Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
December 2, 2011 - 1:00am

JERUSALEM — One video advertisement shows a Jewish elderly couple distraught that their Israeli granddaughter in the United States thinks Hanukkah is Christmas. Another shows a clueless American boyfriend who does not get why his Israeli expatriate girlfriend is saddened on Israel’s memorial day. A third shows a toddler calling “Daddy! Daddy!” to his napping Israeli expatriate father, who finally awakens when the child switches to Hebrew: “Abba!”

For many American Jews, the Israeli government-sponsored ads, intended to cajole Israelis living in the United States to come home, smacked of arrogance, ignorance and cultural disrespect of America. Jewish groups in the United States expressed outrage, saying they were causing a rift with American Jews who support Israel. On Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aborted the campaign.

The ads — short videos and billboard posters — were intended to touch the sensibilities of Israeli expatriates and tap into their national identity, according to the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, which oversaw the campaign.

But critics said the ads implied that moving to America led to assimilation and an erosion of Jewish consciousness. The Jewish Federations of North America called them insulting. Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called the videos “heavy-handed, and even demeaning.”

Israeli officials defended the desire to encourage Israeli expatriates to return, but the reaction of American Jewry, a crucial mainstay of support for Israel, clearly caused alarm.

“We are very attentive to the sensitivities of the American Jewish community,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Mr. Netanyahu. “When we understood there was a problem, the prime minister immediately ordered the campaign to be suspended.”

The ads were placed by the Ministry for Immigrant Absorption, headed by Sofa Landver, who immigrated to Israel from Russia in 1979. She belongs to the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party led by Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. The party takes a hard line on the peace process with the Palestinians and advocates exchanging parts of Israel heavily populated by Arab citizens for Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank.

A spokesman for the ministry, Elad Sonn, said no insult had been intended; the ministry “respects and cherishes” the American Jewish community, and “we wish to apologize to those who might have been offended.”

Some of the videos were still accessible Friday on the ministry’s Web site (

Beckoning the Jewish diaspora, of course, has always been a component of Zionism, a foundation for the Jewish homeland. Immigrants are referred to almost reverentially as “olim,” Hebrew for “going up.” Israelis who leave are “yordim,” Hebrew for “going down,” often uttered disdainfully.

The videos ran on Web sites popular with expatriates. Billboard versions went up in American communities where expatriates live.

Some Israeli officials were mystified by the belatedness of the reaction; the campaign is a few months old. Attention increased after an item on it appeared on the Jewish Channel, a cable station, and a blog was posted this week by Jeffrey Goldberg, a writer for The Atlantic.

“The idea, communicated in these ads, that America is no place for a proper Jew, and that a Jew who is concerned about the Jewish future should live in Israel, is archaic, and also chutzpadik, if you don’t mind me resorting to the vernacular,” Mr. Goldberg said.

On Thursday, the Jewish Federations of North America issued a memo that said: “While we recognize the motivations behind the ad campaign, we are strongly opposed to the messaging that American Jews do not understand Israel. We share the concerns many of you have expressed that this outrageous and insulting message could harm the Israel-Diaspora relationship.”

Steven Bayme, director of contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee, said that the campaign’s skepticism of Jewish life in the United States contributed to the angry reaction, particularly the message that Israelis should not marry American Jews. “We’re talking about one Jewish people, and certainly encouraging marriage within the Jewish people is something everyone would sign on to,” he said.

Mr. Foxman called the campaign “a reflection of the ignorance that exists in Israel of Jewish life in America, its vitality, its creativity.” Still, he said, Israel’s decision to stop the ads showed “that they’re listening and it does matter how we feel.”


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