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."
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.