Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to discontinue a controversial Immigration and Absorption Ministry campaign in the United States aimed at convincing expatriate Israelis to return.
The campaign, which warns Israelis that if they continue to live in the United States, they or their children are likely to become assimilated, has raised the ire of American Jewish groups.
JTA quoted a statement by Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the United States, who said that “the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption’s campaign clearly did not take into account American Jewish sensibilities, and we regret any offense it caused.”
In the statement, Oren admitted the campaign was a laudable one, adding that it was conducted “without the knowledge or approval of the Prime Minister’s Office or of the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Prime Minister Netanyahu, once made aware of the campaign, ordered the videos immediately removed from YouTube, and he ordered that the billboards be removed as well. The prime minister deeply values the American Jewish community and is committed to deepening ties between it and the State of Israel.”
The drive began at the end of September with billboards in cities with large concentrations of Israelis, including New York, Los Angeles and Palo Alto. The messages included “Before Hanukkah turns into Christmas, it’s time to come back to Israel,” and “Before Abba turns into Daddy, it’s time to come back to Israel.”
The ministry then posted videos on its website and other websites with similar messages. One shows a set of Israeli grandparents, a menorah lit behind them, Skyping with their children and granddaughter in the United States. When the grandmother asks the girl if she knows what holiday it is and she answers “Christmas!” the four adults give each other worried looks.
Jewish activists and aides to both Jewish and non-Jewish members of Congress have been complaining to the Israeli consulates in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. For one thing, they said, the campaign could be viewed as degrading Christmas.
Over the past few days, as several columnists began to take critical note of the campaign, some Jewish leaders began to protest.
“We find these videos heavy-handed, and even demeaning,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL. “While we appreciate the rationale behind the Israeli government’s appeal to its citizens living in the U.S. to return to Israel, we are concerned that some may be offended by what the video implies about American Jewry.”
A senior Foreign Ministry official expressed dismay that a campaign that risked insulting American Jews had been mounted without consulting with his ministry.
“We only found out about it from the complaints that reached the consulates,” the official said.
The Foreign Ministry asked the Absorption Ministry for clarifications, and the answer it got was that the campaign was launched in response to surveys taken among Israelis who live in the United States, and that the feedback had been positive.
The Absorption Ministry said the campaign was not aimed at American Jews but at expatriate Israelis, and stressed that it “respects and appreciates the American Jewish community and recognizes its strong connection to Israel.”
The Jewish Federations of North America lauded Netanyahu’s decision to withdraw the campaign, thanking him and his office for hearing the strong concerns of the Jewish organizations who objected to the “misguided ad campaign”. “Looking forward, we join in the commitment of the Prime Minister, Ambassador Oren, and others to sharing our love of Zion and strengthening the bonds of Jewish people throughout the world,” said Jewish Federations President & CEO Jerry Silverman in a statement released Friday.
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