Wednesday 14 December 2011

How to Bring Israelis Home

The Jewish Agency recently took a decision to make a change to their usual activities to attract Jews to come and live in the Jewish homeland. Until now, the activities of the Jewish Agency have been focused towards attracting Jews who have lived their lives in the Jewish Diaspora, to come and make their homes in Israel.  They have concentrated on two main targets.  Firstly,  they have concentrated on Jewish communities at risk or in need, such as the Jews in Morocco, Yemen, Russia and Ethiopia who were shipped to Israel in large projects, and sometimes in some haste. The Jewish Agency has also focused on attracting the attention of Jews in communities which were not under threat, such as Jews in the USA, the UK, South Africa, Australia, South America and other locations. The tactics employed in these communities has largely targeted the youth and the young adults to experience the vibrancy that Israel offers people of this age, in the hope that parents and other family members will follow the youngsters to Israel.
The new campaign that the Jewish Agency has embarked upon recently is aimed at an entirely different community. This time, the Jewish Agency is trying to attract former Israelis to come back home. In some parts of the world, and particularly around the USA, fairly large groups of former-Israelis (or yordim as they are sometimes known) have established themselves. It is estimated that as many as half a million Israelis live in the USA, and that this number has grown by 30,000 in the past ten years alone.  Most yordim continue to have a close connection with Israel, and visit members of their family on a fairly frequent basis. Although many voice an intention to return to live in Israel at some point in the future, the numbers of yordim continues to grow.  The link to Israel for these people is stronger during times of security crisis. They obviously have a strong concern for individual friends and family who may be at risk during times of unrest, and those who are serving in the IDF during periods of war.  There is a concern, however, that their link to Israel and Judaism gets weaker the longer they live outside of Israel.

The Jewish Agency campaign to try to convince yardarm to return home, has caused a great deal of negative reaction in the USA where adverts have appeared on billboards in areas where large communities of Israelis reside.  This has been supported by online video adverts that have been launched. The campaign focuses largely on the fact that the intermarriage of children of yardarm may result in assimilation. One video advert shows Israel grandparents communicating with their grandchild, in the USA on Chanukah. The parents ask what holiday the child is celebrating, to which he answers “Christmas”. In another advert, a yored father is upset by the fact that his child is calling him “daddy” rather than “abba”. The message is clear. The longer these people stay in their current environments, the more assimilated they become.

The Jewish community in the USA has come out in strong objection to the advertising campaign.  The main reason for their objection is that the assimilation referred to in the adverts is not limited to Israelis who marry non-Jews.  It also  includes the situation where Israelis marry Diaspora Jews.  This is particularly reflected in advert which shows a young Israeli woman watching a Yom Hazikaron ceremony on-line, while her American husband is seeing asking her to go out to a party.  The insinuation that  American Jews are somehow disconnected, is seen as being a slap in the face of the Jewish community in the USA, and their attempts to maintain their Judaism and their links to Israel.  I can understand the insult felt by the USA Jewish communities.  Apparently the Israeli government has also understood this as they have pulled the campaign since the uproar flared up.

As much as the campaign is disparaging towards the American Jewish community, it also contains a great deal of truth.  There can be no doubt that assimilation has ravaged the world’s Jewish population in the period following the Shoah, particularly that in the USA.  Recent statistics suggest that 40-50% of American Jews marry non-Jews.  Of these, only 33%  provide their children with a Jewish upbringing.  This means that there is an increasing number of “Jewish” children who are not halachically Jewish due to their mothers not converting to Judaism.  There are also a large number of children who are simply lost to Judaism as a result of their Jewish parent marrying a non-Jew,  and the family not identifying with the Jewish community at all.  This trend will have an impact on the Israeli community in the USA as well, even those who have a strong national identification with the State of Israel.

Israel has one of the few Jewish communities in the world that are growing.  This is not only because of aliyah and population growth.  It is also because there is much less of a problem of assimilation in Israel.  It is sometimes amusing to note the effect of the Jewish and Israeli national holidays, even on the non-Jewish foreign workers in Israel.  It is simply impossible for a child in Israel, even those raised in homes that don’t have a strong sense of Jewish identity, to miss a Jewish festival or not to be familiar with its main aspects.  This must surely be a strong reason why it is right to do all that we can to attract Israelis back home, as much as we wish to attract others to make Israel their home.  While I have a great deal of respect for the efforts made by the Jews in the USA and elsewhere to identify with Judaism and Israel, I feel that the only way to assure ourselves of Jewish continuity is to have as many Jews in Israel as possible.

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