Why did American Jews Overreact to a Clever Critique of American Assimilation?

by Gil Troy

American Jewry is furious. Israel-Diaspora relations are endangered. Israel’s Prime Minister is apologizing. And why? Because the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption’s campaign inviting expatriate Israelis back home, suggested, shock of shocks, that there is widespread assimilation in America, so much so that Christmas sometimes trumps Chanukkah, especially for kids; that living in English shifts your linguistic orientation away from Hebrew; and that an American might not immediately realize a girlfriend’s candle-lit apartment on Israel’s Memorial Day sets the mood for mourning not snogging.

Before I lose all my American friends, let me acknowledge. Yes, the 30-second commercials were simplistic and heavy-handed. But what effective advertisement isn’t? Yes, it is awkward that the Israeli government produced the ads not some web whiz kid. And yes, there are arrogant Israelis who don’t “get” American Jews and “dis” them.

Furthermore, this is not how I educate; this is not my kind of Zionism. My book Why I Am A Zionist encourages affirmative identity Zionism not reactive, guilt-laden Zionism.

Still, the shrill reaction is disproportionate. The campaign hit a nerve because it highlighted some uncomfortable truths we should acknowledge:

  • Assimilation is America’s great blessing – and curse. American culture is welcoming and enveloping, for better and worse. While the US is open enough so millions can keep their traditions, many more jettison their pasts to dwell in the present, believing that to succeed as a “somebody” they must act like everybody – which risks making you, existentially, a nobody. Living by Facebook not the Good Book, worshiping at the altar of mammon, these new pagans, addicted to the iPod, the iPad and the me, me, me, are mall rats not church-goers, deifying celebrities, revering themselves, and orienting their lives by the here-and-now not the-tried-and-true. And, yes, Virginia, America’s most seductive, most dazzling holiday is Christmas, which, many Christians lament, has been drained of its piety, becoming too consumerist and too Americanized. Intermarriage and ignorance, apathy and alienation are epidemic among American Jews, even as a committed Jewish minority – a minority within the minority – thrives.
  • Many Israelis living in America embrace America’s assimilationist ethos on steroids. Most ignore the organized Jewish community. Many come to America denuded of the kind of rich Jewish identity which keeps some American Jews Jewish because of Israel’s absurd all-or-nothing, religious-or-secular absolutism.
  • Israel’s Remembrance Day is probably the hardest day for Israelis abroad. Even many involved American Jews are unfamiliar with the intense, intimate, reverent way Israelis observe that day. A few years ago, a snafu scheduled Montreal’s Jewish film festival’s opening for Remembrance Day Eve. The organizers could not understand why a respectful moment of silence before the festivities began still offended many Israelis. The organizers had no clue about the Yom Kippur-like atmosphere, the closed cafes, the somber songs, the restricted TV schedule that makes the day so difficult for Israelis to observe, anywhere but Israel.

In advertising’s blunt, cartoonish way, the three internet ads captured these complex issues, dramatically, effectively.

This American Jewish freak-out is strange given all the talk lately about how Israelis must learn to take criticism from Americans and American Jews without freaking out. The “big tent” looks less welcoming if the criticism only flows, like the donations, from enlightened America to benighted Israel. “Hugging and wrestling” must be mutual; otherwise it becomes moralizing and finger-pointing. With Jewish Voices for Peace becoming ever louder, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comparing Israel to theocratic Iran and the segregated South, while Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta browbeats Israel to kowtow to the Palestinians, Americans have shown they know how to disparage Israel.

The controversial ads are being “disappeared” down the Internet’s 1984-style “memory hole.” As an educator, I would rather use them to spark discussion. We are living in an extraordinary moment in Jewish history. Two fabulous centers of Jewish life are thriving in Israel and North America, each offering distinct advantages and disadvantages.

North American Jews should acknowledge the occasional thinness of their lives, and learn more about the innate thickness of Israeli life – the overlapping communal, religious, national, traditional, ties fostering Israelis’ sense of intimacy, that sense of connectedness to each other and to the past. The Jewish State provides many of its citizens with natural frameworks for meaning and belonging that enrich their lives.

Simultaneously, Israel suffers from the overstated, all-or-nothing divide between secular and religious, the rabbinic establishment’s depressing, destructive ability to drive Jews away from Judaism, and the unappealing prominence of Judaism’s most illiberal, intolerant, unforgiving Jewish expressions. Israelis should learn from the more centrist, fluid, human-centered expressions of Judaism flourishing in North America today.

