Controversial Israeli ad campaign: An age-old tale

Sometimes following in the footsteps, real or imagined, of a nation’s founding father can be a very poor idea. Events … Continued

Sometimes following in the footsteps, real or imagined, of a nation’s founding father can be a very poor idea. Events in Israel are proving that true in a number of ways.

The Israeli government-sponsored ad campaign abruptly canceled by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was problematic enough. When combined however, with a talk with veiled references to Iran given by the leader at the annual memorial event for Israel’s first Prime Minister, the iconic David Ben Gurion, “problematic” may have shifted to potentially apocalyptic.

Both the ad campaign and Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks reflect an understanding of Israel as not only isolated, but of actually feeling proud of the isolation and willing to use that perceived isolation as justification for an attack on Iran. In each case, ideas taken from perhaps the greatest of Israel’s founding fathers are used, though not necessarily for the good.

It is as if the ads were scripted by Ben Gurion himself. Speaking to the 25th Zionist Congress in 1961, Ben Gurion declared, “Those who are devoted to Judaism must see the danger facing Diaspora Jewry courageously and with open eyes. In the free and prosperous countries, it faces the kiss of death, a slow and imperceptible decline into the abyss of assimilation.” Ben Gurion was right about many things, but about this he was wrong, and so were the ads.

The ads appeared both throughout Israel and in major American cities with significant Israeli ex-pat communities. They presented a grim reality in which Israeli Jews living in America face either loss of Jewish and/or Israeli identity through assimilation, or feeling tragically isolated living amidst a non-Jewish majority which is sympathetic to neither the Jewish nor the Israeli narrative.

Not only do the ads portray an ugly and inaccurate understanding of American culture and its remarkable openness to the particular needs of its many religious and ethnic minorities, they demonstrate the ignorance of the producers regarding the unprecedented success of Jews, including Israeli Jews, in America.

To be sure, how Jews experience and express their Jewishness in contemporary America is changing. Rising rates of marriage between Jews and non-Jews and sinking rates of affiliation with traditional Jewish communal institutions raise questions about where Jewish life in America is headed. But to assume that these changes signal the end of Jewishness in America is absurd.

Ironically, the claim made by many European Jewish leaders in the last century–that Jewish life could not be sustained in America–convinced many Jews to remain in those countries which ultimately, tragically, became their graveyards. Jewish life in America is changing, and far more quickly than it is in Israel, but it may be that those very changes which some bemoan, are the first harbingers of unprecedented, if sometimes uncomfortable, cultural renewal.

This is actually an old fight in Jewish life – one going back for millennia. It is a fight about the ability of the Jewish people to sustain itself in the Diaspora, the amount of religious and cultural change that is required for any group to remain viable, how much tradition must be a part of that mix, etc.

These old questions would have rendered the tension created by the Israeli ad campaign a largely internal Jewish issue, were it not for one more premise about Jewish life which animated the campaign – a premise going back not only to Ben Gurion, but to the Bible itself – one which may point to a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran. That additional premise is that Israel is meant to be isolated, should be proud of its isolation and that the isolation is a necessary ingredient for the success of the Jewish People.

Prime Minister Netanyahu reminded his audience at the Ben Gurion memorial of the “Old Man’s” willingness to buck public opinion, even if that meant paying a heavy price, including war. He spoke about the history of Israel’s founding as a story of refusing the counsel of even many of its friends and allies regarding the timing of the declaration of the state.

The parallel to current tensions raised by the possibility of an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear sites is obvious, and of no small concern to the United States. Secretary of State Leon Panetta commented that such action could be “an escalation” that could “consume the Middle East in confrontation and conflict that we would regret.”

Perhaps Panetta is right, perhaps not. Perhaps an Israeli strike would be useful, perhaps not. Whatever one thinks about that question, the conclusion should not be reached as a result of self-servingly wrapping one’s self in the deeds of long-dead heroes.

In retrospect, it surely seems that Ben Gurion was right about pushing for statehood. But celebrating his maverick spirit as a model for Israeli policy today, as if the world of 1948 and the world of 2011 are identical, is dicey at best and dangerous at worst. As with the ads, this is about a narrative of isolation- one in which the less attention paid to the larger world, the stronger Israel and Jewish people are thought to be.

