The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption Ads: Not a Misunderstanding

Posted on Dec 02, 2011

Now that the Israeli government has wisely (but, so far, only partially) withdrawn from its website the videos meant to discourage Israelis from settling in America, marrying Americans (Jewish or Gentile), and ending up with children who can’t tell the difference between Hanukkah and Christmas, American Jews too should step back from the skirmish and coolly appraise just what the flap was about.

One thing it was not: a misunderstanding. For as long as there has been a modern Zionist movement, “negation of Diaspora” has been a leading theme in its ideological arsenal. It has never been enough for Zionists to proclaim the virtues of life in Israel. Rather, from Theodor Herzl onwards, theorists of Jewish national return have argued (at times with great cogency) that the only fate awaiting Jews in the golah was assimilation or anti-Semitism or a combination of both these evils. Golah was often translated not with the neutral term “Diaspora” but the pejorative term “exile.” Zionists, we might say, consistently sought both to “accentuate the positive” (Land and Statehood) and to “eliminate the negative” (exile and Diaspora), compensating for perceived weaknesses in the positive arguments for life in the Land of Israel with heightened emphasis on the negatives of life outside the Land.

A. B. Yehoshua carried on this tradition proudly several years ago when, addressing the 100th anniversary banquet of the American Jewish Committee, he told his hosts that of course the Diaspora they were celebrating has no future. Shimon Peres’s extraordinary new biography of David Ben-Gurion casually refers to the latter’s conviction that return to Zion would enable Jews to transcend their “long and sterile years of Diaspora” and enable a new Jewish worker to escape from the “spiritual poverty” of the old. The great historian Gershom Scholem, critical of Ben-Gurion on many counts, famously shared his belief that American Jews were self-deceived about our ability to avoid the tragic fate of previous exilic centers. Hillel Halkin’s book, Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist’s Polemic, eloquently made the same case in the 1970s, with special reference to the self-deceptions practiced at The Jewish Theological Seminary.

And now we have the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption—whose job it is to persuade Jews outside Israel to “go up” to the Land and to convince Israelis not to “go down” to the Diaspora or to remain there—not surprisingly drawing on this same tradition by summoning up the usual litany of horrors awaiting Jews in the Diaspora. One is still less surprised by the tactic when one recalls that the ministry is controlled by the secular, right-wing party of Israel’s foreign minister. Religious Zionists have to give Diaspora Jews credit for religious belief and practice, and can tout the religious virtues or commandments tied up with aliyah to Israel. Secular Zionists can do neither—and have historically been the most vociferous critics of Diaspora life. Consider the way things look from the point of view of the ads’ sponsors. “Bad enough to be born in America and put up with it, seduced by the material comforts, blind to the assimilation or worse that awaits you. But why give up ge’ulah (redemption) and settle in—settle for—galut (exile)? Why would any right-minded Israeli citizen want to do that?” The ads are meant to recall Israelis currently living in North America to their senses as well as their home country.

The question that surfaced in Israeli newspapers after the A. B. Yehoshua incident was whether he was wrong in his denunciation of the American Diaspora or simply impolite in stating the matter as and where he did. Israelis disagreed on this point. I think that the recent ad campaign raises this question anew—as well as a related issue: can there be Zionism without negation of Diaspora? And should there be?

Let’s face it: there is a lot of truth in the Zionist claim that Jewish life in the Diaspora is still plagued by the twin evils of anti-Semitism and assimilation. Anti-Semitism has resurfaced with a vengeance almost everywhere in the world in recent years, assisted by Muslim propaganda and left-wing attacks on the legitimacy of Israel. Assimilation is proceeding apace in North America, and the organized community has as yet found no way to arrest its spread. We can and should face up to these threats to Jewish life without flinching. It’s good to have Israelis remind us of facts we’d sometimes rather forget. We should do the same for them.

That’s why we should get out the word to Israelis and North American Jews alike that Jewish life in the United States and Canada can be rich, satisfying, joyful, and deeply meaningful; that Jewish communities on this continent are flourishing in numerous places and in numerous ways; that living as a partner to the age-old Sinai covenant in these most blessed of Diasporas is truly a gift—not least because Jews in North America also have the chance to participate in the amazing project of renewed Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Jewish leaders on this side of the ocean have long tolerated with affection (if also with irritation) Israeli denunciations of our community and our convictions. We have made allowances for remarks that we would never accept from the leader of one Diaspora community speaking about another. We roll our eyes knowingly and think nothing of it when Israelis so totally ignorant of Judaism that they make fools of themselves when visiting a synagogue have no hesitation in lecturing us about what it means to be a Jew. And—most serious of all—we quietly forgive Israelis who live under constant threat of terrorist attacks, missiles, and (soon, perhaps) Iranian nukes for telling us how insecure the American Jewish future is.

I treasure honest conversation with Israelis; all of us can only benefit from greater partnership with Israelis in building various sorts of Jewish communities and revitalizing Jewish tradition in a whole host of ways. It would be great if we could use the occasion of the ad campaign to promote frank discussion between Israeli Jews and the American Jews who love them and their country in a spirit of constructive criticism, Jew to Jew, community to community. Let’s debate the virtues and liabilities of our disparate paths “for the sake of Heaven”—and we may well find that our disagreement draws us closer.