The State of Israel has always prided itself on being not only a home to its native citizens but a haven for Jews from across the globe. For years the Ministry of Immigration Absorption has successfully focused on attracting Jews from around the world to make aliyah and reconnect with their homeland. This past year alone, more than 19,000 Jewish people chose to leave their countries of residence to start life anew in the Jewish state.
With so much effort spent on welcoming Jews from abroad, the ministry runs the risk of losing sight of another pressing concern: the deflating number of our own citizens.
Despite Israel’s ever-growing economy, some of our citizens choose to leave Israel in search of a more prosperous future. While they more often than not retain their Israeli identities by living in areas populated by other sabras, these mini-Israel communities abroad can never really live up to the real thing.
In an effort to remind our Israeli emigrants of the unique qualities of their homeland, the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption launched a series of television and billboard ads. Though controversial in nature, the ads were meant to remind Israeli expatriates that no matter where they currently reside, there’s no place like home.
Some American Jews were offended by the ads. Admittedly, like any successful campaign, the commercials were intended to get people talking; however, they certainly were not meant to offend.
Israeli and American Jews have shared an extremely tight relationship that is not to be taken for granted. Legions of Zionist supporters abroad have ensured Israel’s continued survival, and their tireless support has helped many an Israeli sleep easier.
Having spent some time working in the United States as a shaliach, an emissary, for the Jewish Agency in Miami, I have come to know the unique challenges facing American Jewry. Living as an integrated part of American society while fighting the effects of assimilation is arguably the most difficult task with which Jewish communities outside of Israel must cope.
While North American Jews have grown accustomed to weathering these challenges and working hard to maintain their unique identities, many Israeli emigrants have never had to cope with these added social pressures.
Though I can readily see why some Jews living abroad would be uneasy with advertisements whose subtext may seem to suggest that it is more difficult to maintain a Jewish identity outside of the State of Israel, it is essential to note that the intention of this campaign was not to pass judgment on our American brothers and sisters.
Sensitivities aside, the fact is that each year thousands of well-trained, highly skilled Israeli professionals are leaving the country to find employment elsewhere. These expatriates represent an invaluable human resource for our country, and the job of the Israeli government is to do whatever possible to direct them back to their home.
While the ads caused a huge stir in Jewish communities, the initiative was far from an unprecedented approach. Countless nations have created government programs aimed at reversing the effects of brain drain.
Israel will always be a homeland of the Jewish people. That being said, not every domestic policy pioneered by Israel’s government is necessarily aimed at the Jewish diaspora.
With Israeli and Jewish culture being so closely intertwined, the truth is that the Israeli national character, including the Hebrew language, civic holidays and remembering our fallen heroes, is by no means exclusive to residents. American Jews and Jews from all across the diaspora are always encouraged to embrace Israeli customs and pass them on to their children.
However, there are certain trappings of Israeli culture that cannot be emulated in America, such as bustling streets freezing completely in time while pedestrians and drivers commemorate our war dead, or sufganiyot and latkes lining the windows of shops rather than gingerbread. These are the charms that our government hopes to portray to woo our talented expatriates back home.
To ensure that we do not find ourselves in this situation again, my committee has recommended to all the relevant agencies and organizations that a higher level of coordination be implemented. This means that Israeli ministries such as the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Absorption, the Ministry of Information and Diaspora Affairs and the Foreign Ministry must coordinate before setting out on such an ambitious campaign.
We as Israelis also must be much more sensitive to our brethren in the Jewish communities around the world. A higher level of consultation with them probably would have enabled us to avoid this whole situation.
Admittedly, for all the celebrated charms of the Israeli character, subtlety is not among our strongest attributes. This is something I am confident that American Jewry can appreciate and recognize the intention and reasoning behind this campaign. Israelis are a passionate and honest people who say what we feel, and believe in what we say. It is an aspect of our character that has allowed us to survive and thrive.
Through mutual respect and admiration I am sure that our two communities will move beyond this incident and continue to focus on the important issues that are truly important to us all.
Danny Danon is the deputy speaker of the Knesset and chairman of its Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs. He also is the chairman of World Likud. He wrote this piece for JTA.