The Israeli government has launched a television and internet advertising campaign urging Israelis to inform on Jewish friends and relatives abroad who may be in danger of marrying non-Jews.
The advertisements, employing what the Israeli media described as “scare tactics”, are designed to stop assimilation through intermarriage among young diaspora Jews by encouraging their move to Israel.
The campaign, which cost $800,000, was created in response to reports that half of all Jews outside Israel marry non-Jews. It is just one of several initiatives by the Israeli state and private organizations to try to increase the size of Israel’s Jewish population.
According to one ad, voiced over by one of the country’s leading news anchors, assimilation is “a strategic national threat”, warning: “More than 50 per cent of diaspora youth assimilate and are lost to us.”
Adam Keller, of Gush Shalom, an Israeli peace group, said this was a reference both to a general fear in Israel that the Jewish people may one day disappear through assimilation and to a more specific concern that, if it is to survive, Israel must recruit more Jews to its “demographic war” against Palestinians.
The issue of assimilation has been thrust into the limelight by a series of surveys over several years carried out by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a think-tank established in Jerusalem in 2002 comprising leading Israeli and diaspora officials.
The institute’s research has shown that Israel is the only country in the world with a significant Jewish population not decreasing in size. The decline elsewhere is ascribed both to low birth rates and to widespread intermarriage.
According to the institute, about half of all Jews in western Europe and the United States assimilate by intermarrying, while the figure for the former Soviet Jewry is reported to reach 80 per cent.
Israel, whose Jewish population of 5.6 million accounts for 41 per cent of worldwide Jewry, has obstructed intermarriage between its Jewish and Arab citizens by refusing to recognize such marriages unless they are performed abroad.
The advertising campaign is directed particularly at Jews in the United States and Canada, whose combined 5.7 million Jews constitute the world’s largest Jewish population. Most belong to the liberal Reform stream of Judaism that, unlike Orthodoxy, does not oppose intermarriage.
One-third of Jews in the diaspora are believed to have relatives in Israel.
According to the campaign’s organizers, more than 200 Israelis rang a hotline to report names of Jews living abroad after the first TV advertisement was run on Wednesday. Callers left details of email addresses and Facebook and Twitter accounts.
The 30-second clip featured a series of missing-person posters on street corners, in subways and on telephone boxes showing images of Jewish youths above the word “Lost” in different languages. A voiceover asks anyone who “knows a young Jew living abroad” to call the hotline. “Together, we will strengthen their connection to Israel, so that we don’t lose them.”
The campaign supports a government-backed program, Masa, that subsidizes stays and courses in Israel of up to one year in a bid to persuade Jews to immigrate and become citizens. About 8,000 diaspora Jews attend its program each year.
The government has been trying to develop Masa alongside a rival programß, Birthright Israel, which brings nearly 20,000 diaspora youngsters to Israel each year on sponsored 10-day trips to meet Israeli soldiers and visit sites in Israel and the West Bank promoted as important to the Jewish people.
Although Birthright is regarded as useful in encouraging a positive image of Israel, officials fear it has only a limited effect on attracting its mainly North American participants to move to Israel. Many regard it as an all-paid holiday.
Differences in the approach of the two programmes were underlined in July when a Birthright director, Shlomo Lifshittz, resigned and moved to Masa after telling the Israeli media he had been forbidden from urging Birthright participants to migrate to Israel and shun intermarriage.
In launching the campaign, Masa’s chief executive, Ayelet Shilo-Tamir, warned that assimilation worldwide was putting Jews “on the verge of negative growth”.
Masa officials said young Jews who participate in their projects strengthened their Jewish identity and were more likely to become politically and socially active on behalf of Israel-related issues.
The campaign quickly provoked a storm of debate on Jewish blog sites, especially in the United States, with some terming it “divisive” and an insult to Jewish offspring of intermarriage. A link to Masa’s “Lost” campaign had been dropped from the front page of its website yesterday, possibly in response to the backlash.
The campaign will probably strike a chord in Israel, however, where a poll in 2007 found that 46 per cent of Israeli Jews believed all Jews should live in Israel because it was “the only way Israel and the Jewish people will be strengthened”.
That position has been echoed by Israel’s leaders, though most have been careful not to upset the delicate balance of relations with diaspora communities.
Former prime minister Ariel Sharon was widely regarded as having overstepped those bounds in 2004 during a visit to France when he urged French Jews to come to Israel because France was experiencing “the spread of the wildest anti-Semitism”.
Sharon had been outspoken in wanting one million Jews to immigrate to Israel to counter a “demographic threat” from the rapid growth of the Palestinian populations in both Israel and the occupied territories. Numerical parity between Jews and Palestinians living in the region is expected to be reached within a decade.
That theme has been picked up by his successors, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu.
There is growing concern in Israel that immigration rates have steadily declined since a large wave of one million Jews arrived from the former Soviet Union through the 1990s. The absorption figure for last year – at 16,500 – was the lowest since the 1980s. It is also believed that there is a growing trend of better-off Jews leaving Israel to live abroad, though figures are not publicized.
Mr Keller, of Gush Shalom, said few Jews in the United States or Europe, the main target of the campaign, needed to come to Israel for material reasons. “They come from ideological motives, and many of them are right-wing nationalists who can be encouraged to settle in the West Bank.”
The Israeli government and various organisations subsidize the immigration of diaspora Jews to Israel.
Last year the Jewish Agency handed over responsibility for locating new immigrants to Nefesh B’Nefesh, a private organization that promotes a dozen settlements in the West Bank on its website, including hardline communities such as Kedumim, near Nablus, and Efrat, near Bethlehem.
“Last week Israeli TV showed a group of immigrants arriving in Israel to go to Efrat,” said Mr Keller. “They were shown being greeted at the airport by a large clapping crowds of Israelis waving flags in support.”
JONATHAN COOK is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National (www.thenational.ae), published in Abu Dhabi.