Saturday, December 3, 2011

Israel and American Jews: WTF Was Bibi Thinking?!

The NYT reports that Israel's Ministry for Immigrant Absorption wised up (though hardly in the nick of time) and removed from its website several video promotions that did nothing whatsoever to "promote" good feeling between Israel and the majority of American Jews.

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.”

There's a weird disconnect here that leaves one almost breathless.  Netanyahu can come to the US, waltz onto Capitol Hill, be lionized by both houses of Congress (the majority of whose members have publicly sworn their fealty to Lord Bibi), and be reassured that they've got his back.  But then, he (or his government; I wonder how well informed he was about those videos before the ministry posted them; still it's on him, ultimately) has the chutzpah - and, frankly, the gross stupidity - to run videos that clearly demean American Judaism.  (Let's be real: it take a lot to get Abe Foxman to speak so critically of the Israeli government.) 

A lot of Americans are - and will remain - clueless about all of this.  And I suppose that it might take a lot more than this for Pastor Hagee and those "good Christians" who have signed on with CUFI to turn away from Bibi.  (After all, the welfare of Israel and American Jews concerns them only to the extent that ensuring it might hasten the Second Coming, at which point they're all toast, according to Christian scripture.)

But at a time when (as SecDef Leon Panetta has lamented recently) Israel has become dangerously isolated both regionally and globally - and is on the verge of becoming isolated even worse (with the emergence of anti-Israel Islamist parties - and allies of Hamas - in the Egyptian political forefront) - Bibi couldn't have picked a worse time to alienate so many thousands of citizens of the country that (rightly or wrongly) has shielded it, at the UN and in the court of international opinion.

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