Saturday, December 3, 2011

Shabbat Analysis of the Israeli Jew v. American Jew Controversy

A recent public service announcement sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Absorption has sparked some controversy and created a rift between Israeli Jews and American Jews.  The Ministry of Foreign Absorption was set up in 1951 to help new immigrants get settled in the still young nation that had just fought for its very existence following independence in 1948.  The ministry is considered a minor cabinet position.   The controversy came from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Absorption’s campaign essentially urging Israeli expats not to marry clueless American Jews or raise their children in the United States.   The campaign ran a series of ads on Israeli television stations in America insisting that Israeli expatriates return to Israel and that American Jews had abandoned their Jewishness.  A number of Jewish American organizations immediately sent protests to the Netanyahu government condemning the campaign.  The backlash was so intensive from Jewish American Organizations, that Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, notified Prime Minister Netanyahu that:
"The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption's campaign clearly did not take into account American Jewish sensibilities, and we regret any offense it caused. The campaign, which aimed to encourage Israelis living abroad to return home, was a laudable one, and it was not meant to cause insult. The campaign 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."
On Saturday, December 3rd, Prime Minister Netanyahu ordered the ad campaign terminated immediately stating:  "The government of Israel is very attuned to the sensitivities of the American Jewish community."
So how did the campaign get green lighted to begin with?  Well I can tell you from personal experiences that American ultra-orthodox Jews view Conservative and Reform Jews with disdain and do not recognize them as true Jews.  Moreover, Orthodox Israeli Jews who have family in the United States will not allow their children to associate with their American ‘cousins’ nor will they dine in the homes of non-Orthodox Jews including their parents or siblings.  And whatever you do, don’t drive into an Orthodox Israeli Jew neighborhood on Shabbat else you’re likely to get pelted by rocks and stones.
 So, it is common knowledge that Orthodox Jews consider themselves the only true Jews, but how did a government agency produce such a campaign?
For starters, Israel’s government is a Parliamentary Government similar to Britain where the heads of the various parties are the Prime Minister candidates.  The party that gets the majority of the votes during the election takes over the Prime Minister’s Office and has a majority in the Parliament.  There had been three main political parties Labor (Leftist), Kadima (Center-Left), and Likud (Center-Right), but an emerging Yisrael Beiteinu(Nationalistic) party became a major force in the 2009 elections.  In the 2009 elections, no single party was able to achieve a majority, but Netanyahu’s 2nd place Likud party was able to form a government when the 1st place Kadima party couldn’t hold its coalition together.  The Likud led coalition included Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor (later split into Labor and the Likud-friendly Independence party led by Ehud Barak), and Orthodox religous political parties Shas and United Torah Judaism. 
To say there was a fair amount of deal making and promises would be an understatement.  You don’t form a coalition government without promising something.  In the case of Netanyahu while his Cabinet has a majority of Likud members, it also includes the controversial Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman as Foreign Minister and Yisrael Beiteinu’s Sofa Landver as Minister of Foreign Absorption.   The Yisrael Beiteinu party would be best described as ultra-nationalistic Zionistic secular movement seeking pure Israeli Jewish State.
Unlike its US counterparts where cabinet members are appointed by the President and their allegiance is unquestioned, Israeli cabinet members may work in the Prime Minister’s cabinet, but their allegiance is till to their party.  And this is why it is possible for an Israeli Government to appear to be one thing and do another.  And it’s not limited to advertising campaigns.  The whole issue of settlement building is the most controversial example of the dysfunctional coalition government.  Alas Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Faustian deal has led him here.
Shabbat Shalom

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