In case you haven’t been following the story, a brief summary: Last week a couple of Jewish-American journalists were shocked – shocked! – to discover that a 6-month old Ministry of Absorption campaign aimed at encouraging ex-pat Israelis to return home was predicated on what was perceived as a disparaging attitude toward American Jews. Alex Beam of the Boston Globe wrote an interesting story about the campaign, which was mentioned by Shmuel Rosner in his report. But the man who made the most noise about it was Jeffrey Goldberg, who was appalled at this “demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews.” Fast forward through a couple more editorials written by angry American Jewish journalists, plus an outraged letter from the powerful Jewish Federations of North America, and the campaign was pulled. All this happened in five days. According to the story – which might or might not be true – Ambassador Michael Oren called Netanyahu directly and got instant results.
A few thoughts on this incident:
>>This incident proves – in case anyone had doubts – that the US Jewish community wields enormous influence over Israeli policy. Imagine if the Jewish Federations and Anti-Defamation League invested the same energy in expressing their displeasure at Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank. Actually, Eli Valley does an excellent job of imagining that scenario in this piece for The Forward.
>> The expressions of outrage from US Jews seems a bit disingenuous to me. The cultural chasm between North American Jews and Israeli Jews cannot have escaped their notice. You can see it in the famous Saturday Night Live skit, “The Sabra Price is Right,” which is 20 years old, or in the more recent Adam Sandler comedy, “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.” Both portray Israeli men as pushy, macho and crude, with the SNL skit making them look dishonest in business, too (this was a spoof of the electronic shops that sprang up in heavily touristed areas of Manhattan in the 1980s and early 1990s; they were run by Israelis who were experts at fleecing their one-off customers). The Sandler film is a sendup of US Jews’ ambivalence regarding Israelis: They can’t decide whether to admire them for being war heroes defending brave little Israel from the Arab hordes, or belittle them for being rough-mannered and provincial. Both images, of course, are ridiculously one-dimensional.
Secular Israeli Jews express their identity through the Hebrew language, army service, family and Bamba. The vast majority of non-Israeli Jews do not speak Hebrew, do not serve in the army and have no idea what Bamba is. For them, Jewish food is corned beef on rye, bagels and knishes. There is no corned beef in Israel, I never saw a knish there, and the bagels are just stale bread rolls with a hole in the middle. Only 30 percent of US Jews visit Israel once in their lifetime, Birthright or no Birthright; and their understanding of Israeli society often bears little resemblance to reality. Lately, I’ve noticed that hummus is making an appearance on the traditional Ashkenazi Shabbat table in the United States and Canada, as a condiment with the crudites, but it’s a strange, gray paste that does not at all resemble the hummus consumed in the Levant.
Israeli ex-pats tend not to assimilate easily into North American Jewish communities. The cultural clashes go both ways, with secular Israeli Jews not understanding the rituals and etiquette of the middle class North American branch of the tribe, with their high holy day synagogue attendance and their Jewish Community Centers.
The theme of the Ministry of Absorption’s video campaign – that Jewish life cannot be sustained outside of Israel – is clearly nonsense, and this is part of the reason US Jews are so insulted. Jewish life in the States is extremely rich, whether it is expressed as Orthodox religious practice or secular celebrations of Jewish history and culture.
Some Israelis decided to parody the Ministry of Absorption’s campaign, which Jeffrey Goldberg calls the ‘anti-diaspora campaign‘. The one below, which is in English, is set in “Manchester, London” – a joke about Israelis’ ignorance of the world, perhaps. The participants don’t even try to imitate a British accent. Note that the Israelis who play the polite ‘English’ shop clerk and customer have a slight Russian accent, indicating they are immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Note also the ironic tagline, “They will always be Israelis, help them go back home.”
Another video parody, which contrasts the ‘polite’ English manner of speaking with the hilariously exaggerated Israeli Hebrew, ends with the tagline, “They will always be Israeli; help them stay abroad,” adding that the campaign was conceived by the “Ministry of Rejection.”