December 1, 2011

Yet another Israeli PR flop

Has Israel finally run out of new immigrants?

The official website of Israel's Ministry of Immigrant Absorption has a new theme: "Before 'Motek' turns into 'Honey'... It's time to return to Israel." In other words, Israelis are being urged to get their children to move back from overseas (notably the United States) before they fall in love with non-Israelis or raise children who don't realize that Jews celebrate Chanukah rather than Christmas.

Thanks to The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg for flagging this new campaign, which includes a couple of crass new video ads. One ad just seems pointless -- as Goldberg points out, the young Israeli could easily use the opportunity to explain the meaning of Israeli Memorial Day to her clueless American kowabunga-dude boyfriend. Goldberg also picks up on the thick layers of condescension toward American society.

The second video shows an Israeli couple -- with the Chanukah lights burning behind them -- Skype-ing their children in the States. When they ask their granddaughter -- in Hebrew -- what holiday it is, she answers, "Christmas". C'mon, Really?? Someone who speaks Hebrew doesn't know that Jews celebrate Chanukah? And the 10-year-old granddaughter is so dense, she can't even pick up on the candelabra on the computer screen?

Seriously, here are a few of my own takeaways from this substantively flatfooted yet technically slick campaign:

1. The main plug on the Absorption Ministry website is to bring Israelis back to Israel. This seems to confirm that the era of mass Aliyah (immigration to Israel) has come to an end. If large numbers of new immigrants were still arriving, the Ministry wouldn't be prominently dedicating its website to getting dropouts to return. So, thanks for that memo. 

2. The Absorption Minister is a Russian Jewish immigrant, so she's painfully aware that -- for the past decade, the bulk of immigrants (olio) from the former Soviet Union have not even been Jewish, but mostly Christians somehow related to Jewish immigrants and therefore entitled to join them in Israel. Rather than address this challenge in an open way, it's much better to revive the kind of stigma that Israeli expatriates (yordim) faced back in the 1970s, and throw in a few digs at America and American Jews for good measure.

3. It's not just Russians who have run their course as new immigrants. There are the Falash Mura, the last remaining "Jews" in Ethiopia, who are waiting to immigrate to Israel. Of course, they're no longer Jews because their ancestors converted to Christianity. Then there were the thousands of Argentine Jews who were supposed to flee the Latin debt crisis ten years ago and come to Israel, but most preferred to stay put and weather the liquidity storm or else move up to Miami.

4. It's not just the Absorption Ministry that's openly recruiting Israelis overseas with patently silly messages. The Information and Diaspora Ministry has had an online promotion for many months, long since it was ridiculed by the Israeli press and public, inviting them to be "ambassadors" for the Jewish State whenever they leave the country on vacation. There's a reason many Israelis leave Israel for their vacations, and I doubt it's because they want to act out diplomatic fantasies.

5. Saddest of all, in putting down American Jews for not knowing about Chanukah or Israel's Memorial Day, this ad campaign ignores what should be obvious by now -- that most Israelis are Jewish because they live in Israel, and little in mainstream Israeli society prepares them for life on the outside. Memorial Day -- Yom Hazikaron -- is a solemn occasion in Israel because it honors Israel's own war dead. America has a Memorial Day, too, so it's hardly a foreign concept. But that's not about being Jewish (though many of us mark Yom Hazikaron over here, too) -- it's about being Israeli. 

Chanukah is celebrated by many Jews in the United States, not because we live in a Jewish state surrounded by Jewish symbols, but because many assimilated Jews still make a proactive effort to celebrate Chanukah and Passover and Yom Kippur. The producers of these videos dismiss American Jews who don't know about Chanukah, but when American Jews do celebrate Chanukah, the same Israel-centrists will claim American Chanukah is merely Christmas by proxy. In Israel, celebrating Chanukah involves no learning curve or special effort. In mocking American Jews, this pathetic Israeli ad campaign actually reflects Israel's success at transforming Judaism into a patriotic rather than religious affiliation. 

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