(December 5, 2011 / JNS)
A perplexing media storm has broken out regarding the advertising campaign (now canceled by the Prime Minister’s Office) that Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption had been running in Boston, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, California, New York City and Hollywood, Fla. It is not clear exactly who broke the story, but it may have originated with Steven I. Weiss at The Jewish Channel, whose Nov. 25 program led with it.
Weiss called the campaign “semi-covert.” He described being made aware of it through local Jews who had noticed the billboards. One billboard highlighted on the show showed a smiling man with a child and said in Hebrew “Before Aba [Dad] becomes” and then says “Daddy” in English. Weiss also described television spots that had been purchased, but did not explain what programs they had been purchased on. One television ad shows a boy calling his sleeping father ‘Daddy’ and the father only wakes up when he hears “Aba.”
The ad closes with the Hebrew admonition “they will always remain Israelis, their children will not.” It appears in fact that the television ads are only running in Israel. The Ministry has also taken out ads on Hebrew language websites such as Ynet. According to Weiss, the campaign was directed solely at Israelis and the Ministry had informed him that the budget was only 3 million NIS. He remarked that it was interesting that the Ministry, which deals with immigration to Israel, was not launching videos aimed at getting American Jews to immigrate.
The controversy seemed to catch on with a story by Jeffrey Goldberg titled ‘Netanyahu Government suggests Israelis Avoid marrying American Jews,’ that appeared in The Atlantic on Nov. 30. He described “a series of short videos that, in an almost comically heavy-handed way, caution Israelis against raising their children in America.”
Goldberg then claimed that the “scare-ads” represented an attack on American Jews. “I don’t think I have ever seen a demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews as obvious as these ads…[they] suggest that it is impossible for Jews to remain Jewish in America. How else are we supposed to understand the ‘Christmas’ ad?”
The Christmas ad, which is a video posted on the Ministry’s website shows two Israeli grandparents Skyping with their granddaughter on Hanukkah and asking her what holiday it is. The girl responds, “Christmas.” Goldberg concluded that “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.”
It was Goldberg’s shrill column that caught the attention of the American media, Jewish bloggers and the Israeli media. The Global Postrepeated almost verbatim Goldberg’s title with its own: “Israeli ad campaign suggests Israelis shouldn’t date Americans.” In a blog section of The Miami Herald an anonymous “news” item described “Benjamin Netanyahu’s War on Christmas.”
Business Insider writer Michael Doughtery credited Goldberg as well, in his article “International Grinch Bibi Netanyahu tells Jews in America: stop celebrating Christmas.” According to this outlandish article, the ads “intend to guilt Jews out of celebrating Christmas, and other sins of assimilation.” The Daily Beast and Press TV also used headlines that claimed the ads were aimed at getting Israelis not to marry American Jews.
Allison Yarrow, at the Beast wrote “The Israeli government has launched an aggressive advertising campaign in the U.S. to discourage its expats from marrying American Jews—who some see as not really Jews at all.”
To top off the “I’m offended” tsunami, Gal Beckerman at The Forward claimed the campaign is “a piece of hasbara (public relations) aimed at alienating me.”
The institutional American Jewish community has also responded, with Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) condemning the videos and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) claiming that, “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.”
One must keep in mind a few things to understand how nonsensical the condemning of this campaign is. First of all, it is because Jeffrey Goldberg framed this a campaign against Israelis marrying Americans that other American Jewish news outlets picked this up and turned it into an Israeli anti-American initiative. ADL and JFNA may have received complaints, but they had a duty to read the billboards and watch the videos themselves, to realize that the ads’ message were twisted by bloggers and columnists in order to tarnish Israel and attack Netanyahu.
Consider the claim that this ad campaign is anti-Christmas. Is the ad in question telling Americans they shouldn’t celebrate Christmas? No. It is trying to ask Israeli and Israeli-American viewers an important question about assimilation that inevitably takes place in America.
The ad is aimed at encouraging Israelis to return, but it is also trying to hammer home the message that Israelis should keep their children in touch with their religion and country. How could Israel “guilt” American Jews out of celebrating Christmas? As an American Jew I’d say that while many Jews enjoy the Christmas season, they don’t celebrate the holiday. In fact, American Jews have led numerous campaigns to get Nativity scenes removed from public property and encourage people to say “happy holidays”—not “Merry Christmas.”
The last piece of fabrication is the assertion that the ad campaign is “aggressive,” and the claim that it is a large-scale initiative. In reality its budget is miniscule, and very few people saw the ads until concerned parties blew them out of proportion. They claimed the campaign accuses American Jews of not being Jewish, or bashes them for being secular, or encourages Israelis not to marry them.
None of this is true. The campaign argues that Israeli Jews who marry American Jews should consider connecting those Jews to Israel’s national holidays, such as Memorial Day, and consider the affects living in a vibrant mostly Christian culture will have on their children. Maybe Israelis in America don’t want to hear this message and maybe these are controversial ways to discuss the issue, but the ads have nothing to do with America’s millions of diverse Jews. They merely are aimed, in Hebrew no less, to the million or more Hebrew-speaking Israeli citizens in the U.S.
Seth J. Frantzman is a writer, journalist and scholar residing in Jerusalem.