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Fears that Jew numbers will soon decline are behind an ad campaign that raised hackles of the American Jewish community.
World Jewry "is on the verge of negative growth," MASA Chief Executive Ayelet Shiloh-Tamir said last week, when the ad was launched. "We want Israelis to view [diaspora] assimilation as a national strategic problem."
This attitude is counter to the approach taken by the main streams of American Jewry, Reform and Conservative Judaism. The ads were very much counter.
The ads "present [life in the diaspora] as illegitimate and as leading Jews to lose their identities," the chairman of the Reform movement in Israel, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, wrote in a letter this week to Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky.
MASA officials responded that diaspora Jews misunderstood the ads. They were targeted at Israelis, they said, who see things differently. "This is a campaign for Israeli society, not for Jewish Agency officials or for American Jewry,” said Alon Friedman, MASA's operations director. “We had to speak the language that Israeli society understands.”
It’s true that many Israelis are ignorant of the more accommodating stance toward intermarriage of Reform and, to a lesser extent, Conservative Judaism in the U.S., where Orthodox Jews are a much smaller voice.
Israelis only understand Orthodox Judaism, which has a state-sponsored stranglehold on religious matters in Israel. Even if they aren’t religious, Israelis are often repelled by the progressive elements of Reform Judaism, such as female rabbis.
MASA’s Friedman defended the ads by saying that “assimilation” meant something different to the Israelis who saw the ad on television and to the Americans who watched it over the internet. "Even words that have a direct translation don't have the same connotations," he insisted.
Americans just didn’t get the subtleties of the ad? Well, the Hebrew word for “assimilation” in the ad, “mitbalel,” comes from the root “balel,” which means “mix” or “mingle.” So 50 percent of young Jews are “mingling themselves” with non-Jews and are therefore “lost to us.” Does that sound less offensive?
Half of MASA’s $39 million budget is funded by the Jewish federations of North America and half by the Israeli government. That appears to be one intermarriage that isn’t working.