by Misha Galperin
Much has been written about the recent, ill-fated advertisement campaign of Israel’s Ministry of Absorption. It has been said that the ads were insensitive, hard core, and offensive. I doubt the authors of the campaign intended to insult the American Jewish community. They were certainly focused on the Israelis living in North America, though they did use a heavy-handed tactic to get their attention and influence them to return home. One thing is for certain regarding this campaign that was ultimately canceled by the Israeli government – it struck a sensitive chord.
Whether or not these ads were successful in their attempt to scare Israelis back to Israel is yet to be seen, but the ads were not smart because they made incorrect assumptions that are reminiscent of an earlier age when Jewish life abroad was all but dismissed by many Israelis. Even as recently as a few years ago, A. B. Yehoshua made comments to the AJC in which he said that the only place for a Jew to be truly Jewish was in Israel. I criticized those comments then for short-sightedness as I criticize this ad campaign now for the same reason.
The underlying assumption in this campaign was that if you live in America, you are likely to lose your Jewish identity and connection to Israel. The assumption is incorrect as there clearly has been and is vibrant Jewish life outside of Israel. And, in fairness, while Aliyah from North America is at a 38 year high with some 4,000 people making the move in 2010, we are living in times where the vast majority of Jews around the world who are making Aliyah are doing so out of choice and of a powerful calling, not because they are running away. The “pull” factors are the defining reasons for Aliyah, not the “push” factors.
In North America, there has no doubt been a very worrisome, steady decline in terms of the connection of Jews to Israel and to Jewish people. The numbers are frightening. Some say that hundreds a day are lost to the larger community due to assimilation. The last population study – NJPS of 2001 – put the number of Jews in North America at about the same as the study of ten years before. Many Jews are detaching themselves from the Jewish collective.
This phenomenon is not limited to North America. The fraying of the delicate fabric of the Jewish collective is happening all over the world. Including Israel. There too, there is a similar distancing from Jewish roots by many Israelis. There is a lack of feeling part of a single Jewish global collective. There is not enough of an understanding of how the Jewish communities function in the Diaspora. That was reflected, albeit unintentionally, in the ad campaign.
It is exactly to counter this phenomenon that the Jewish Agency has dedicated its renewed efforts and adopted a new strategic plan. The timeless vision of the Jewish Agency – to ensure the future of a connected, committed, global Jewish People with a strong Israel at its center – has not changed. Neither has the Agency’s commitment to Aliyah of rescue to (more than 60,000 Jews are living at risk around the world) or to facilitating and encouraging Aliyah for those who chose to make Israel their home. But the mission has evolved. The Agency’s focus today is to strengthen the connection of Jews to their heritage, people and land. The connection to Israel – the State and the global Jewish people – must be an integral component of Jewish identity. There is a symbiotic relationship between the people of Israel and the State of Israel. As The Agency’s Chairman Natan Sharansky is fond of saying: Israel needs a strong Jewish Diaspora and the Diaspora needs a strong Israel.
Ensuring that our young people experience Israel in a significant and personal way is critical in making this relationship a reality. Research clearly demonstrates that the more significant one’s Israeli experience, the stronger one’s connection is to Judaism, to the Jewish community and to Israel. It is also vital to bring Israel to local communities. As an example, each year thousands of young Israelis are sent as educators – shlichim – to work in communities, college campuses, youth movements, summer camps, and more. These young Israelis, who come to North America representing the genuine Israel, often find themselves representing the American Jewish community when they return home. We have heard it said on many occasions that they come to North America as Israelis and return home as Jews. Their experience teaches them the importance of the global Jewish collective of which they now feel a vital part. They get the symbiotic relationship.
If nothing else emerges from the ad campaign episode, what should be remembered is the importance of the Jewish collective, that we are all one people – as stiff-necked and quarrelsome as we often are – whose mutual commitment to each other, wherever we may be, and to the well being and future of the State of Israel, is critical to securing the future of the Jewish people.
Misha Galperin is President, International Development Jewish Agency for Israel.