light the candles outside homes. One night last year, my son and my father went on a trip together to photograph hanukkiyot, then we all met up with friends for a meal. Supermarkets and stores have been selling doughnuts, traditionally associated with Hanukka, since the last day of the Succot holiday.
Succot, Tabernacles, is, of course, the holiday when a vast number of Israelis put up Christmas decorations – in their temporary booths. These made-in-China decorations are readily available in Israel at the end of summer.
AS I MONITORED the fallout from the ministry’s well-intentioned efforts I recalled a lesson I learned at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem many years ago. A requirement of my MA studies in communications included creating a marketing campaign. With what I now recognize was that peculiar mix of innocence and arrogance that you can’t get away with once you’ve passed your 20s, I informed the lecturer that I felt “uncomfortable about trying to persuade people to do something they didn’t really need to.”
Obviously this wasn’t as original a comment as I had thought at the time. The lecturer immediately pointed out that he had merely given us the tools, and we could do with them what we wanted. It was up to us whether we wanted to persuade people to take up smoking or convince them of the dangers of driving without seat belts. It was that comment that led me to draw up a program to change the image of animal welfare societies in Israel. The paper earned me a good grade and a great deal of satisfaction. The only section that drew any criticism from my mentor – the late, great Micha Gidron – was the TV ads I drew up based on changing behavior through scare tactics. (I’d written a script that emphasized that children who could hurt innocent animals could easily grow into adults who hurt defenseless humans.)
Gidron pointed out that campaigns based on fear are rife with potential pitfalls – including people simply “switching off” when they see uncomfortable messages, rejection, denial and even doing “davka,” as we say in Hebrew – being contrary and doing exactly the opposite of what the campaign intended.
Positive campaigns are usually more effective in getting the message across, noted Gidron.
Obviously we need to talk because we are all part of one big family wherever we are. If we unintentionally insulted each other, we need to apologize, but more importantly we need to figure out how to keep the family together, no matter where we live. We also, however, need to work out how to keep that family feeling in future generations.
There will definitely be plenty to talk about at The Jerusalem Post’s planned conference in New York in April.
In the meantime, trying to concentrate on the positive, I can’t think of a better slogan for the next campaign than “Ayn kmo babayit” “There’s no place like home.”
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
[email protected]