American Jews overreact to a clever critique of American assimilation


By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-6-11

American Jewry is furious. Israel-Diaspora relations are endangered. Israel’s Prime Minister is apologizing.  And why? Because the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption’s campaign inviting expatriate Israelis back home, suggested, shock of shocks, that there is widespread assimilation in America, so much so that Christmas sometimes trumps Chanukkah, especially for kids; that living in English shifts your linguistic orientation away from Hebrew; and that an American might not immediately realize a girlfriend’s candle-lit apartment on Israel’s Memorial Day sets the mood for mourning not snogging.

Before I lose all my American friends, let me acknowledge. Yes, the 30-second commercials were simplistic and heavy-handed.  But what effective advertisement isn’t?  Yes, it is awkward that the Israeli government produced the ads not some web whiz kid.  And yes, there are arrogant Israelis who don’t “get” American Jews and “dis” them.
Furthermore, this is not how I educate; this is not my kind of Zionism. My book Why I Am A Zionist encourages affirmative identity Zionism not reactive, guilt-laden Zionism.
Still, the shrill reaction is disproportionate.  The campaign hit a nerve because it highlighted some uncomfortable truths we should acknowledge:
·         Bebis America’s great blessing – and curse. American culture is welcoming and enveloping, for better and worse. While the US is open enough so millions can keep their traditions, many more jettison their pasts to dwell in the present, believing that to succeed as a “somebody” they must act like everybody — which risks making you, existentially, a nobody.  Living by Facebook not the Good Book, worshiping at the altar of mammon, these new pagans, addicted to the iPod, the iPad and the me, me, me, are mall rats not church-goers, deifying celebrities,  revering themselves, and orienting their lives by the here-and-now not the-tried-and-true. And, yes, Virginia, America’s most seductive, most dazzling holiday is Christmas, which, many Christians lament, has been drained of its piety, becoming too consumerist and too Americanized. Intermarriage and ignorance, apathy and alienation are epidemic among American Jews, even as a committed Jewish minority – a minority within the minority – thrives.
·         Many Israelis living in America embrace America’s assimilationist ethos on steroids.  Most ignore the organized Jewish community. Many come to America denuded of the kind of rich Jewish identity which keeps some American Jews Jewish because of Israel’s absurd all-or-nothing, religious-or-secular absolutism.
·         Israel’s Remembrance Day is probably the hardest day for Israelis abroad. Even many involved American Jews are unfamiliar with the intense, intimate, reverent way Israelis observe that day. A few years ago, a snafu scheduled Montreal’s Jewish film festival’s opening for Remembrance Day Eve. The organizers could not understand why a respectful moment of silence before the festivities began still offended many Israelis. The organizers had no clue about the Yom Kippur-like atmosphere, the closed cafes, the somber songs, the restricted TV schedule that makes the day so difficult for Israelis to observe, anywhere but Israel.
In advertising’s blunt, cartoonish way, the three internet ads captured these complex issues, dramatically, effectively.
This American Jewish freak-out is strange given all the talk lately about how Israelis must learn to take criticism from Americans and American Jews without freaking out. The “big tent” looks less welcoming if the criticism only flows, like the donations, from enlightened America to benighted Israel. “Hugging and wrestling” must be mutual; otherwise it becomes moralizing and finger-pointing.  With Jewish Voices for Peace becoming ever louder, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comparing Israel to theocratic Iran and the segregated South, while Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta browbeats Israel to kowtow to the Palestinians, Americans have shown they know how to disparage Israel.
The controversial ads are being “disappeared” down the Internet’s 1984-style “memory hole.” As an educator, I would rather use them to spark discussion.  We are living in an extraordinary moment in Jewish history. Two fabulous centers of Jewish life are thriving in Israel and North America, each offering distinct advantages and disadvantages.
North American Jews should acknowledge the occasional thinness of their lives, and learn more about the innate thickness of Israeli life – the overlapping communal, religious, national, traditional, ties fostering Israelis’ sense of intimacy, that sense of connectedness to each other and to the past. The Jewish State provides many of its citizens with natural frameworks for meaning and belonging that enrich their lives.
Simultaneously, Israel suffers from the overstated, all-or-nothing divide between secular and religious, the rabbinic establishment’s depressing, destructive ability to drive Jews away from Judaism, and the unappealing prominence of Judaism’s most illiberal, intolerant, unforgiving Jewish expressions. Israelis should learn from the more centrist, fluid, human-centered expressions of Judaism flourishing in North America today.
The days of David Ben-Gurion’s shlilat hagolah – negating the Diaspora – are over. While some of Israel’s Jewish critics arrogantly engage in shlilat ha’aretz – negating  Israel – we need a true friendship, a real partnership, between Israel and the Diaspora. Despite tiffs like this, there is more mutuality today than ever. Sophisticated Israelis are learning they can learn from the philanthropic, creative, pluralistic American Jewish community. Sophisticated American Jews are realizing that Israel as “Start Up Nation” can be an inspiration and a partner not just a charity case.
We need a meaningful, mature Zionist conversation. In both America and Israel, Zionism, the dreams and the reality, the grounding of nationhood and the possibilities of statehood, should be used as tools to explain, enhance, challenge and critique the status quo. For all its glorious impact on both sides of the Atlantic, the Zionist revolution’s full redemptive potential remains untapped. And those common understandings, the shared dreams, even applied to different realities, can build a solid foundation of mutual respect, carving out room for constructive criticism, honest exchange, and, most important, real growth in both communities.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections.