The days of David Ben-Gurion’s shlilat hagolah – negating the Diaspora – are over. While some of Israel’s Jewish critics arrogantly engage in shlilat ha’aretz – negating Israel – we need a true friendship, a real partnership, between Israel and the Diaspora. Despite tiffs like this, there is more mutuality today than ever. Sophisticated Israelis are learning they can learn from the philanthropic, creative, pluralistic American Jewish community. Sophisticated American Jews are realizing that Israel as “Start Up Nation” can be an inspiration and a partner not just a charity case.

We need a meaningful, mature Zionist conversation. In both America and Israel, Zionism, the dreams and the reality, the grounding of nationhood and the possibilities of statehood, should be used as tools to explain, enhance, challenge and critique the status quo. For all its glorious impact on both sides of the Atlantic, the Zionist revolution’s full redemptive potential remains untapped. And those common understandings, the shared dreams, even applied to different realities, can build a solid foundation of mutual respect, carving out room for constructive criticism, honest exchange, and, most important, real growth in both communities.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections. He can be reached at giltroy@gmail.com

This post originally appeared on The Jerusalem Post’s blog, Center Field; reprinted with permission.

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Comments

  1. says

    This is all rather stupid of the Federation. Really it is about guilt. Jewish guilt that maybe they are more American than they think and less Jewish. Not Israeli.
    How many people sent their kids off trick or treating and said its just a harmless thing?
    How many had Thanksgiving dinner like it was seder?
    What are these parents teaching their kids? Religous or not, most Americans are ignorant of basic information even that one of the above is a Pagan holiday of old Irish descent and the other in various ways is thanking an ancient deity for crops, etc..

    For Israelis that are in the US they have a strong interest to become like everyone else, just speaking Hebrew all along.
    I thought the billboards were brilliant and wish there would be more of them. But not just in Hebrew, in other languages as well. Just because you come to America is not a reason to forgot your own culture, language or customs.

  2. invisible_hand says

    meh. the understanding of assimilation as a cultural/social force here is simplistic and naïve. the author genuinely seems to believe that assimilation is a yes/no issue, in which there is no authentic middle ground. again, these ads were shown in areas like boston and the bay area, both of which possess substantial jewish life. the lack of attachment to jewish identity for expat israelis has a lot more to do with zionist identity and its lack of grounded relation with yiddishkayt (as it were) than it does with american jewish identity’s assimilationist tendencies. after all, even the most assimilated american jew knows what hannukkah is! the problem with the ad is that it simply cannot recognize the more complex picture of what living as a jew in the diaspora means.

  3. Ron Wegsman says

    If only Prof. Troy’s idealization of life in Israel were true! Having lived about half my life in Israel and half in the U.S., I know his assertion that American Jewish life is “thin” and Israeli life “thick” is untrue. There is just as much assimilation in Israel as in the U.S.; it’s just that the metric used (incorrectly) to measure it, intermarriage, does not apply to Israel. There is “thinness” and “thickness” in both communities. As for the Israeli government, it would be well advised to deal with assimilation in Israel — a result in large part of failed education policies — before spouting off about the American Jewish community, of which it has little understanding.

  4. Shlomi says

    People leave Israel because its so black or white.. Its paranoid, everything that is not jewish is dangerous and everyone outside wants to kill you.. I left Israel and I dont regret it..

    The only way to get people to return is to make it a better place, today there is no future in Israel…

  5. Erica Lyons says

    Though a generalization, the passage, “North American Jews should acknowledge the occasional thinness of their lives, and learn more about the innate thickness of Israeli life – the overlapping communal, religious, national, traditional, ties fostering Israelis’ sense of intimacy, that sense of connectedness to each other and to the past…natural frameworks for meaning and belonging that enrich their lives.” was very powerful.
    And yes, I am American but I think that we need to focus, as Tory expresses, on working towards “a meaningful, mature Zionist conversation. In both America and Israel.”

  6. Rena says

    As someone who was involved in Canada’s Jewish world for many years, and realized that the time had come to make aliyah, I do believe that the Federations have over reacted. But, based on my personal experience it has more to do with money than on anything else. Israelis often live abroad without identifying with their local Jewish communities. This means that they don’t give to the UJA or to Federations. Often their children don’t go to Jewish schools or participate in any way in Jewish events. In some communities so much time is spent ferreting them out in order to get their dollars that it made my head spin.

