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Rachel Olstein Kaplan

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Bridging the Gap: What the Israeli Ad Campaign Really Tells Us About Israelis and American Jews

Posted: 12/06/11 05:05 PM ET

I think a very basic truth has been lost amidst the frenzy of responses and reactions to the recent ad campaign by Israel's Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. The ads are directed at Israelis living abroad and are meant to encourage them to return to Israel. (For more background, read Jeffrey Goldberg's response to the campaign in the Atlantic.)

I'm an American Jew who made aliyah and is married to an Israeli. We split our time between Israel and the U.S. When my husband and I first saw the ads, we disagreed about whether or not the campaign was offensive. At first, my husband couldn't understand why I was very offended. After discussing it, we understood that we each perceived the campaign in a subtly different but significant way. I assumed after viewing each video clip that the Israeli's partner was an American Jew. My husband assumed that the foreign partner was a non-Jew. In reality, no clear indication is provided about the religion of the Israeli's partner.

My husband and I conducted an informal survey among Israeli and American Jews and found that in each case the Americans saw the partner as a portrayal of themselves -- an American Jew, while all of the Israelis we spoke to assumed that the partner was not Jewish.

The reason American Jews were offended was because of this important difference. If the partners in the video clips are Jewish -- then they are portrayed as Jews who are disconnected from Israel and their Jewish heritage -- understandably offensive. If, however, they are non-Jews, then 1) the campaign is not offensive but simply realistic and 2) the campaign has nothing to do with American Jews. I believe the intention of the Israeli government was the latter and that the target audience, for whom the campaign was designed, also understood it this way. Most Israelis I spoke to found the campaign poignant, effective and honest. When I view it through their eyes, I do too.

I appreciate the support that Israel receives from American Jewry and understand its significance. (After all, I work in the Jewish nonprofit world and know how heavily it is supported by American dollars.) I do not believe, however, that this campaign was targeted at nor meant to represent American Jews. In fact, while the campaign itself has little to do with American Jewry, the reaction tells us much about this community. Even as an American Jew with Israeli citizenship and an Israeli spouse, it is often challenging for me to truly understand how Israelis view the world.

The difference in how Americans v. Israelis viewed the campaign underlines the cultural gap and difference in perspectives between these two groups -- a hot topic in today's Jewish world. I hope that we can work to build understanding among the international Jewish community, but fear that by attacking Israel harshly (as with this campaign) and misunderstanding Israeli mentality, we are only driving each other further apart.

Instead, we should learn from this instance to acknowledge our difference in perspectives. That Israelis and American Jews see the world through different lenses is okay, but we need to interact more, spend more time together and have meaningful conversations about the reasons for these differences in order to unify the global Jewish community and not deepen the rift between us.