x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Israeli 'homecoming' campaign draws fire in US

Videos aimed to persuade expatriate Israelis to return home but were seen as 'deeply insulting' and were pulled by the immigration ministry.

The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office this week. He denied knowledge of the controversial advertising campaign.
The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office this week. He denied knowledge of the controversial advertising campaign.

TEL AVIV // The young Israeli woman winces as her American boyfriend mistakes the candles and music she has set up in her apartment for Israel's Memorial Day as an attempt to create a romantic mood.

In another video, a young girl in the United States speaks on Skype with her grandparents in Israel, who are seated in front of a traditional menorah candelabra used to mark Hanukkah.

When they ask her what holiday they were celebrating, they are dismayed by her answer: "Christmas".

The two videos are part of a controversial government advertising campaign to lure Israelis home from the US by persuading them life abroad will cause them and their children to lose their Jewish and Israeli identities.

But the ads have sparked uproar among American Jews - a rare note of discord between Israel and its diaspora.

The advertisements, pulled at the order of the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, have been blasted by Jewish American leaders as offensive and by commentators as cheesy, spurring tension between Israel and the US Jewish community it relies on for political and financial backing.

Israel's embassy in Washington and the consulates in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco were flooded with complaints from offended American Jews.

Prodded by the outcry to torpedo the campaign, Mr Netanyahu denied he had any prior knowledge of it.

The campaign was sponsored by the Immigration Absorption Ministry, headed by a member of the far-right party of the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

The ministry said this week the ads had achieved part of their aim in encouraging thousands of Israelis to return.

Still, the campaign, which aired in Israel and key US markets, touched a raw nerve among a US Jewish community that typically hesitates to publicly condemn Israel.

The Jewish Federations of North America, an umbrella group representing 157 Jewish organisations, sent a letter of protest to the ministry, criticising the campaign as "deeply insulting and simply outrageous".

Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, another prominent US Jewish organisation, called the videos "unsubtle, crude and heavy-handed".

But Immigration Absorption Ministry officials rejected any suggestion the campaign was derogatory of the lifestyle of American Jews.

Sofa Landver, the immigration absorption minister, yesterday issued a partial apology, saying she was "sorry if anyone was offended".

She also denied Mr Netanyahu aborted the campaign, saying it had ended only because it ran out of money.

But the episode appears to show the power American Jewry has on the policies of the Israeli government, whose strong alliance with the US is viewed as its biggest advantage in the international arena.

And the controversy comes amid signs of increasing frustration within the White House over Israel's approach to resuming peace talks with the Palestinian leadership and what the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, called Israel's increasing isolation from important neighbours such as Turkey and Egypt.

It has sparked calls for the US Jewish establishment to use influence to press Israel to stop settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank - a key Palestinian demand for resuming peace talks.

Only a handful of US Jewish leaders have publicly condemned settlement activity.

Roger Cohen, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote on Monday: "I'd be pleased if they could reserve a little of their outrage for times when Israeli insensitivity or arrogance takes more violent form - as is frequently the case with Palestinians in the West Bank."

Israel, Mr Cohen said, should do more than just avoid offending American Jews - it should show the same kind of rapid action to stop antagonising its allies and reverse its growing isolation.

The ads targeted Israelis between the ages of 30 and 50 in major US centres such as New York, Miami and Los Angeles, advertising on an Israeli cable channel available in those places as well as on major billboards.

The video with the young man unable to relate to his Israeli girlfriend marking Memorial Day, ends with the message: "They will always remember Israel but their partners might not always understand; help them come back."

Another ad shows an Israeli father in the US who is napping and does not hear his son call him "daddy" and only awakens when he hears the word "abba" - Hebrew for father.

Israel does not release specific data about how many of its nationals live in the US, where many immigrate mostly for financial or professional reasons.

Still, the US is the largest Jewish community outside Israel and about half the marriages of Jews there in the past 25 years have been with non-Jews.