Absorption Ministry Stands by Under-fire Campaign

Two of three controversial videos meant to convince citizens living abroad to return to Israel remain online despite criticism by U.S. Jews.

David Sheen
Revital Blumenfeld
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David Sheen
Revital Blumenfeld

The Immigrant Absorption Ministry is defending a controversial campaign meant to encourage Israeli citizens residing in the United States to return to Israel.

Absorption Ministry spokesman Elad Sonn characterized the negative response of some Diaspora Jews to the campaign as "over-sensitivity" and said the ministry has no intention of taking down two controversial online videos.

MK Shai, right, arguing with MK Landver, 2nd left, on Wednesday.Credit: Michal Fattal

The campaign - meant to warn Israelis living in the United States that they risk assimilation - has roused the ire of many America Jews. Some 10 U.S. banners in recent weeks featured slogans such as "Before Hanukkah turns into Christmas, it's time to return to Israel" and "Before 'Abba' turns into 'Daddy,' it's time to return to Israel."

The ministry has also come under fire for three online videos launched this summer on the Israeli YouTube channel broadcast outside the country.

Two of the videos imply that children raised in the United States by Israeli parents would forget about their religious and linguistic roots. The third video suggests that a non-Israeli romantic partner would not share the same emotional attachments to Israeli holidays such as Memorial Day.

Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren announced last Friday that when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became aware of the campaign, he ordered the videos immediately removed from YouTube and the billboards taken down.

The posters came down across the United States after four to six weeks, with the last coming down this month. But they were taken down because the contracts had expired, not because of the criticism, said Sonn.

One of the videos - a clip in which a child remembers the Christmas holiday before Hanukkah - also was removed from YouTube within hours of Netanyahu's announcement.

However, the other two videos remained on the ministry's YouTube channel as of press time.

The video in which an Israeli woman's American partner mistakes her silence on Israel's Memorial Day for romantic intentions provoked much of the anger from American Jews. The clip has elicited criticism from Jewish-American commentators such as The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg and Commentary's Jonathan Tobin, who wrote that by dismissing the suitability of a possibly Jewish partner, the campaign slighted Diaspora Jews.

Yet Sonn insisted that the ministry has no plans to remove the two videos from YouTube.

Immigration and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver also continues to defend the campaign. Speaking at a meeting of the Immigration and Absorption Committee at the Knesset on Wednesday, Landver said, "Perhaps I'm naive, but I don't understand what people were so hurt by."

"The campaign ended a month and a half ago because the budget ran out, and for no other reason," added the minister. "I loved the campaign and I'm proud of it."

Landver called the campaign "a great success," crediting it for the return of thousands of Israelis in the last year. Sonn told Haaretz that 14,000 Israeli citizens have returned to Israel since May 2010. Sonn said 43,000 Israelis have been repatriated since January 2007, and that 2009 was a record year in which 11,000 Israelis returned.

Landver was criticized during the committee meeting for taking the campaign public without coordinating with other relevant ministries. "How could this campaign be launched overseas when the foreign and information ministries - under whose jurisdiction it falls - are not included or consulted?" asked Kadima MK Nachman Shai, also a former senior vice president of the Jewish Federations of North America.

"This campaign was a failure, not only professionally but also culturally, a failure to understand the subtleties of the lives of American Jewry. There was a complete disregard of the wider Jewish community," said Shai.

Landver responded that there were no explicit guidelines instructing her to defer to other ministries.

Some Knesset members in the committee meeting defended the campaign for raising the issue of assimilation.

"The only thing we can benefit from, that can save this country, is to bring hundreds of people back home," said MK Yulia Shmuelov-Berkovich (Kadima ). "You must continue with this campaign so that all the Jews in the world will understand the difference between Christmas and Hanukkah," she said.

The Absorption Ministry emphasized in the committee meeting that since the start of the campaign, the amount of traffic to their website has increased dramatically from 6,500 hits per month to more than 90,000. The ministry also pointed out that the campaign was targeted only at Israelis living abroad.

Rebecca Caspi, who now holds Shai's former position with the Jewish Federations of North America, responded, "How could you think that you could launch this campaign and it would only reach your intended audience?"

"The message is that it's impossible to live Jewish lives outside of the State of Israel. No one values immigration to Israel more than we do," Caspi said.



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