    Yes, there is lots to be done in Israel of that there is no question, but to live abroad and criticize doesn’t help. Most of the Israelis that I knew in the past either came home to Israel or were lost to the Jewish community. It’s time we became adults and realized this.

    The major complaint revolves around money. Federation wants and needs it.

  7. Mike says

    Brilliant, simply brilliant! I think that everything that the commercials said, as well as the article written by Gil Troy, and even more so, all the debates, conversations, love, hate, and emotion that this caused is simply brilliant. It may have caused pain, guilt, anger, warmth, love, and a plethora of other emotions and thoughts, so, I will add mine as well.
    Although I do not speak for the Jewish Agency, I “think” or “believe” that the intentions were not to create negative emotions, rather to do what American campaigns do best ( I am an American so I think it is fair for me to say this). To reach out and touch an emotion, soften ones heart, create a weak point, and then make an intellectual plea for a cause.
    Perhaps in this case it was…”We want you to remember who you are (Jewish, Israeli), not to forget where you came from ( Jewish culture, Israeli identity) and know that we, Israel, would like to see you, all of you, at home, ISRAEL.
    Unfortunately, as is with ANY marketing campaign, no matter how well it is thought out, you never know what, if any, the return will be on the investment, be it emotional or financial, until you release it to the public. Campaigns that have cost millions and have had some of the greatest minds behind them have been greatly successful in achieving goals that were not even anticipated, yet failed at the goals they were intended to achieve.

    American Jews and Israelis, I feel, have a very unique and dysfunctional relationship at times in being understood by one another. Sometimes Americans feel they know what is better for Israel, and Israelis ( I am also an Israeli, so I think it is fair for me to say this) feel they know what is better for American Jews. Thank goodness that during times of hardship, we find ways to work together.

    What has absolutely become a common problem for both is understanding the concept of Zionism as it relates to current/modern everyday life. Up until 1973, I think, it is fair to say that most perceived it to be a history of reestablishing a Jewish homeland. Being a pioneer in re-cultivating a land and people that once existed, and moving toward a safe future, assuring that some history would not happen again, i.e. the Holocaust. So let me ask you American Jews. What is Zionism as it pertains to today and the future? Now you Israelis, What is Zionism as it pertains to today and the future? Who is a Zionist, where are they found, and what are they responsible or obligated to do as a result of being a Zionist, as it pertains to the Jewish people and the state of Israel? Or is Zionism dead? If in fact it is, what have we chosen to replace it?

    Perhaps it is time we searched more for commonalities rather than differences. Maybe then we can begin to work harder at building a better future with each other rather than emphasizing our ability to offend each other. Yes we can, find a way to set reachable goals together, build bridges that make our goals similar, even build a campaign that everyone will be happy to be part of…after all someone once said “If you will it, it is no dream!” or perhaps today we need to say ” It’s time to sit, and figure this out together.”

  8. Dan Brown says

    Mike,

    Just as a clarification, this was not a Jewish Agency initiative, but rather an independent one planned – and executed – by the Ministry of Absorption Immigrant Absorption.

  9. Mike says

    Dan thanks for the correction, no offense meant to anyone, but perhaps the two should also be working together on on such broad campaigns that represent Israel in the Diaspora….Just a thought. I for one would be happy to help.

  10. Mike says

    Ron, and to your point, as these commercials were focused in part on North American Jewry, JAFI could have been pulled in ahead of time to view and comment before releasing…again another miss opportunity with partnering with others that have similar goals…

  11. Rena says

    Knowing JAFI from both sides, hey would it really have helpedto have them involved? What is needed is to really know the real agenda. Why these ads in the first place. And if this is happening in Israel right now, what are we doing about it and what does this say about what is going to be the future for Jews around the world….

    From INN – A growing number of young Jewish girls are marrying Arabs, according to Dr. Boris Yudis, deputy mayor of the northern town of Afula. Yudis was interviewed for a report on intermarriage in the regional newspaper Index Haemek Vehagalil.

    “The phenomenon of girls aged 12 and 13 who are in Arab villages breaks my heart, but unfortunately my hands are tied,” he was quoted as saying. “Mothers come to me and cry that their 12 and 13 year olds have moved into minority villages, this is a painful thing that wounds my heart.”

