'Lost' In Plain Sight: An Israeli Plan To Rescue American Jews

One of the most spectacularly knuckle-headed advertising campaigns in modern Jewish history was unveiled in Israel September 2 by an international organization devoted to strengthening Diaspora Jews’ attachment to Israel.

The organization, Masa (“Journey”), promotes long-term gap-year and junior-year study programs in Israel for Diaspora young adults. Its latest recruitment strategy involves a new Hebrew-language television commercial, laden with Holocaust imagery, somberly warning Israeli viewers that “more than half” of young Diaspora Jews “are assimilating, and we are losing them.” Viewers are asked to pass along the names of their overseas relatives and acquaintances so Masa can save them from being “lost.”

Here’s what the ad looks like. Note the recurring, ominous image of railroad cars.

English translation: “More than 50% of young Jews overseas are assimilating and we are losing them. Do you know a young Jew overseas? Call Project Masa, and together we will strengthen the tie to Israel so we won’t lose him. Masa — a year in Israel, a love for a lifetime.”

The ad campaign has drawn some blistering responses. Masa is a joint operation of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel; half of its $38 million is provided by the Israeli taxpayer and half by donors to Jewish federated philanthropies around the world. Members of both groups have weighed in to protest the ad’s wasting of their money. Major figures in Jewish philanthropy are reported to have sent written messages to Masa officials that can’t be printed in a family journal. Responses out in the field, like this and this, lean in the how-could-this-happen direction. Israeli media accounts report some tart responses over there as well.

As for the third interested party, the potential recruits, their reactions seem to range from disapproval to derision and outrage.

Here, for example, is Kung Fu Jew, a popular blogger at Jewschool.com, one of the most influential sites of the new Jewish Web culture:

I am not lost. Fuck you very much, Masa, excuse my manners. The scary voices of Jewish continuity say that 50% of young Jews have only one Jewish parent. Which is great. It means my generation is twice as international, twice as multicultural, twice as diverse, and twice as blessed with mutt-like intelligence and fearlessness of boundary-straddling.

And a reply to Kung Fu Jew from a blogger identified as EV:

We should make a counter-ad to rescue Israelis lost to religious fundamentalism, lost to land idolatry, lost to rabid-eyed nationalism, lost to a propagandistic ideology that has distorted the Judaism of previous generations. We should make a counter-ad to save Israelis from themselves.

What’s the objection? To begin with, the ad’s 50% “assimilation” figure seems to a garbling of the intermarriage statistic published in 1990 — a generation ago — by the Council of Jewish Federations. The finding (later repudiated by the council as inflated, but now evolved into a durable urban legend) did not say that 50% of Jews were “assimilating,” but rather that they were marrying non-Jews. The pessimistic prediction was that their children were unlikely to be identified and involved as Jews, absent some strong educational effort. Nobody said these Jews would vaporize the moment the goblet was shattered.

Many Israelis, even those paid to understand and work with the Diaspora, had a hard time understanding the distinction. Avi Becker, who headed the Israel office of the World Jewish Congress and later became WJC secretary-general, reported more than once during the 1990s that one-half of all American Jews were assimilating each year. If that were the case, we would be down to a few dozen Jews by now. The U.S. Congress alone has more Jews than that.

The reality is that a major proportion of self-identified Jews under 25 today have only one Jewish parent. Many Reform religious schools report that majorities of their pupils are from interfaith families. Huge numbers of these children — we used to call them half-Jews — grow up to become active, identifying Jews. They make up an increasingly prominent proportion of new, innovative Jewish organizations, projects and Web sites. From a practical point of view, the issue in America is no longer how to fight intermarriage. That horse is out of the barn. The question now is how to draw the new Jews to Judaism.

If the Masa folks are looking for young Jews who could use some outreach, these are the ones they’re after. And nobody is going to win their hearts with commercials implying that their parents’ marriage was a form of genocide.

Beyond the issue of insulting the very people the organization is supposed to be reaching, there’s the practical question of whom the ad is supposed to target. After all, any potential recruits provided by Israeli friends and relatives will by definition be people with at least some active connection to Israel, which would put them in the category least in need of a booster dose of Israeli nationalism, if that is indeed the cure for assimilation. The people Masa needs to reach are the ones who aren’t in touch with Israel.

So, as Jimmy Durante used to say, what happens? The Hebrew TV commercial cost somewhere between $400,000 and $800,000, according to various reports. By contrast, Masa’s budget for marketing in North America is said to be around $80,000. Really.

The Jerusalem Post claims that the ad may not be intended to influence the public at all, but rather to pressure the prime minister’s office and the Jewish Agency into giving Masa more money. On the other hand, some sources close to Masa say the order came “straight from the prime minister’s office,” and hence reflect his thinking. More likely, it reflects the thinking of Natan Sharansky, the recently chosen chairman of the Jewish Agency, whose ear is not as sharply attuned as Netanyahu’s to shifting winds of public opinion, whether in Israel or the diaspora.

Wherever the order originated, it’s a sign of something very wrong in Jerusalem. The fact that the barons of world Jewish philanthropy could put $38 million of taxpayers’ and donors’ money in the hands of people so staggeringly clueless as to the requirements of the job they’re supposed to be doing makes a fellow feel — well, lost.

Written by

J.J. Goldberg

J.J. Goldberg

Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).

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'Lost' In Plain Sight: An Israeli Plan To Rescue American Jews

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