Ads upset American Jews

Ads upset American Jews

An Israeli government ad campaign, encouraging expatriate Israelis to return the Jewish state, was withdrawn last week after igniting a furor among American Jews who found the ads demean American Jewish life as inferior.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the ads pulled after the criticism came to light.

The campaign, which first came to the notice of the American Jewish public through a report on the weekly newscast of The Jewish Channel, a Jewish cable TV channel in the United States, has generated condemnations from the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), and scores of prominent writers for publications ranging from Politico and The Atlantic, to the gossip blog Gawker.

“I don’t think I have ever seen a demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews as obvious as these ads,” said the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in a blog post responding to The Jewish Channel’s report, while the JFNA sent out a public e-mail from its leadership declaring the ads contain an “outrageous and insulting message.”

The ad campaign targeted Israeli expatriates living in the United States, trying to get them to return to Israel. Consisting of billboards in at least five U.S. cities and three different television commercials running on satellite TV channels featuring Israeli content, the ads declare in Hebrew “the time has come to return to Israel.”

But it’s the message about why a return is worthwhile that has upset so many Americans. In one ad, an Israeli woman and her American boyfriend return to her apartment, where she has left a candle burning for Israeli Memorial Day, or Yom Hazikaron; her boyfriend misinterprets the candle as a romantic message, and the ad concludes with Hebrew text and voice-over saying “They will always remain Israelis; their partners won’t always understand what this means. Help them to return to Israel.”

Another ad has Israeli grandparents video-chatting with their American granddaughter during Chanuka; they ask their granddaughter what holiday it is, and adopt expressions of horror when she responds that it is “Christmas.” The third TV commercial has an American child failing to get his Israeli expatriate father’s attention by calling him “Daddy,” and only succeeding when he calls him Abba. These ads conclude with the message “They will always remain Israelis; their children will not. Help them return to Israel.”

In a public statement, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, lamented any ill feelings the ad campaign caused among American Jews.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu deeply values the American Jewish community and is committed to deepening ties between it and the State of Israel,” Oren said in the statement. “He has pulled the ad campaign that clearly did not take into account American Jewish sensibilities, and we regret any offense it caused. The campaign, which aimed to encourage Israelis living abroad to return home, was a laudable one, and it was not meant to cause insult.”

But American upset at the ad campaign is “foolishness,” according to the government official responsible for the campaign, Israel’s Minister of Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver, in an interview with Shmuel Rosner of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

“We took upon ourselves to try and connect with Israelis abroad; this has nothing to do with American Jews for which I have the highest respect,” Landver said.

Indeed, many Israelis have said that Americans shouldn’t be surprised about Israel maintaining such attitudes toward American Jewry.

“The classic Zionist position,” wrote Rosner, an Israeli, is “that not just Israeli culture and heritage is hard to maintain in the U.S., but also Jewish culture and heritage.”

(The full report from The Jewish Channel can be found on cable television, or on the web at The Chronicle staff contributed to this report.)