In the Bible, that teaching is found in Numbers 23:9 which teaches that Israel is “a nation that dwells apart, and pays no attention to the other nations” among whom they live. There is no doubt that maintaining a sense of its own uniqueness has been a key ingredient in the 3,000 year long success story of the Jewish People.

It is at least as true however, that the success of the Jewish People has been maintained by balancing a sense of uniqueness with an equally powerful understanding of the Jewish people as a people that live among, and in the service of, humankind as a whole. Never has the need to balance these competing impulses been more crucial. Knowing that could not only spare us foolish ads, but potentially catastrophic wars. That too could be heroic.

Brad Hirschfield
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  • SODDI

    Clear proof that vicious religious fanaticism and bigotry is endemic to all of the Abrahamic faiths, not just Christianity and Islam.

  • xexon

    Modern Israel is a spiritual fake. An oasis in the desert where the blind drink their fill.

    Zionism has become to Judaism what the anti-Christ is to the Christians. And it’s built a country in it’s own image.

    Stay away.

    x

  • bugsy200922

    The US should not be supporting fanatical religious zealots and Israel is no exception to that rule.

  • ccnl1

    Israel- Its formation was approved by the UN in 1948. It should honor the original UN agreement and live within the described borders. Considering the hate generated by passages in the koran and OT, erecting dividing walls between Muslims and Jews should continue. UN forces/drones should control these walls.

    And Jerusalem should be made into an international city under the control and protection of the UN.

  • hank5000

    areyousaying wrote: If you don’t think Jews believe they are superior and more intelligent, just ask one.

    But I thought it was Israel’s existence that was causing the antisemitism.

  • Avitan

    If that is the case, than Judaism, Christianity and Islam were built on lies and falsehood.

    wonderful. i always said we should have evolved far enough to recognize that religions have been the source to most of humanity problems.

    Amos

  • motherof3

    Israel was supposed to cover all of what is today Jordan. As for the “described” borders, they are defunct. The Arabs were offered a state at the same time, but they refused it.

    Keep your hands off Jerusalem. Any attempts to steal any part of her from Israel will be acts of war and will be dealt with accordingly.

  • xexon

    So sayeth a zionist.

    You people are at the core of this problem. Atheistic nationalists. The religious zionists are no better. Radicals. Zealots.

    You’re all about real estate rather than the God of Israel. You create the very anti-semitism you like to label others for. You are a disease upon Judaism.

    And you’re going to get every Jew is Israel killed before you’re stopped. You will be stopped. Because you must be stopped.

    x

  • Secular1

    “In the Bible, that teaching is found in Numbers 23:9 which teaches that Israel is “a nation that dwells apart, and pays no attention to the other nations” among whom they live. There is no doubt that maintaining a sense of its own uniqueness has been a key ingredient in the 3,000 year long success story of the Jewish People.

    It is at least as true however, that the success of the Jewish People has been maintained by balancing a sense of uniqueness with an equally powerful understanding of the Jewish people as a people that live among, and in the service of, humankind as a whole. Never has the need to balance these competing impulses been more crucial. Knowing that could not only spare us foolish ads, but potentially catastrophic wars. That too could be heroic.”

    Mr. Hirscfield, let me opine that for sure the latter is very true here in America over the past 50 60 years. That success has been due only by ignoring the admonishment from Numbers. As to the quote from Numbers, it is the bane of every scripture and is one of the quintessential examples of ethics of religion promotion of in-group nepotism and out-group hostility. Of course the above example is one of the milder forms of that ethics. This is the reason I call all scripture as filthy and should be consigned to the dung heap of history.

  • telemachus

    And if there will be more Jews killed it will be due to the anti Semitism that is always latent in posters like you, and has little to do with what Israel does or doesn’t do. The fact is that Israel like ANY OTHER nation pursues its self interest and protects it sovereignty. It is anti Semites who try to distort this behavior into something negative, while ignoring the very nihilistic,xenophobic, and violent behavior of the peoples surrounding Israel.

    Are you sure xenon isn’t a misspelling of xenophobia??

  • xexon

    So sayeth another zionist.

    You need to stop hiding behind real Jews. Judaism is a religion. You would do well to immerse yourself in it’s spiritual aspects rather than this atheistic nationalist movement.

    x

  • SODDI

    And of course, there are the anti-Semitic nutjobs among us, who are lower than whale dung in the Marianas Trench.