The Jewish Agency for Israel and its MASA program have been taking it on the chin the past few days over an ad regarding its $38 million MASA program that brings Diaspora Jews to Israel for extended stays — think of it as Birthright plus. (Funding for MASA comes from the Israeli government and local Jewish federations via the Jewish Agency.)
The ad, aimed at Israeli audiences, urges viewers to pass along the names of their Diaspora relatives to the MASA office so that they can be contacted about the program — and presumably saved before they disappear at the hands of assimilation .
… The reality is that a major proportion of self-identified Jews under 25 today have only one Jewish parent. Many Reform religious schools report that majorities of their pupils are from interfaith families. Huge numbers of these children — we used to call them half-Jews — grow up to become active, identifying Jews. They make up an increasingly prominent proportion of new, innovative Jewish organizations, projects and Web sites. From a practical point of view, the issue in America is no longer how to fight intermarriage. That horse is out of the barn. The question now is how to draw the new Jews to Judaism.
If the Masa folks are looking for young Jews who could use some outreach, these are the ones they’re after. And nobody is going to win their hearts with commercials implying that their parents’ marriage was a form of genocide.
Beyond the issue of insulting the very people the organization is supposed to be reaching, there’s the practical question of whom the ad is supposed to target. After all, any potential recruits provided by Israeli friends and relatives will by definition be people with at least some active connection to Israel, which would put them in the category least in need of a booster dose of Israeli nationalism, if that is indeed the cure for assimilation. The people Masa needs to reach are the ones who aren’t in touch with Israel.
So, as Jimmy Durante used to say, what happens? The Hebrew TV commercial cost somewhere between $400,000 and $800,000, according to various reports. By contrast, Masa’s budget for marketing in North America is said to be around $80,000. Really. …
Alon Friedman, MASA’s director of Israeli operation, defended the ad in an interview with the Post:
"We understand these reactions," said Alon Friedman, Masa’s Director of Israel Operations, "but this campaign isn’t meant to encompass the entire Diaspora-Israel relationship." The problem, he explained, "is that when I speak to the Israelis [about Diaspora issues] I have to speak ‘Israeli,’ and when I speak to Americans I have to speak ‘American.’ But in the internet world, everybody hears both, and they misunderstand what you’re saying.
"This is a campaign [intended for] Israeli society, not for Jewish Agency officials or for American Jewry. We had to speak the language that Israeli society understands," he said. Critics were translating terms such as "assimilation" in ways that are not relevant to Israelis. "Even words that have a direct translation don’t have the same connotations," he insisted.
It was important not to view the campaign as the sum total of Masa’s perspective on the Diaspora, he added. "This is a two-week ad campaign for Israelis after five years of activity all over the [Jewish] world. You have to take it in perspective.
But now MASA is dropping the ad:
September 7, 2009
At its heart, MASA is a partnership between Israelis and Jews from around the world with a common purpose-strengthening the Jewish People by bringing young Jews to Israel. The main goal of a recently launched ad campaign in Israel was to try and engage an often apathetic Israeli population in MASA and involve them in the key goal of bringing larger numbers of young Jews from around the world on long-term Israel programs. The immediate and very strong reaction to this campaign has highlighted the critical need for all Jews, whether living in Israel or outside of Israel, to develop an ongoing dialogue and greater understanding around key areas of sensitivity for Jews in all communities.
While this campaign attempted to motivate the Israeli public to be more involved in this collective enterprise, the images that were chosen touched many raw nerves. Clearly, there was a disconnect around how some of the images and wording – designed to be provocative towards an Israeli public that for too long has been largely disconnected and disaffected from its responsibility towards its fellow Jews – would be received by many Jews outside of Israel. At the same time, there was some misinterpretation on the part of the Israeli press about the actual content of the ads, which also impacted this sense of misunderstanding.
The Jewish Agency and leadership of MASA have made an immediate decision to refocus MASA’s ad campaign in Israel by moving to its next phase, which will no longer include the contentious images that have appeared on Israeli television.
Israel can be a convener and connector for Jews everywhere and MASA intends to challenge Israelis to take an active role in building a stronger Jewish future by helping expose young Jews, ages 18-30, to the "real" Israel for a semester or a year. Through a wide variety of long-term Israel experiences, we can connect the next generation to our people, our Judaism, and our homeland, and realize our shared goals of creating a more vibrant Jewish future and a diverse, welcoming and inclusive community.
I look forward to continue partnering with you to advance our common agenda to bring more and more young adults to Israel in the coming new year.
North American Director, MASA