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December 14, 2011

Opinion: Guilt trips

http://www.jewishjournal.com/rob_eshman/article/guilt_trips_20111214

I wish I had gone out with Sofa Landver last Thursday night.

Not for a hot date, but for a cold reality check.

Landver is Israel’s minister of Immigrant Absorption. She’s a member of Knesset from the Yisrael Beiteinu Party who green-lit the now infamous series of billboards and YouTube videos urging Israelis to leave the Diaspora and return home.

One of the ads showed a hot young Israeli woman whose American boyfriend thinks she’s lighting candles for romance, when she’s actually lit them to commemorate Israel’s war dead.Another shows a child of Israelis living in America who confuses Chanukah with Christmas. The ads were so offensive because they were so good. For years, American Jews have criticized Israel for lackluster PR in the face of a worldwide delegitimization campaign. It turns out Israel was saving its best propaganda for delegitimizing the Diaspora.

American Jewish groups and leaders pushed back, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled the campaign. But if Sofa Landver had just been with me on the evening of Dec. 8, she’d have seen for herself why the ads won’t work.

The occasion was the annual banquet of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), an organization that raises money to support a variety of services and scholarships for Israeli soldiers and veterans.  

More than 1,200 people packed the ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel. Most of them were well-heeled Israelis who live in America. One way to know that? It was easy to get to the bar, but impossible to hear yourself talk. When master of ceremonies Jason Alexander, of “Seinfeld” fame, got up to speak, he ran through his jokes over a never-ending din of conversation.

But the crowd did quiet down for the Israeli soldiers he introduced: Sgt. Elan Lubliner, a cousin of the slain journalist Daniel Pearl, who said Pearl’s murder inspired him to travel to Israel and join the IDF; a young female F-16 pilot; an Israeli vet named Ron Weinreich, who uses a wheelchair; and U.S. Sgt. Edward Schrank, an American Marine who lost much of his jaw in Iraq.

These were followed by a speech from the evening’s chair, billionaire entrepreneur Haim Saban; then came entertainment: David Foster, who got the actor Antonio Banderas and Saban to engage in a sing-off of “Bèsame Mucho” (Banderas won, hands-down); and then the main event, Barbra Streisand, who sang four songs, including a rendition of the prayer, “Avinu Malkeinu.”

The event raised at least $2.5 million, and, more than the money, it demonstrated an Israeli community here of immense wealth and growing influence, especially as it links with the established Jewish community.   

And that, like it or not, is not just the inevitable story of the Jewish people — it’s the hallmark of our resilience.

It’s not just that a strong Israel depends on a strong Diaspora; a strong Jewish civilization needs both. In classic Zionism, the two are mutually exclusive. In reality and in practice, they are interdependent.

The truth of this is in direct proportion to Israel’s inability to admit it publicly. Prior to Israel’s independence in 1948, American Jews arranged for weapons, funding and political good will. In the run-up to the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel relied on a surreptitious campaign, coordinated through the Foreign Ministry, to sway the White House to back Israel.  

And, put aside the grander historical and economic benefits of a far-flung network of supporters. I have been to several meetings at which Israeli politicians have hit up Israeli donors abroad for campaign contributions. They ask Israeli expats for checks, then, once in office, tell them to leave behind the city where they’re making that kind of money. That, to quote Michele Bachmann, is pure sh-utzpah.

Jewish history didn’t begin with Israel, and it didn’t end with exile. And if 4,000 years teaches us anything, it’s that you don’t put all your Jews in one basket.

A few days before I went to the Saban shindig, I was at Friday night services with the Nashuva congregation. There, I met three visiting Israelis, who Yossi Vardi, the godfather of Israeli high-tech, had brought to the States for a quick series of investor pitches. They are all under 30, all on their way to making millions, and they all love living in Israel: It’s where their families, their fun, their inspiration and networks are.

But make no mistake: It’s as easy for this new generation of Israeli entrepreneurs to get to San Jose or London as Rehovot. Just as Judaism has to compete in the marketplace of religions, and “Jewish” has to duke it out in the marketplace of identities, Israel has to sell itself in the marketplace of countries. Take away airplanes, the Internet and free societies and none of this is an issue: We are all back in the shtetl singing “Papa Can You Hear Me?” 

But in the world as it is and as it looks to be, freedom is just another word for competition, and no amount of guilt, shame or slick YouTube videos will convince people, including Jews, to stay in a place where they can’t thrive.

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