Ad campaign flare-up obscures bigger challenge: Luring home Israeli expats

American Jews complain about Israeli ads aimed at expats

By Uriel Heilman, JTA, NEW YORK

A few different sparks led to last week’s flare-up over a two-month-old Israeli ad campaign to lure home expatriates in the United States.

An ad suggesting that a child of Israelis living in America would mistake Chanukah for Christmas. The claim by an influential blogger that the Netanyahu government was trying to dissuade Israelis from marrying American Jews. Criticism of the ads by the Jewish Federations of North America and the head of the Anti-Defamation League.

Last Friday, it all came to a quick end : Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, announced that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had ordered a halt to the campaign that had so offended American Jews.

But last week’s flare-up threatens to obscure a larger challenge for Israel: How to lure its citizens living overseas back home.

For many years, Israel viewed its emigrants with some distaste. They were referred to as yordim, a derogatory term that means “those who go down.” Israeli embassies and consulates refused to provide solid numbers on how many there were, reflecting the sense that somehow Israelis who had left the fold were an embarrassment for the state.

In recent years, however, that attitude has shifted, and Israel both has made a more conscious effort to draw them back and started to look at its expats as more than just lost citizens.

“We have to rethink the definition of Israelis abroad — it’s a different world today,” Israel’s minister of public diplomacy and Diaspora affairs, Yuli Edelstein, told JTA this week. “Is someone who goes to the U.S. to get an M.A. a yored? A PhD? I don’t think this diminishes Zionism.”

Israel’s more aggressive effort to bring back expats has included not just ad campaigns overseas but changes at home. Israel helped create and fund new academic research centers to compete with universities abroad for Israeli minds. The Finance Ministry is trying to create incentives that would turn Israel into a technology research center for the financial services industry as a way of attracting Israeli expats who work in the field but cannot find jobs in Israel.

“We know there are people who would like to return or make aliyah,” Haim Shani, the director general of Israel’s Finance Ministry, told JTA last year. “It’s part of a larger strategy of bringing minds back to Israel.”

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 140,000 Israelis are living in the United States; the Israeli Consulate in New York says the real figure exceeds 500,000. Whatever the number, it’s clear that more Israelis are moving to America than Americans are moving to Israel. From 2000 to 2010, the number of Israelis in the United States grew by more than 30,000, according to the U.S. Census. By comparison, 25,712 Americans moved to Israel in that period, according to figures from the Jewish Agency for Israel, which handles immigration to Israel.

America has long beckoned immigrants from all over the world, Israel included. Israelis’ reasons for coming are varied, but experts say it’s mostly for economic and professional opportunities. Not only do doctors, lawyers, academics and other professionals make more money in America, but some fields, like hedge funds, hardly exist in Israel.

“The solution of returning to the Diaspora and living overseas always captivated us,” Israeli engineer Liad Magen wrote Monday in an Op-Ed piece in Ynet. “Especially in my field, as a computer engineer, relocation is not a dirty word. Many of my friends are overseas, in Europe, Australia and the United States. Even friends who served in the army with me and completed a full combat service left for the U.S. and opened successful companies there. All of them are doing well.”

The loss of Israeli citizens overseas is deeply troubling for Israel. For one thing, Israel’s determination to maintain a Jewish majority in the country means that the emigration of every Jewish citizen is a setback.

For another, a relatively high proportion of Israelis living overseas are professionals or those with advanced degrees. Israel doesn’t want to lose their expertise, wealth, spending and tax income.

In recent years Israel has recognized the value of having Israeli communities abroad. As potential wellsprings of overseas support for the Jewish state, the Israeli government is increasingly helping to cultivate them. But it would rather have them home.

Competing with places like the United States — where there is abundant opportunity and little discrimination against Jews — isn’t easy. So when officials at Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption came up with an ad campaign over the summer targeting Israelis living here, they tried to zero in on the one thing America cannot offer Israeli expats: Israeliness.

Critics, however, saw the ads as suggesting that America cannot offer something else: Jewishness.

In one ad, the young daughter of Israeli expats is video chatting with her grandparents in Israel, who have a lighted menorah in the background. When the grandparents ask the girl what holiday it is, she exclaims “Christmas!” The tagline: “They will always be Israeli. Their kids won’t.”

In another ad , a dozing Israeli expat father is deaf to his son’s calls of “Daddy!” until the kid finally says “Abba!” The tagline: “Before ‘Abba’ turns into ‘Daddy,’ it’s time to come back to Israel.”

In a third , the boyfriend of an Israeli expat mistakes her subdued mood and a candle-lit room for romance when she actually is observing Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers.

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, after learning of the ads from a report on The Jewish Channel, wrote a blog post about the ad campaign headlined “Netanyahu Government Suggests Israelis Avoid Marrying American Jews.” He called the campaign a “demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews.”

That set off a cascade of reactions. ADL National Director Abraham Foxman told Haaretz that the ads were “heavy handed and even demeaning.” The Jewish Federations of North America called them “outrageous and insulting.”

Within about 48 hours, Netanyahu canceled the campaign, which had included billboards in addition to the 30-second spots on Hebrew-language satellite channels and YouTube. So far, however, only the Christmas ad has been removed from YouTube.

“The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption’s campaign clearly did not take into account American Jewish sensibilities, and we regret any offense it caused,” Oren said in a statement. “The campaign, which aimed to encourage Israelis living abroad to return home, was a laudable one and it was not meant to cause insult.”

The Knesset Committee on Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs said it would discuss the campaign in a meeting Wednesday. For its part, the Absorption Ministry noted that the ads generated positive feedback from Israelis living in the United States.

“It was aimed at the Israelis and it worked,” said Edelstein, the Diaspora minister. “The criticism got a little carried away. With all the anger, American Jewish leaders missed the point.”

The ad campaign was meant to show Israelis that their Israeliness will be diluted by living in the Diaspora — if not for them, then certainly for their children. American Jewish critics, however, saw the ads as a swipe at them, seeing in the Christmas ad in particular a suggestion that American Jews don’t know how to be Jewish.

Edelstein said the opposite is true: Israelis don’t know as well as American Jews how to live as Jewish in the Diaspora.

“An Israeli, when the Hebrew is taken away, the army service is taken away, the income tax is taken away, the friends are taken away, I’m not sure we know how to distinguish our identity and distinguish between Chanukah and Christmas,” he said.

One Israeli expat in New York, Sivan Noy, the program manager of Dor Chadash USA , a network of Israelis living in America and American Jews, said the ads failed to move her.

“I think they are highlighting situations that wouldn’t make me feel less of an Israeli,” Noy wrote in an e-mail message to JTA. “I do have a little girl, and we are ‘celebrating’ Xmas with our friends (that celebrate Chanukah with us) and she does call me Mommy sometimes and I fail to see why it makes her less of an Israeli.”