Jeffrey Goldberg. Photographer: Evan Sung/Bloomberg
Jeffrey Goldberg. Photographer: Evan Sung/Bloomberg

Last week, Politico’s Ben Smith pointed me to a very strange Israeli government advertising campaign, which was aimed at persuading Israelis in the U.S. to go home.

By some estimates, hundreds of thousands of Israelis live in the U.S., including many exceptional scientists and physicians, and Israel believes they should be working at home. So the Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption placed billboards in several American cities that were meant to scare expatriates into believing that their children would cease to be Israeli if they remained in the U.S.

The campaign could have highlighted Israel’s low unemployment rate, or its thriving technology sector, or the quality of Israeli hummus, but instead it adopted the perspective of a fretting Jewish grandmother.

These billboards were accompanied by an Internet campaign designed to suggest, among other things, that Israeli children would eventually confuse Christmas for Hanukkah if they were exposed to U.S. culture for too long.

I wrote a blog post about this guilt-and-fear campaign, arguing that it showed contempt for American Jews, many of whose children, despite the multifarious attractions of assimilation, still understand that Christmas is a Christian holiday and Hanukkah is Jewish.

Seismic Reaction

The reaction in the American Jewish community was surprisingly seismic. Soon enough, the Jewish Federations of North America and other Jewish groups were denouncing the advertisements.

“While we recognize the motivations behind the ad campaign, we are strongly opposed to the messaging that American Jews do not understand Israel,” the federation leadership said in a message to its members. “We share the concerns many of you have expressed that this outrageous and insulting message could harm the Israel-Diaspora relationship.”

Within a day of the federation statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the ad campaign canceled.

I only wish that the prime minister’s alacrity on this issue would be matched on matters far more important than billboards. There are three issues the Netanyahu government must address quickly to prevent the bonds between Israel and its American Jewish supporters from fraying further.

The first is an unprecedented campaign by right-wing members of the Knesset, including some in Netanyahu’s Likud Party, to curtail aspects of Israeli democracy. This has included attempting to restrict the activities and fundraising abilities of human-rights organizations critical of government policy; proposing laws limiting free speech in a dispute over boycotts of products made in West Bank settlements; and waging a campaign to delegitimize Israel’s independent Supreme Court by giving the Knesset, instead of an independent panel, the power to appoint justices.

Netanyahu understands that Israel’s credibility in the U.S. rests largely on its claim to be the Middle East’s only democracy. It’s shocking to think that just as Arab states such as Tunisia and Egypt move (albeit imperfectly) toward greater democratization, Israeli politicians are proposing laws that would circumscribe their country’s raucously open democracy.

Second, American Jews, the vast majority of whom are not Orthodox, are also growing uneasy about the concentration of religious power in Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate, which oversees such matters as conversion and divorce. It has been true for decades that Jews in the U.S. have more freedom of religion than Jews in Israel -- in the U.S., after all, the state recognizes the validity of marriages officiated by Reform rabbis.

But now we’re seeing strikingly intolerant applications of ultra-Orthodox practice in Israel. The most offensive manifestation at the moment might be attempts to segregate women on public bus lines that pass through certain Orthodox neighborhoods. On many of these lines women have quite literally been forced to the back of the bus. If this sort of misogyny is tolerated, Israel will lose the support of battalions of American Jewish women (not to mention the current U.S. secretary of state).

Moral Disaster

The third issue creating unease is the ever-expanding Jewish settlement project on the West Bank. Many American Jews, especially those in their 20s and 30s, look on the settlements as a moral and political disaster. They believe that the Palestinians, no less than the Jews, deserve a homeland. They believe that Israel should be both Jewish-majority and democratic, and they understand that it won’t be either if Israel maintains its hold over the Arabs of the West Bank. They believe that Zionism is not mainly about the redemption of land promised to the Jews by God in the Torah, but about the national liberation of a persecuted people.

The permanent occupation of the entire Promised Land is not a theological requirement for national liberation.

The Obama administration seems to be arguing lately that the blame for stalled peace talks rests almost entirely with Israel. This clearly isn’t true. The Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas seems uninterested in even sharing its ideas for compromise with Israel. Yet this doesn’t excuse the Netanyahu government’s inability to curtail the settlements or the settlers, some of whom behave despicably toward their Palestinian neighbors. The occupation will come to an end only through direct negotiation. The West Bank settlers should, if nothing else, be brought under the rule of law, and be encouraged to come home.

Israelis, and their American supporters, often argue that Israel’s problem is one of public relations. It is, to some degree. The world holds Israel to a higher standard than any other country. But here’s a secret: American Jews hold Israel to a very high standard as well, and if Israel ceases to be a free and open country governed by the rule of law, American Jewish support for Israel will dissipate, with dramatic and unpleasant consequences.

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this column: Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.