Actually, the Israeli ads don’t have much of anything to say about Israelis marrying American Jews

After spotting Jeffrey Goldberg’s post with the attention-grabbing title Netanyahu Government Suggests Israelis Avoid Marrying American Jews all over Facebook, Twitter, and my inbox – if you clicked on this link, you’ve probably seen it – I feel it requires some sort of response. So here we go.

We’ll start at the beginning:

The Netanyahu government’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption is sponsoring advertisements in at least five American communities that warn Israeli expatriates that they will lose their identities if they don’t return home.

So far so good… and that’s where he should have thought about wrapping up the post. Instead, Goldberg goes on to dissect two of those advertisements in detail. Here’s the first:

And here’s Goldberg’s summary:

an actor playing a slightly-adenoidal, goateed young man (who, to my expert Semitic eye, is meant to represent a typical young American Jew) is shown to be oblivious to the fact that his Israeli girlfriend is in mourning on Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day.

You may notice that the clip itself in no way insinuates that the clueless American in question is Jewish. Instead, Goldberg asks his readers to rely on his ‘expert Semitic eye’, and runs with it:

The narration leaves no room for the possibility that “Dafna,” the Israeli girlfriend, could explain to the Josh-character (my name for him, though it could be Jeremy as well) why she’s sad on Memorial Day.

This is a good point, and I’d be happy to move on, except for Goldberg’s repeated assertion that the boyfriend is Jewish. As someone similarly blessed with ‘a Semitic eye’, I’ve learned one thing: trying to pick out a Jew by how he or she looks is often useless. To give you an idea: Harrison Ford is Jewish, Paula Abdul is Jewish, Bob Marley had Jewish ancestors. Kramer is not.

To Goldberg’s credit, the boyfriend could easily be Jewish, whether his parents named him Josh, Jeremy, or even Jeffrey.

He also could not.

Going out of his way to allege that the boyfriend is an American Jew is spurious, groundless, and ultimately serves as the basis for Goldberg’s inflammatory blog post title – which, I imagine, is the reason it has bounced across my laptop screen all day.

But let’s go on. As the second video – what Goldberg describes as the ‘in-your-face Christmas ad’ – demonstrates, the campaign was never about the boyfriend – Jewish or not – nor his marriageability. You have to admit it’s cute that whoever uploaded the video to Youtube couldn’t bring him/herself to write ‘Christmas’ in Hebrew:

In this case, Goldberg doesn’t bother to assign names to any of the characters, probably because the little girl’s parents could easily both be Israeli. But Goldberg somehow manages to drag American Jews back into the discussion:

I don’t think I have ever seen a demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews as obvious as these ads… The message is: Dear American Jews, thank you for lobbying for American defense aid (and what a great show you put on at the AIPAC convention every year!) but, please, stay away from our sons and daughters.

I’m hesitant to accuse Goldberg of deliberately misrepresenting the ads for the sake of a provocative title, but the conclusion that he is fully aware of what he’s doing is difficult to avoid when he so effortlessly mixes baseless allegations with legitimate insights.

For instance, I agree with Goldberg’s take on the campaign’s tone:

The way it is expressed, in wholly negative terms, is somewhat appalling. How about, “Hey, come back to Israel, because our unemployment rate is half that of the U.S.’s”? Or, “It’s always sunny in Israel”? Or, “Hey, Shmulik, your mother misses you”?

I also agree that certain Israeli rabbis have engaged in distinctly mullah-like behavior. And it sounds like he has the right idea when he writes

I understand the impulse behind them: Israel wants as many of its citizens as possible to live in Israel. This is not an abnormal desire.

Here, Goldberg successfully manages to describe the campaign’s message: to encourage Israeli citizens living abroad to return to the country of their birth. But by focusing in this one instance on the issue of Israeli citizenship, he highlights the instances throughout the remainder of his post in which he conflates the campaign’s actual message with an anti-American Jew-ish agenda.

For instance, when he summarizes what’s really bothering him, he reverts to describing the campaign as a commentary on American Jewry:

The idea, communicated in these ads, that America is no place for a proper Jew, and that a Jew who is concerned about the Jewish future should live in Israel, is archaic, and also chutzpadik (if you don’t mind me resorting to the vernacular).

Goldberg is wrong. The campaign is not about American Jews at all, not about where American Jews should choose to live, and certainly not about their suitability for the purposes of marriage. The campaign is very clear: it’s about where Israelis should choose to live.

More specifically, it is about cultural – not religious – displacement.

To clarify this last point, a quick review: The first video is about Yom HaZikaron. This is the Day of Remembrance, the Israeli Memorial Day, and emphatically not a religious holiday. The second video is about Christmas. It is increasingly difficult to equate hyper-awareness of Christmas with anything more than exposure to mainstream American culture. And the desire to avoid that unfamiliar culture is at the heart of the campaign’s appeal to its Hebrew-speaking, Israeli-born audience.

I think Monday night’s episode of The Daily Show is illustrative of this culture gap. Jon Stuart Leibowitz is one of the most readily-identifiable Jews in America, and his segment on God and Thanksgiving (specifically, from 3:56 to 4:26) provided him with an opportunity to remind his viewers of that fact:

This is about turning Thanksgiving into yet another one of those Christian persecution culture war type things. And let me just say: Don’t you do it. Don’t you do it to Thanksgiving. I’ll give you the war on Christmas. We are trying to f— that up. I’ll give that up. But this is all Reform Jews have left.

Had he not gone out of his way to remind me of his religion, I would probably not have noticed what came next:

Leave Thanksgiving out of it. It’s my favorite holiday. Name another holiday where you can get drunk around your kids by 2PM. You can’t.

Actually, I can. For one, Purim. For two, Simchat Torah. For three – well, really pretty much any Jewish holiday. Hell, it doesn’t even take a holiday. Some of us do it every Saturday.

Yes, I know when Stewart says “You can’t’,” he’s addressing an audience of millions, only a small fraction of whom are Jewish, and only a small fraction of whom could, in turn, come up with that list of holidays.

But that’s precisely the point: in Israel, the cultural references would assuredly be quite different.

And the fact that Stewart can transition directly from proudly trumpeting his Jewish heritage to confidently predicting ‘You can’t name a holiday where people get shikur midday’ speaks to the gap between American and Israeli, typical American Jews and typical Israeli Jews, or – in truth – people living in different parts of the world, no matter where they are.

I recently had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with Israelis. I gleefully relate the time one told me of the year her family spent in America, and her memories of Christmas: you know, the holiday where kids dress up and go from door to door asking for candy.

Or the time a different Israeli friend spotted a poster of Santa but couldn’t quite place him. Keep in mind, this one has two American parents, spends time in the states every year, has a summer home in Pennsylvania, and speaks perfect (OK, 99%) unaccented English.

It’s this gulf to which the ad campaign is trying to appeal – it’s not about who marries whom. In fact, I would imagine the ‘Netanyahu government’ is quite happy with Israelis who return to Israel, American-Jewish spouses in tow. Whatever you think of the campaign, you’re forced to admit that ‘Netanyahu Government Suggests Israelis Avoid Marrying American Jews’ does not begin to do its message justice.

So while I certainly share some of Goldberg’s reservations regarding the campaign’s tone, I also believe he would do well to acknowledge that as much as he may not like how it was expressed, the campaign falls somewhat short of unbridled – if you don’t mind me resorting to the vernacular – choot-spa.

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