A Canadian Jew’s Reaction to Israel’s Call for the Return of its Ex-Pats

The storm over the Israeli government’s video messages to ex-pat Israelis in the US to return to the proper Jewish fold appears to be over: Jeffrey Goldberg first reported that Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren assured him the Netanyahu government has taken account of US Jewry’s concerns and cancelled the ad campaign.

But for a while the videos did raise hackles across the American Jewish community: Goldberg of the Atlantic railed against it; Gal Beckerman at the Forward condemned it; and Liel Leibovitz and Lisa Ann Sandell wrote a piece in Tablet demonstrating its alienating consequences. Even the Jewish Federations directly protested to the Israeli government.

As someone who is Jewish and counts himself a Zionist of the left end of the political spectrum, I just don’t see what the big deal is. The ads were a bit ham-fisted and silly. But they should neither have come as a surprise, nor garnered the shocked reaction they did. Some have finally begun to make this point, assessing the incident in a much more nuanced manner.

It might be a reflection of my Canadian upbringing: Canadian Jews are more conservative by nature, both politically and religiously; and historically a greater percentage of Holocaust survivors made up the Canadian Jewish population. Canadian Zionism was stronger earlier than American Zionism: Walter Laqueuer writes that, at the beginning, on a per capita basis, Canadian Jews were among the top three giving communities to the Zionist cause (alongside Belgium and South Africa).

So perhaps Canadian Jews just accept the importance of Israel to their identity more readily than American Jews, which in turn prompts less communal criticism toward it.

Or maybe it’s because Israel pays less attention to Canadian Jews–the population is smaller, and Canada isn’t a major player in the region. These days, Canada also has a government that considers itself Israel’s staunchest friend, defending it in international organizations even when the United States chooses not to. So it doesn’t have to be “worked on” as much, and therefore holds less expectations.

But still, American Jews should not be surprised by the campaign. It simply reflects a decades-old tension within Zionism, between those who actively move to the Jewish state and immerse themselves in the most complete Zionist experience available, and those who choose to understand Jewish identity in a different manner. The tension can be traced through the various “isms” that suffused 18th and 19th century Jewish communities in Europe (Zionism vs. Bundism, for example), through the Blaustein-Ben-Gurion kerfuffle, to the contemporary disputes over “who is a Jew.”

These differing interpretations of Zionism and Jewish identity are not going to go away. Instead of condemning Israel so harshly, we should recognize the ads for what they were: a deeply-felt desire among many Israelis that the country needs its sons and daughters to remain at home, and a poor display of understanding of the Jewish diaspora. The latter more than the former is the key issue here, and deserves more serious treatment.

Israelis, including government officials, have little knowledge or understanding of diaspora identity politics. Some will happily demonstrate they just don’t care. Israelis don’t think about us on a regular basis, and certainly not nearly as much as we think about them; they aren’t even that curious about us.

The furor over the ads is an opportunity to try to explain this to Israelis. They may not know it, but diaspora Jews have as deep a right to contribute to debates about Zionism, Israel, and the future of the Jewish people as Israelis do. We contribute enormous sums of funding to Israel; we lobby on its behalf; we fight anti-Semitism around the world; and more. We are deeply connected to each other.

And while there are limits to where we can have a say–after all, we don’t pay taxes or put our lives on the line for Israel by serving in the military–the least we can do is explain how much Israel means to us, how much we do for it, and why it should be more sensitive to our contexts and needs. This is as important for Israel as it is for us.

The continuing debate over Peter Beinart’s essay on the future of Zionism among American Jews illustrates how profound the problem is. Instead of either ignoring each other or reading everything only through the prism of our own perceptions and priorities, let’s sit down and reason it out on the basis of our clear shared identities and policy concerns.


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