MASA backs away from controversial ad

This Hebrew-language television ad for the MASA program that ran in Israel drew ire from some Diaspora Jews and ultimately was withdrawn by the organization. ()

This Hebrew-language television ad for the MASA program that ran in Israel drew ire from some Diaspora Jews and ultimately was withdrawn by the organization. ()

NEW YORK (JTA) — Following a burst of criticism, an organization founded and funded by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government dropped a television ad warning Israelis about the dangers of assimilation in the Diaspora.

The MASA program, which gives millions of dollars in $3,000 to $9,000 scholarships for long-term study programs in Israel, stirred controversy last week with its Hebrew-language commercial portraying Diaspora Jews as missing persons.

MASA has a $39 million budget, half of which is paid for by the Jewish federations of North America via the Jewish Agency and half by the Israeli government.

The commercial featured gray skies and passing trains moving behind posters stapled to telephone polls and fluttering in the wind bearing the pictures and names of assimilated Jews. With foreboding music in the background, a well-known Israeli newscaster says, "More than 50 percent of young Jews assimilate. … We are losing them," according to a translation by the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.

A wave of philanthropists, prominent Jewish journalists and bloggers criticized the ad, saying it represented an outdated view on intermarriage and assimilation.

"The reality is that a major proportion of self-identified Jews under 25 today have only one Jewish parent," the Forward’s J.J. Goldberg wrote, adding later that "Huge numbers of these children — we used to call them half-Jews — grow up to become active, identifying Jews. 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."

MASA officials had countered initially that they were simply trying to be provocative in helping Israeli taxpayers, who provide half the program’s budget, understand where their money goes and to secure future support for the program.

But Tuesday, the organization backed away from the ad, saying it would be discontinued and that MASA would not follow through with more ads and marketing material made in the same vein.

“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,” MASA’s North American director, Avi Rubel, wrote in a public statement. “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.”

The Jewish Agency says that in 2009-10, some 9,200 Jews from around the world will receive MASA scholarships to help pay for stays in Israel of three months or longer in conjunction with approved programs.

Three-quarters of MASA’s budget goes directly to funding the scholarships, according to the Jewish Agency. Published reports said the ad campaign in Israel was expected to cost $800,000.

An independent agency developed the ad, which was approved by MASA officials in Israel, a New York-based Jewish Agency spokesman said.

“They knew it was stark but didn’t realize it would be offensive,” the spokesman, Jacob Dallal, told JTA.

“In the ‘80s, I think most everyone would have agreed that intermarriage was an anathema. But the thought about it has evolved in the U.S. over the past decade or two to reflect the reality here. But this has not yet happened in Israel. Most Israelis haven’t even realized the shift that has taken place and that has come out in the commercial.”

The UJC/Jewish Federations of North America, which sends more than $130 million from local Jewish federations to the Jewish Agency, declined to comment.

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