12.01.11

Israeli Government Tells Israelis Not to Marry American Jews

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.

Jewish children reared in America grow up hearing one thing on repeat. It’s like a dull tuning fork in the ear, or an image that sticks in the brain. Marry a Jew. Over and over. As if each time is the first. The subtext is that each of us is responsible for all of us, and if we intermarry, we risk disappearing completely. American Jews preach marrying each other in Israel’s name. The act does the Jewish homeland proud. A friend’s parent once told me that marrying a Jew would be great, but marrying an Israeli would be even better.

Unfortunately for American Jews, and all those niggling parents, it turns out that Israel might not be on our team in this marriage game. A middling and now infamous Israeli government department has forged a peculiar U.S.-based advertising campaign. In a series of videos and billboards, it is discouraging Israeli expats from marrying American Jews and imploring them to move back to Israel.

This conspicuous effort is concentrated in mostly expected locales: Palo Alto, Calif.; New York; Boston; and (less understandably) in Hollywood, Fla. Photos of the billboards taken from cell phones showed up on Facebook. That’s where a Jewish television network first discovered the campaign, which was never formally announced by press release and is mostly in Hebrew. The effort cost nearly $1 million, according to Steven I. Weiss at the Jewish Channel, who broke the story. He believes this is far less than the department’s budget for wooing American Jews to move to Israel.

Not only is Israel’s clinical-sounding Ministry for Immigrant Absorption telling its citizens whom to marry, it is also beckoning them home.

It’s common and advisable that countries publicly court their departed citizens, especially ones with troubled economies in need of repair. India sends its scholars to the States for an education, then entices them back to work. Ireland encourages natives to travel the world and then return. Most recently, Tunisia is asking back nationals after the spring revolution.

Israel’s once booming technology industry seems to have splintered in the global economic crisis. But rather than antagonizing the minds it did not retain, maybe Israel’s government would do better to find out why Israelis are moving to America in the first place. It’s hard to find clear-cut numbers on how many Israeli expats live in the U.S., but the Jewish Channel reported about 2 million.

One video advertisement features an Israeli girl, Dafna, observing Israel’s memorial day, while her feckless American boyfriend, Josh, looks on dumbly. He is cast as a slobbering puppy who may be lovable but can’t really think. “They will always remain Israelis,” rumbles the voice-over. “Their partners won’t always understand what this means.”

The other video panders by using every culture’s weakness—its children. An American Jewish child is visiting with her Israeli grandparents on Skype. They ask which holiday is represented by the menorah behind them. She shrieks, “Christmas!” and their faces tighten with shame. The message is that we American Jews will tarnish Israelis’ hard-won, all-encompassing Jewish identities by solely being our secular selves.

Many Israeli writers, thought leaders, politicians, and rabbis believe that assimilated American Jews are not Jews at all.

The ham-handed effort isn’t targeting American Jews, but it is offending them. Outrage has been concentrated in the blogosphere. “I don't think I have ever seen a demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews as obvious as these ads,” writes Jeffery Goldberg in The Atlantic. Gal Beckerman, a child of Israeli expats who lives in Brooklyn, writes in The Forward that the ads are most disturbing because they are full of fear.

This public offensive voices what American Jews should already know, and should be angrier about: that many Israeli writers, thought leaders, politicians, and rabbis believe assimilated American Jews are not Jews at all. People who make it their business to say who is and who isn’t a Jew are as old as the religion itself. That paradigm is hardly a useful one. Nobody listens to people who only want to exclude. There are more of us here than in Israel. Questions of Jewishness may not permeate our everyday activities, but maybe that’s Israeliness and not Jewishness at all.

Besides, if there are no Jews here in America, who would be left to plant all those trees?