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Israeli call out to Jews angers those in US

Fears that Jew numbers will soon decline are behind an ad campaign that raised hackles of the American Jewish community.

Jewish immigrants from North America who plan to join the Israel Defence Forces disembark from a plane at Ben Gurion International airport, Tel Aviv, Aug. 13, 2008. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

JERUSALEM, Israel — The ad opens with fliers posted in drab, rainy public places. The images are clearly not shot in sunny Israel. We’re in Europe, the U.S., Russia. The flyers carry the word “Lost” in several languages and a smiling photo taken in happy times. The kind of notice people put up when they lose a dog. Except these are for young Jews called Joel Fine, Nathan Jacobs, Josh Feldman.

The voice over to the ad begins: “More than 50 percent of young Jews outside Israel assimilate and are lost to us. Know a young Jew abroad?” Then call the number on your screen, the voice continues, and give up their details, “to strengthen their link to Israel, so that they won’t be lost to us.”

Israelis often complain that the world doesn’t understand them. If you could count on anyone to get them, it’d be diaspora Jews. Watch this ad, and think again.

The semi-governmental Israeli agency behind the ad withdrew its campaign this week because it had offended Jews living outside Israel. The ads were aimed at Israelis, but once posted on the internet they prompted an outraged response from American Jews in particular.

Why? Because to American Jews “assimilation” is code for “intermarriage.”

Some years ago, American Jews talked of an intermarriage crisis in which about half their children married non-Jews. The implication was that their grandchildren wouldn’t even identify as Jews. But in recent years American Jews have come to less dramatic conclusions about intermarriage, which accounts for 47 percent of marriages involving a Jewish partner in the U.S., and have figured out ways to reach out to people who, according to the ad, will be “lost to us.”

Trouble is, no one seems to have told the Jewish Agency, the joint venture of the Israeli government and international Jewish communities that’s responsible for encouraging immigration to Israel. One of its sub-agencies, MASA Israel Journey, concocted the controversial ad.

In the 1990s, when American Jews were fretting hardest about intermarriage, the Jewish Agency was focused on bringing Jews from the former Soviet Union to live in Israel. It shipped almost 1.5 million, including many who aren’t considered Jewish by the Israeli Rabbinate — but that’s another story.

Once the FSU immigrants dried up, the Jewish Agency looked around for a new purpose and settled upon encouraging immigration through fear. More precisely, fear of intermarriage. On the "About us" page of its website, there’s a column marked "some facts." The top fact is: "Throughout the Jewish world, we are losing more than 100 Jews every single day."