Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Storm in a Turkish Coffee cup? The Returning Israelis video advert controversy.

So, it seems a lot of people have been offended by an offensive set of adverts - no news there, I guess. Except people seem to be getting offended for all the wrong reasons. A lot of my friends on facebook have been posting this article from the Atlantic:

Which was actually originally report on "The Jewish Channel":

The videos themselves can be viewed in their original context at the Israeli Absorption ministry's website:

If one goes straight to the ads, without the misleading commentary of the Atlantic article, one will see a set of clumsy (in idea terms, but visually polished) adverts which are blunt, crass, uncouth, and border on racist. The ads suggest that Israelis should encourage their children who have emigrated to return to Israel. What is offensive about these adverts? That the Israeli government would believe we, Israeli citizens, would share their narrow-minded view of identity politics and believe that "preserving Israeli identity" is worth more than doing whatever is best for our children's health and happiness. That is offensive. The idea that Israeliness is something to be defended, that Americanness is such a bad thing - that we would not want our kids growing up as Americans instead of Israelis - that is offensive.

What's not offensive about these ads? Any suggestion that they may say anything about American Jews - because actually they don't say anything at all about American Jews. This campaign is not talking about the difference between Israelis and American Jews - it's talking about the difference between being Israeli and not being Israeli. Or rather being an Israeli living in Israel and one living abroad.

Are the adverts wrong? Obviously it depends what you mean by wrong - if you are talking morally wrong - well yes - as I mentioned before, I think they play on an essentially racist understanding of identity politics which is harmful to the fabric of society and for international peace and wellbeing between people of different cultures. Are they factually wrong? Well no - of course not. It is simple fact that someone who grows up in a country other than their parents' country of birth will feel less attached to that country's culture. And that is all these adverts are saying. Christmas is a national holiday in the USA - so yes - an American kid will understand that is the winter holiday that people celebrate. An American kid will call their dad, Daddy. And a non-Israeli partner won't feel the same about Yom Hazikaron as an Israeli. My son has British citzenship - but, if he continues to be raised in Israel, he will not be as British, in identity terms, as I am. He will not understand Shakespeare in the same way, he will not appreciate a sunny day in May in the same way, he will genuinely truly bless the rain, he won't know that you put milk in tea, he won't know that Turkey leftovers are the traditional food for the weeks following the 25th of December. He may even think (heaven forfend) that the Israeli Premier league represents top class football. He will not be very British. I am fine with that. If the British government wanted to lure me back to Britain and they chose to tell my parents that Aviv (my son) won't be able to quote Shakespeare, won't know what Christmas is, or will call me Abba - I'd be fine with that. I would not be offended in any way.

Any reading of an anti-Diasporic message in these ads is as much part of the neurotic paranoia of the American Jewish community as it is part of the Zionist message of the ads.

These ads are a cheap crude way of playing on all people's emotional desire to see themselves in their descendants. When I want to encourage my mum in her Hebrew homework, I tell her that she needs to do it so that she will be able to talk to her grandkids (of course they will speak English - they are the children of Brits, but will their kids?). But they are not making any attack on the Jews of the Diaspora.

In short - "Diaspora Jewry" - get over it. If you want to put your head in the sand and pretend you don't have an issue to deal with regarding assimilation - that's fine, but don't pretend that we are attacking you when we try and tell the truth to Israeli citizens living among you. And Israeli Government - once again, thanks for making me ashamed to be in any way related to your idiotic policies of stupidity, narrow-mindedness and suicidal short-sightedness - oh, and way to go pissing off "Diaspora Jewry" - we really need to alienate some of the few supporters we have left! You may just have encouraged me to leave!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

My (not very) public apology to Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks

First off, let me be clear - I know that Rabbi Sacks does not need my apology. He doesn't know who I am. We have actually met (a few times), but he has met probably a million people. There is no reason for him to know who I am, and certainly none for him to care about what I think of him. My apology therefore is only half for him - it is more for me. It is a good exercise in humility to admit when one is wrong and to say sorry. This may not be the season, I might have missed Elul and the days of repentance - but you know what - Teshuva's a journey, one we are always on (ok, I am stopping with that Drasha now, I promise, I really have done it to death).

So yes - I want to apologise to Rabbi Dr Sacks. I just read a very little booklet he put out for Yom Kippur (Letters to the Next Generation 2). Not one of his epic tomes, no masterpiece of theology - a simple booklet, which you could probably polish off in your average Yom Kippur Mussaf service if you got bored and lost track of the service. I imagine that's the point. The beauty of this little book is that Sacks manages to avoid intra-Jewish politics, and is talking solely to a Jewish audience so isn't trying to suck up to any pc liberals. And yet in his own innately sensitive way, he is defending the Jewish tradition from the critiques of post-modernity, and he does it immensely well. He shows his true genius. He is in fact a great darshan, a skilled writer, a teacher, a rabbi. Chief among British rabbis, by this evidence. So I am sorry for the harsh criticism I have doled out your way in the past. I now realise that you really are a good yid. You are simply a lousy politician. And unfortunately for you - while you wanted to lead Jewishly as a politician, you have been forced to lead the Jews politically. One of the great einstein quotes flowing around the net recently is his classic, about everyone being a genius: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
So Rabbi Sacks - as a rabbi, it turns out you are a genius. And you deserve to be recognised as such, of course, if you keep trying to climb trees, you won't get enough air to your gills....
So, while I may still have no/little respect for the concept of a chief rabbinate, I would love to say thanks to the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth for teaching me a valuable lesson.