Israel PM suspends ad campaign that upset U.S. Jews

By Aron Heller

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Dec. 4 2011 10:25 a.m. MST

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2011.

Gali Tibbon, Pool, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

JERUSALEM — Israel's prime minister suspended a television ad campaign aimed at luring home Israelis living in North America after it sparked an uproar among American Jews, an official said Sunday.

The government-sponsored advertisements, which were broadcast on Israeli TV and in large American markets, tried to warn Israelis that their children could lose their Israeli and Jewish identities if they were raised in the United States and not in Israel. That set off virulent opposition among American Jews, who complained that the commercials were demeaning to their Jewish identity.

The campaign touched on the sensitive relations between Israeli and American Jews, and the growing rift between them. Israel depends heavily on the political and financial support of American Jews, but the two sides are often at odds regarding politics and religion.

Israel's Orthodox-run rabbinate, for instance, doesn't always recognize marriages and conversions performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis abroad. And American Jews, who are largely politically liberal, are often ill at ease with hawkish Israeli policies and legislation.

In one of the advertisements, Israeli grandparents sit in front of the traditional Hanukkah candelabra while speaking to their granddaughter on Skype. When they ask the child to name the holiday they're celebrating, she says "Christmas."

In another, a napping father can't hear his son's calls of "daddy" and only stirs awake when he hears the word "abba" — Hebrew for father. A third, shows an emotional Israeli woman marking Israel's Memorial Day and her non-Israeli partner unable to relate. The adds are all capped by the slogan: "They will remain Israeli, their children won't. Help them come home."

Israel's embassy in Washington and consulates in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco were inundated with protests from offended American Jews. The Jewish Federations of North America, the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish groups condemned the ads.

Abraham Foxman, the national director for the Anti-Defamation League, called the ads "unsubtle, crude and heavy- handed."

"I think it's offensive. It comes out of an ignorance. Most Israelis don't understand how American Jewish life works," he told The Associated Press.

Faced with an uproar, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly reversed course and suspended the ads Friday.

"We are obviously very sensitive to concerns raised by the America Jewish community and the minute we understood that Jewish Americans saw a problem, the prime minister immediately acted and suspended the program," said Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev.

"We are always very attentive to concerns raised by the American Jewish community," Regev said.

It's not the first time an Israeli government project has upset Jewish Americans.

In 2009, it yanked an ad campaign against Jewish assimilation after it outraged Jews abroad who saw the campaign as an attack on intermarriage — the common phenomenon of Jews marrying non-Jews.

Statistics show that in the U.S. — home to the largest Jewish community outside Israel — about half the marriages of Jews over the past 25 years have been mixed.

Jewish leaders have long warned that the Diaspora's identity is eroding as more Jews marry out of faith and blend into the non-Jewish mainstream. Meanwhile, Israel has established its own, unique persona, foreign to that of Jews overseas.

Over the years, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have settled in the United States for financial and professional advancement.

Israel's Ministry of Immigrants Absorption said the goal of its campaign was to target the "soft spots" of Israelis abroad and "their national identity." It denied it was trying to interfere with "the personal choices of Jewish people in the United States or despising their way of living."

Nachman Shai, an opposition lawmaker, said that trying to bring home Israelis was a fine cause, but not at the price of alienating American Jews.

"The ads indicate that there is an unimaginable gap between an Israeli and an American. Our whole thesis is based on a bridge and a connection. Now this ad comes and says 'you, the Americans, will never understand us,'" he told Channel 10 TV.

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