First came the video ads in such shockingly poor taste as to appear like Saturday Night Live parodies of commercials -- the Israeli grandparents enjoying a Skype conversation with their grandchild in America during Chanuka until the little girl proudly announces the name of the holiday -- "Christmas;" the little boy nudging his sleeping father with the mantra "Daddy. Daddy. Daddy...." switching finally to "Aba!" which works its magic; the American boyfriend clueless in the face of his Israeli girlfriend's sadness on Yom HaZikaron, Israel's Memorial Day.
These ads were the brainchildren of the Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, part of their "Returning Home" project. The tagline of the campaign: They will always stay Israeli. Their children will not. Help them return home. The message rendered loud and clear was: The Diaspora is toxic. Move there and lose your Jewish identity, memory and soul.
Then came the scores of incredulous Facebook postings and sharing, the outraged response by American Jewry to the ads' implicit message. For it was not just any old outpost of the galut that was portrayed; it was that goldeneh medinah of diasporas: the United States of America. You know, that country that is Israel's staunchest ally, with the world's largest concentration of Jews outside of Israel (or maybe also inside Israel?), that nation that gives untold sums of money in government aid and private donations, where so many consider Israel their far-flung home-away-from-home.
The media went nuts (I got contacted by several reporters working on stories, including a CNN producer) when the ads came to the attention of the public, seeking commentary from those newly-appointed agents of assimilation -- American Jews. I suddenly envisioned myself standing in dark glasses and a trench coat on street corners, targeting Israelis newly arrived to New York with the words -- "Hey kid! Have I got something for you!" -- handing out vials of American Dream assimilation potion.
Now here was a story! Not "man bites dog" but "dog pees on the leg of the man who pets him."
The New York Times put Joseph Berger in New York and Isabel Kershner in Jerusalem on the case to cover the next phase of the story: man shouts at the dog that peed on him. In other words, the campaign had been pulled because of the loud public outcry from American Jews, including prominent community leaders. To quote the late Amy Winehouse, theirs' was a unanimous chorus of "No, no, no!"
The outpouring of outrage died down and the ads became ghostly reminders of a dumb idea or the butt of jokes told around the Shabbat table, a welcome bit of comic relief from the not-funny-in-the-least SAT cheating scandal which tragically was a Jewish story as well.
Yet this morning I found a piece of writing on a Forward blog that is even more baffling to me than the ads themselves because it is written by an American Israeli, an educator and a public intellectual. The essay, by David Hazony, posits that the voluble and unified reaction of the American Jewish community indicates that the ads touched a nerve not because they were tacky but because of the truth they contain.
In other words, the American Diaspora, really is a Roach Motel of Jewish continuity where Israelis check in as Jews but they don't check out. Or they check out as Goyim.
These ads are ill-thought out. But a secure, self-assured, thriving Jewish culture would have just shrugged them off. Instead, we get responses that are totally out of whack — suggesting that the Israelis really stepped on a live wire in the American Jewish psyche.