Judge MASA by its Programs not its Promotions

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-15-09

These days, image often seems to be everything. Fortunately, in education, substance still counts. As the brouhaha surrounding MASA’s ill-fated advertising campaign “Lost” peters out, let’s turn the notoriety generated into an opportunity to learn about this under-appreciated program. In truth, the ad campaign’s heavy-handed apocalyptic tone contradicted MASA’s usually warm, inviting, upbeat approach.

MASA, Hebrew for journey, is more of a clearinghouse run by the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government, helping thousands of young Jews attend more than 160 long-term programs in Israel, for a semester or a year. MASA subsidizes the programs, while offering administrative, programming and — on good days – marketing expertise. The idea built on birthright israel’s tremendous success. A ten-day birthright trip offers an exciting, sweeping taste of Israel, a smorgasbord of travel delights. MASA invites participants to enjoy a longer, more focused meal.

EARLIER THIS month, seeking to encourage Israelis to invite their Diaspora relatives to join one of its programs, MASA launched an expensive advertising campaign.  Melodramatic television ads featured “Lost” posters seeking young people with obvious Jewish names in different languages, representing the supposed 50 percent of Diaspora Jewish youth who assimilate annually (absurdly distorting a controversial statistic). The railroads in the background reminded some critics of Holocaust movies. For others, the posters evoked the heartbreaking photos New Yorkers posted after 9/11. Still others resented the implication that the forces of assimilation were kidnapping young Jews. MASA wisely pulled the ads.

The “Lost” campaign does not accurately reflect MASA’s programs – and diverted hundreds of thousands of advertising dollars to Israel rather than to the Diaspora, where they are really needed. Alas, the ads reflect one constant theme in Israeli conversations about Diaspora Jewry. Israelis often simultaneously idealize and scorn Diaspora Jewish life, treating America especially as “the golden medina” and “the land of the lost.” Even as Israelis salivate about America’s riches – and mimic each new fad – they exaggerate the dangers of anti-Semitism and assimilation. All Diaspora Jews in this caricature appear rich, spoiled, happy, but Jewishly at risk or, as the MASA ad shrieked, lost.

But let’s be honest. This is the way many Diaspora Jews themselves talk about Diaspora Jewry – and have long talked about the Jewish people. In his 1948 essay “The Ever-Dying People,” Simon Rawidowicz observed that “the world makes many images of Israel” – meaning the Jewish people — “but Israel makes only one image of itself, that of a being constantly on the verge of ceasing to be, of disappearing.”

In fairness, most Diaspora Jews are less blunt than Israeli Jews and know that this generation must be wooed not hectored. But the “Lost” ads should be studied as artifacts of the constant “what about the young people” breast-beating endemic throughout the Jewish world.

NEVERTHELESS, we should learn from the way most MASA programs function rather than the way the Jewish Agency tried marketing MASA. MASA followed Birthright, Chabad, and others in seeking the joy in Judaism not the “oy.” Birthright taught that you inspire more modern Jews by inviting them on a Jewish journey rather than the traditional guilt trip.

To get some perspective on the controversy from MASA educators and participants, I called my friend Danny Hakim. Hakim is a two-time world silver medalist in karate, and managing director of  the Budokan Martial Arts and Fitness Program sponsored by MASA, the Jewish Agency, the Maccabi World Union and the JCCA. I reached him at Nitzana, by the Egyptian border, launching his MASA program with a five-day extreme sports program in the desert.  “Our program offers a five-month odyssey that will strengthen your body, mind, and spirit while giving you self-defense skills, confidence in general and confidence in your Jewish identity,” Hakim explained. “This experience will serve you for a lifetime.”

Reflecting MASA’s usually soft touch, Hakim originally called the program “the Martial Arts and Israel Leadership Program,” but changed “Israel leadership” to “fitness,” to attract students “from the periphery of the Jewish community.” This year participants arrived from Sweden, France, the UK and the US.

Jason Berman of Westfield, New Jersey, a 22-year-old Penn State University graduate, just arrived on his first overseas trip. Berman studied ancient history in college while studying karate. The martial arts program seemed custom-made for him – as so many MASA programs seem to the participants they attract. “I wanted to visit Israel, I wanted to do intensive martial arts, I was happy to study the history of Jewish heroes,” Berman reported. Having studied Greek and Roman history he “was thrilled to see real ruins, finally.”

He continued: “This has been all I could have hoped for… I just went on a short camel ride. I could see these old ancient buildings from 2000 years ago and we are just scratching the surface.”

David Hankin, an 18-year-old from Los Angeles, was equally enthusiastic. They are teaching us “focus and balance,” he said. While noting that he, too, had only arrived a week ago, he volunteered: “The program is not at all overbearing…. It has a very free feel to it.”

This, then, is the MASA its marketers should highlight. At its best MASA serves as a kind of matchmaker, linking young Diaspora Jews with programs that fit their interests in the Jewish homeland, demonstrating a hip, customized, welcoming, fluid, open-ended Zionism. Participants thrive by following their own rhythms, forging their own life plans.

“I’m really hoping to develop myself,” Jason Berman said, “to identify who I am; it’s definitely open-ended” – precisely as effective 21st century Jewish identity programs – along with their ad campaigns — should be.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution:  A Very Short Introduction, was recently published by Oxford University Press.