    He was further quoted as saying: “I am really frustrated and this is not about Jews and Arabs – it is about the fact that instead of learning and studying they waste their lives. It is a sad phenomenon that we are unable to treat in a thorough way, from the root. I no longer believe only in law enforcement; I think we will have results if we act through education.”

    Israel’s pro-Jewish Identity NGO Yad L’Achim confirmed the claim. Its chairman was quoted as saying that they receive requests to assist in similar cases nationwide. The girls involved are aged 11 years and upward, he said.

    The Family Lobby responded to the report by saying that “the painful phenomenon of Jewish girls who cross over into Arab society is the direct result of the weakening of the family unit and the deterioration of the status of fathers in the Jewish family in recent decades – due to the activity of militant feminist women’s groups.”

    Family Lobby chairman Gil Ronen explained: “The inflated propaganda about battered women in the Jewish sector and the encouragement of divorce through unwarranted perks for single parent households wind up hurting these girls, who end up in the Arab sector, where their chances of being battered are far higher.”

  12. Ron Wegsman says

    Rena, this sounds like anti-Arab hysteria, similar to the allegations made against Blacks in the U.S. in pre-civil rights times. I would be very skeptical.

  13. Rena says

    Don’t be skeptical. I live in Northern Israel and I’m acquainted with several people who are involved in rescuing Jewish women and their children from Arab villages. It’s bigger and more tragic than you could ever imagine.

    In my days in Canada before making aliyah I had a Lebanese hairdresser. His father had sent him to Canada in the late 1970s and early 80s to protect him from the PLO who were actively involved at that time and taking over South Lebanon and stealing their children who they turned into the RPG army. ( I was there in 1982 and saw things for myself!!)

    His salon was the favorite meeting place for students who had come from all over the Arab world to study at our university. One of their stated ambitions was to get to first base with the Jewish women who were also at the university. Heard this directly so it wasn’t hearsay.

    Thankfully to the best of my knowledge nothing ever happened because we had quite a well informed group of young people.

    Recently a group of rabbis toured Tsfat, Acco and Nazareth and heard first hand from people in each of the cities just what problems are being encountered. Sadly more than I can tell you were the tragic stories that they heard of families who have been torn apart because of these problems.

  14. eJewish Philanthropy says

    Folks, we’re way off topic. Further comments will only be approved if they relate to Gil Troy’s piece.

  15. Mike says

    Thus far the result of these commercials has awoken the 500 pound gorilla that is in the room, by that I mean pushed peoples buttons on the following topics,
    1.The offensive way these commercials portrayed the American/Jewish/Israeli family in North America.
    2. The need for better communication between Israels marketing of American Jewishness and the Organizations that exist in the U.S.
    3.The need for a greater partnerships between the Jewish people.
    4.Evaluation of the Zionist narrative as it relates to North America and Israel and the world at large. Where is it going or is it dead?
    5.Issues of assimilation within American and Israeli communities.
    6. The weakness of the Jewish family in parts of Israel.
    7. Why some people are leaving Israel.

    So, like I stated in my original response to the commercials…Marketing is a hit or miss business, sometimes you can hit head on the first time and other times you miss your mark and actually initiate responses that are far more intense than your goal, as is the case here.

    Having said that, now the question is can the editor of this session surface the issues to those who can evaluate and initiate positive change, while including the communities and their members in the process to get results?
    I love being an American/Israeli or is it an Israeli/American with roots from Germany/Russia/South America/France.

    And here is what I know, when I watched the commercials from Israel I was saddened to see that part of the process of any assimilation, of any people, into a new society will cause change in the way people do or observe things, whether for the better or the worse. But thankfully we have an opportunity to have choices to pick from. Israel is not for everyone, however as a Jew everyone has a place in Israel, even if it is only for a visit. I love America, it taught me to be me. It gave my daughters a chance to explore themselves and receive “Yiddishkeit” as I the “Papa” saw fit. Today I have one daughter in America studying to be what she wants to be, and another daughter that is a combat soldier in the Israeli army. My heart aches at times as I miss my daughter in the states, and worry about my daughter in the army, but those were choices they made for themselves. Should my daughter in America one day decide to be with us here in Israel, or should we decide to return to the U.S., that will be okay as well. I am however committed to making my Jewish community flourish, where ever it may be!