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Turning Shabbat Into Front in War on Secular Jews

(Haaretz) — There really shouldn’t be anything controversial about a traditional Jewish Friday night dinner. After all, a nice meal with a blessing over candles, wine, and challah bread never hurt anybody.

Even secular Israelis who don’t find traditional Jewish practice their cup of tea, or simply embrace the idea of Friday night as “family time,“ certainly were never threatened by it.

That all changed this week, when a new ham-handed campaign was unleashed, delivering the message that there’s only one truly “Israeli” way to spend Friday evening, leaving many infuriated and insulted.

The new campaign called “Israeli Friday” (Shishi Yisraeli, in Hebrew) appeared suddenly. Seemingly overnight, the signs were plastered all over the billboards of Tel Aviv and on Facebook. The campaign’s bright colorful graphics feature basic cartoons with a simple definition of what an authentic “Israeli Friday” entails. For example, one sign might feature a vegetable and a wine cup – “Market shopping in the morning, Kiddush in the evening.” Or another, with a soccer ball next to challah bread, “Soccer game in the afternoon, kiddush in the evening.”

But what really fueled the angry responses was the campaign’s video element, run both as TV commercials on primetime television and on YouTube featuring an utterly derogatory portrait of a non-Orthodox Israeli family on Friday night.

The clip begins with a little boy in his dark room dismantling his computer keyboard while he enthuses: “I love Friday evenings. Nobody bothers me!” Cut to his sister beaming over a bowl overflowing with milk and cereal, “There’s nothing like Friday night dinner!” while her little brother screams over his empty bowl “Mommy, she finished all the cornflakes!” The older boy continues to narrate, “The beauty of Friday night as the whole family sits together.” Indeed the whole family is shown together – each absorbed in their cell phone ignoring each other – stopping only to squabbling loudly.

The voiceover intones: “What kind of Friday night do you want your children to remember?” Quickly, the dysfunctional hyperactive family is contrasted with one spotlessly dressed in white – dad with a kippa – gathered around a table cloaked in white with Shabbat candles burning and white flowers in the background. The children are calm, the parents are beaming, and all is harmonious.

The insensitivity of the 5 million shekel ($1.28 million) advertising campaign hit on a number of levels.

First, the branding of a Jewish religious campaign as THE “Israeli Friday” negates the quarter of the country that is Muslim or Christian. It’s something of a media illustration of the proposed nation-state bill, equating a Jewish ritual with “Israeliness.”

Secondly, the implication that only morally superior Orthodox Jewish Shabbat customs can save the modern Israeli family from a gadget-obsessed value-free existence deeply insults those families who work hard to infuse their lives with meaning and values that aren’t religious. By implication, it delegitimizes alternative Friday night family bonding activities – eating in a restaurant, attending a concert or theater performance together, or a bonfire on the beach.

The campaign also sends a clear message that a peaceful and pleasant family meal on Friday night is inconceivable without religious symbols. As if blessings over bread and wine and candles cast some kind of Harry Potter spell which magically turns squabbling children into perfectly behaved angels. (As someone whose family makes these blessings weekly, I can state authoritatively that it doesn’t work.)

Who is behind the campaign? Registered on the recently-created non-profit “Israeli Friday” group are three prominent businessmen: Haim Taib, Yoav Ben Yakar and Itamar Deutcher. Haaretz was told that the campaign was funded by “totally private” money from the pockets of the members of the non-profit.

Crossing the line

It comes on the heels of another Shabbat-pushing campaigns that have taken place in past months, one of them the international initiative called “The Shabbos Project” and another local non-profit called “Israeli Shabbat,” and of course, countless programs by religious organizations aimed at returning misguided secular Jews to the true path of observance.

All of the campaigns preach “unity” on the Shabbat – but it is always a one-sided unity. Always inviting the secular to experience an Orthodox Jewish Shabbat, or at least take a step closer to it, and see the light. As irritatingly missionary in spirit as some of these past campaigns have been, none of them crossed the line that “Israeli Friday” has by openly casting aspersions on non-Orthodox family life.

Secular Israelis don’t appreciate the denigration of their life choices and pressure to change them, whether it is pushed hard by a religious organization, or soft-pedaled by private businessmen with mysterious motives. The boomerang effect against the campaign is everywhere: on the street, on opinion pages, in hostile comments on the campaign’s Facebook page, and pretty much in every article written about the campaign. There have been reports in the Hebrew media of numerous complaints about the television commercial to the governmental television authority.

In essence, those behind the campaign have alienated the public they are trying to win over.

The backlash includes some snarky online “memes” with parodies of the campaign – showing the view of it as a right-wing religious brainwashing device. One satire features a mock billboard with brain matter and a wine glass: “In the morning: lobotomy, in the evening: kiddush”; or a weapon and a challah: “In the afternoon: occupation, in the evening: kiddush.”

“It’s a shame that respectable businessmen are showing Shabbat and the typical secular family as shallow and empty and the Orthodox religious Shabbat as superior,” MK Ruth Calderon of Yesh Atid told Haaretz. “It is a condescending and degrading stand, and negates all non-religious community and cultural life.”

Miki Gitzin, head of “Be Free Israel” organization, criticized the campaign as forcing people into a “conservative, conformist mold instead of celebrating the diversity of Israeli society.” The campaign, he observed, “wants to promote Israeli unity, but is actually having the opposite effect. In an age where nobody thinks in dichotomies of purely “religious” and “secular” sets us back at least a decade and encourages factionalism, suspicion and hatred.”

To Calderon and Gitzin’s comments, I can only add a word that proponents of the so-called “Israeli Friday” would surely approve of: Amen.

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