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Striking a Nerve
The most recent dust-up between Israel and American Jewry lasted less than a week but it spoke volumes about the worrisome disconnect between the two global centers of Jewish life.
It all started with an Israeli government ad campaign beckoning Israelis living in the United States to come home. The ads had been circulating on city billboards where large pockets of Israelis live and on YouTube for several months. But the effort only generated controversy after the Jewish Channel, a cable station, broadcast a report about it.
The ads themselves -- one suggested that a child of Israelis living in America would mistake Chanukah for Christmas -- and the fierce reaction to them clearly struck a sensitive nerve that underscores a fundamental lack of understanding that traverses both sides of the ocean.
For its part, the Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption's campaign to lure its citizens back home played off the Israeli perception that American Jewry is bereft of Jewish knowledge and tradition. Instead of accentuating the positives in Israel, it focused on the negatives of America. While they are right that American Jewry faces a threat from growing alienation and assimilation, the campaign reflected a typical Israeli ignorance about the richness of Jewish life that also exists in this country.
For their part, American Jews' swift and harsh reaction seemed to miss the central message that the Israelis were trying to impart: that they are desperate for their own -- in many cases, among the country's best and brightest -- to return home.
It was a little extreme, for example, for well-known blogger Jeffrey Goldberg in his Atlantic.com post to call the campaign a "demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews."
Yet even he seemed surprised by the intensity with which American Jewish organizations latched on to the issue, with the Jewish Federations of North America calling the ads "outrageous and insulting" and the Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman describing them as "heavy handed and even demeaning."
To his credit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled the plug on the campaign late last week, just days after the controversy erupted, with an apology for any offense it caused.
Those involved in Israeli-Diaspora Jewish relations have long lamented the growing chasm that separates our two communities.
Many programs, like Birthright Israel and the scores of summer and long-term programs that bring Jewish and Israeli young adults together -- and into each other's home turf -- help address this problem.
But at a time of so much political and social upheaval, too much of it directed against Israel, better understanding between our worlds, not alienation, is what we need. There's obviously much work left to be done.