Anshel Pfeffer / 'Missing Jews' campaign ignores changing realities
This latest PR screw-up is yet more evidence of how desperate and out of touch the Jewish Agency has become.
On direct orders from Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, the controversial anti-assimilation advertising campaign by MASA has been pulled from the airwaves.
Never mind the patronizing, ugly and insulting tone of the ad, which featured "missing" posters of young Diaspora Jews "lost" to the Jewish people. The first problem with this issue is how to define assimilation. Does it begin and end with intermarriage? Or does it also include a drift by Diaspora Jews toward the habits of what some Israelis like to call the "host country," be it choosing bacon over bagels or soccer over synagogue.
After all, what other way for a Diaspora Jew to define themselves apart from religion - unless it's by their relationship to Israel? In which case, does assimilation mean abandoning the path of light to go over to the dark side of Europe's fashionable keffiyah-wearing and Israel-boycotting public?
But perhaps before we struggle with the thorny issue of just what is meant by assimilation, we should consider another definition - that of MASA itself, or even its parent, the Jewish Agency.
According to the MASA Web site, it enables "thousands of young Jews to spend a semester or a year in Israel in any of over 160 programs, helping them build a life-long relationship with Israel and a firm commitment to Jewish life."
So it is yet another Jewish Agency program dedicated to the amorphous mission of "strengthening ties" between Israel and the Diaspora. What the Jewish Agency would really like, however, is to facilitate and promote immigration to Israel. Pushing aliyah is its original purpose and one it hasn't grown out of, despite a changing reality all around its creaking bureaucracy.
The old-school Zionist institutions seem to have a knack for clinging on to antiquated ideas, like aging sweethearts clinging on to a relationship itself far beyond its sell-by date.
Nice to visit, but wouldn't live there
The fact is that the days of "bringing" people on aliyah are pretty much over. The best the Jewish Agency can do (and even this mission has been successfully commandeered by Nefesh b'Nefesh) is to smooth the way for those who have already made their mind up to move to Israel.
Perhaps for the first time in history, there is not a Jew in the world who cannot emigrate to Israel, if he or she so wishes (even the 20,000 Jews of Iran) and there is no lack of information easily available.
But more than ever, the decision to take the Zionist plunge is an individual one, and all the Jewish Agency, or Israel for that matter, can do is to try and make Israel as attractive an option as possible.
Over the last two years I saw this phenomenon again and again. In Russia, Jewish (and halakhically non-Jewish but eligible for Israeli citizenship) twenty-somethings were happy to take all the advantages of MASA and Taglit offered to them, but few had any interest in moving to Israel.
In England, where half of all Jewish teenagers 16-18 go on an organized youth group Israel tour, Zionist aspirations stretch little further than a yearly fortnight in Herzliya.
In Ukraine, despite institutionalized anti-Semitism, the local community has no plans to leave for Israel.
Even in Tehran or Isfahan, there is little interest in abandoning the Ahmedinejad regime for one ruled by the Jewish community's coreligionists.
Ironically the only place I saw any great passion for making aliyah was among the Falashmura in Ethiopia, who surely must be one of the most assimilated communities in the world, considering that their great-great grandparents converted to the local version of Christianity almost a century ago.
There's nothing new about this. Expecting the Jewish Agency to reform itself is rather like (to use a particularly assimilationist term) expecting turkeys to vote for Christmas.
This latest PR screw-up is yet more evidence of how desperate and out of touch the organization has become. Instead of encouraging rapprochement with an increasingly muscular and confident Diaspora, MASA has done the opposite with its cringe-worthy ad.
It is all very well for Sharansky to claim that he has always believed that "not only should Jews of the Diaspora be exposed to an Israel experience, but that Israeli Jews should be exposed to the Diaspora experience so as to understand better the meaning, depth, challenges and sensitivities that Jewish life in the Diaspora poses."
I have heard from sources within the agency that Sharansky was opposed to the MASA PR campaign from the start and refused to take part in its launch. I believe that to be true and certainly his forceful decision to pull the ad, (though it's not clear whether the largely independent MASA management was acting on his orders) proves his displeasure. But at the same time, Sharansky has yet to outline an alternative vision for the agency's future.
The starting point is always that Jewish life in Israel is the pinnacle of the Jewish experience, with even the most devout and committed Jew in the Diaspora somehow functioning on an inferior level to the most secular and uninterested one here. But this "given" is no starting point for any kind of true dialogue.
The fact is - however ill it sits with Zionist doctrine - that Jewish life, both secular and religious, is flourishing in parts of the Diaspora, despite intermarriage, despite "assimilation" and despite Jewish Agency orthodoxy.
Whisper it softly, but Israel itself is in danger of becoming a divisive force in the Diaspora, increasingly becoming a point of conflict and negativity rather than a focus for pride and solidarity. Diaspora Jewry is not some recalcitrant teenager to be scolded by big grown-up Israel - and even if it was, no one who has had any experience of dealing with a belligerent teenager would recommend the sort of high-handed tone Israeli institutions seem to prefer.
Israel can provide a Jewish homeland and a thriving space for Jewish life, but it cannot decide what constitutes assimilation or commitment for the Jewish people at large. A Diaspora Jew does not automatically self-excommunicate by marrying out, staying put in exile, or even discarding their "I [heart] Israel" T-shirt.
Diaspora Jewry has become much more creative than the dusty and monolithic Jewish Agency, still obsessed with aliyah and anachronistic concepts of assimilation.
If MASA really wants to help build "a life-long relationship with Israel and a firm commitment to Jewish life" it would have more impact by funding grassroots programs in the Diaspora itself, or even sending Israelis to learn from Jewish communities elsewhere - perhaps starting with Sharansky himself.