Insulting Israeli ad campaign pulled after complaints

The sparks are still smoldering from last week’s flare-up over an Israeli ad campaign aimed at luring home expatriates in the United States, a campaign that American Jewish leaders decried as “insulting” and “demeaning.”

The ads, produced by Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and displayed on billboards and Hebrew-language websites and satellite TV in regions with significant Israeli expat populations, convey the message that the children and families of those expats will lose their Israeli — and perhaps Jewish — identities if they stay in the diaspora.

One billboard near Palo Alto, which could be seen from U.S. Highway 101 from mid-September to mid-October, exhorted (in Hebrew) that Israelis return to Israel “before motek” (Hebrew for sweetheart) “becomes ‘honey’ ” — suggesting that they will lose their Hebrew-language skills if they continue to live in Silicon Valley.

On Dec. 2, Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, announced that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had ordered the more than

2-month-old campaign be halted, the billboards taken down and the videos removed from YouTube.

This advertisement was on display from Sept. 19 to Oct. 24 on a digital billboard near Highway 101 in East Palo Alto.

“The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption’s campaign clearly did not take into account American Jewish sensibilities, and we regret any offense it caused,” Oren said in a statement. “The campaign, which aimed to encourage Israelis living abroad to return home, was a laudable one, and it was not meant to cause insult. [It] was conducted without the knowledge or approval of the Prime Minister’s Office or of the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

“The prime minister deeply values the American Jewish community and is committed to deepening ties between it and the State of Israel.”

Jennifer Gorovitz, CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, said that the campaign was misguided at best. “While we are sympathetic to Israel’s concerns about attracting ex-patriots home, we strongly oppose the ad campaign’s messaging that American Jews do not and could not understand Israel,” she wrote in an e-mail to j. “As a result, we greatly appreciate that Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Prime Minister’s Office asked that this initiative by the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption be discontinued.”

The loss of Israeli citizens overseas is deeply troubling for Israel. For one thing, Israel’s determination to maintain a Jewish majority in the country means that the emigration of every Jewish citizen is a setback.

For another, a relatively high proportion of Israelis living overseas are professionals or those with advanced degrees. Israel doesn’t want to lose their expertise, wealth, spending and tax income.

Competing with places like the United States — where there is abundant opportunity and little discrimination against Jews — isn’t easy. So when officials at Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption came up with an ad campaign over the summer targeting Israelis living here, they tried to zero in on the thing the United States cannot offer.

In one of the video ads, the young daughter of Israeli expats is video chatting with her grandparents in Israel, who have a lighted menorah in the background. When the grandparents ask the girl what holiday it is, she exclaims “Christmas!” The tagline: “They will always be Israeli. Their kids won’t.”

In another, a dozing Israeli expat father is deaf to his son’s calls of “Daddy!” until the kid finally says “Abba!” The tagline: “Before ‘Abba’ turns into ‘Daddy,’ it’s time to come back to Israel.”

In time, negative reaction swelled. In a Nov. 30 blog post, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg called the ads a “demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews.”

Many Jewish leaders agreed.

“While we recognize the motivations behind the ad campaign, we are strongly opposed to the messaging that American Jews do not understand Israel,” Jewish Federations of North America leaders wrote to their board of trustees. “We share the concerns … that this outrageous and insulting message could harm the Israel-Diaspora relationship.”

The Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz the ads were “heavy-handed, and even demeaning.”

However, although an Associated Press story claimed that Israeli consulates in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York “were inundated with protests from offended American Jews,” Akiva Tor, the Israeli consul general in San Francisco, says he didn’t receive a single complaint, either by phone or e-mail.

“The message was not in any way a criticism of American Jewish life, but a statement about the quality of Israeli life in America,” he said. “Israel believes in aliyah, and we do believe our own citizens should come home. And we’re happy when they do so.”

Israeli Absorption Minister Yuli Edelstein stressed, “It was aimed at the Israelis and it worked. The criticism got a little carried away. With all the anger, American Jewish leaders missed the point.”

Whereas American Jewish critics saw the ads as a swipe at them, seeing in the Christmas ad in particular a suggestion that American Jews don’t know how to be Jewish, Edelstein said the opposite is true: Israelis don’t know how to live as Jews outside of Israel.

“When the Hebrew is taken away, the army service is taken away, the income tax is taken away, the friends are taken away, I’m not sure [Israelis] know how to distinguish our [Jewish] identity and distinguish between Chanukah and Christmas,” Edelstein said.

At least one Israeli expat in the Bay Area disagrees.

Meshulam Plaves, a clinical psychologist in Berkeley who grew up on a kibbutz in Israel, takes issue with any suggestion that the United States cannot offer as much “Jewishness” as Israel can.

“Here [in the United States] I am expanding my Jewish identity, celebrating my love for my people and my tradition with joy and pride,” he wrote in a

letter to j.

As a child in Israel, “of course I was raised Jewish,” he noted, but only after moving to the United States more than 35 years ago did he learn about the Torah and attend services. He and his family went on to join a synagogue, Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont.

“I have been discovering many aspects about our tradition and customs that were not familiar to me growing up,” he wrote. “Now I am connecting to our heritage in new and exciting ways … I can even say that I feel stronger and happier in my Jewish identity.” n

J. staff
contributed to this report.