Wednesday, September 9, 2009

MASA U'Matan

MASA, a Jewish outreach organization in Israel, took down this video from their website yesterday after complaints from the diaspora Jewish communities. The video is a well-intentioned clip which shows assimilated Jews as pictures on "Missing Persons" posters. The ad asks Israelis to make contact with their Jewish friends outside Israel and encourage them to come to Israel. While few people would take issue with this message, the method of expression has caused a rift between Diaspora and Israeli Jewish communities.

Israel perceives itself as a gathering place for world Jewry. It's reason for existence is to strengthen and protect the Jewish people. Many Israelis live in Israel because their families were unwelcome in their original countries. The idea that Israel is the only truly safe place for Jews pervades the Israeli psyche and adds to the siege mentality so often reflected in Israeli foreign policy. Israeli Jewry perceives diaspora Jewry in terms of its own experience: secularized birthright participants from New York, poor Ethiopian immigrants, and very assimilated Russian immigrants. Therefore, it is easy to understand why Israelis would perceive that state of Judaism in the Diaspora as suffering.

But while some Diaspora Jewish communities are in fact suffering, others, such as American Jewry, are vibrant. Jews play an integral part in the American economy, and hold high offices throughout the country as well as here in Washington D.C. The various denominations of Judaism (a spectrum which does not exist in Israel) attract hundreds of thousands of followers, and many more Jews observe Judaism without affiliation to a shul or with affiliation to a chevruta or small minyan. over 100,000 Diaspora Jews have participated on birthright, and many of those have returned to Israel as counselors on other trips.

Thus, the Diaspora community gets upset when an Israeli organization implies that Judaism is dying out in the rest of the world. By portraying Jews as missing persons, the video implies that Diaspora Jews are hapless victims, a condescending attitude to take against an entire global group. In reality, many strong Jewish communities exist outside the diaspora. These communities are actively addressing the issue of conversion and assimilation, and are adapting to the realities of ideological choice in the 21st century. Of course, the other implication of the video is that Diaspora Jewish organizations are ineffective in this regard. But this charge damages the credibility of these Jewish organizations in the Jewish world as well as in their political communities.

Additionally, there is a slow distancing of secular Israelis from Judaism happening within Israel's own borders. While some Jews have left the ritual aspect of Judaism to history, many more are well-served by the myriad of choices American Jews enjoy. In contrast, Israeli Judaism is Orthodox or Chasidic Judaism. While even the most secular Israeli Jews have Shabbat dinners or celebrate holidays, many Israelis are frustrated by being put in the position of being completely Jewish or not considered really Jewish. Therefore, the problem of assimilation and distancing from Judaism happens just as much inside Israel's borders as it does outside.

Ultimately, the MASA ad makes an unfair and short-sighted judgment against global Jewry which while understandable from an Israeli standpoint, is not well appreciated by the Diaspora community. This is not the first time such issues have emerged. Israel's tenuous relationship with the Diaspora can be traced back to before its founding, and revolves around a key paradox: Israelis tend to see Israel as the true center of global Jewry, yet Israel could not survive without a strong Diaspora. In a siege mentality it is hard to concede that the extremely symbiotic relationship between global and Israeli Jewry exists. Yet this relationship is vital to both sides, and must be approached with the understanding that Judaism in the Diaspora is far from a monolith, and far from failing.

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