Amy Levin:  They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Well, that’s debatable. Due to a recent Israeli government-sponsored television ad campaign meant to persuade Israeli ex-pats living in America to return “home,” the geo-political sea between Jewish Americans and Israelis may be expanding, and Moses won’t be here to part it.

In response to the vitriolic condemnation of the ads which were said to offend both American Jews and Israelis, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu suspended the ads which had circulated on Israeli television and American media outlets.  Politico reported earlier this week that the ads ran on Hebrew-language satellite channels in the U.S. with the tagline, “It’s Time to Return to Israel.”

The ads were launched by Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, featuring culturally salient themes – namely, that Israelis loose their Israeli identity in the assimilating nature of America. In one advertisement (watch here), a young Israeli woman returns to her apartment with her American (debatebly Jewish, more on this later) boyfriend who sees her Yom Hazikaron (Israel Remembrance Day) candle and embarrassingly (for his girlfriend, and me for that matter) misinterprets the candle as a “heated” gesture. Waw-wawww. The camera pans out as “Dafna” looks tragically mournful at the candle next to her clueless and now idiot boyfriend, both complementing the voice-over and text that reads, “They will always remain Israelis; their partners won’t always understand what this means. Help them to return to Israel.”

Another sentimental favorite of mine is the ad that shows an American granddaughter who skypes with her Israeli grandparents during Chanukah (mind you, an Americanized and minor holiday in Judaism). When the grandparents ask her what holiday it is, they shockingly react when the little girl says “Christmas.”

While these ads serve as a mild form of entertainment for their over-the-top sentimentality and overt Israeli nationalism (not to mention propaganda), several public commentators have taken this government gesture as extremely offensive, while others feel that such responses reflect a miscommunication altogether. Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic, a questionable spokesperson for the general Jewish American reaction, felt that the ad was demeaning and misrepresentative of American Jewish life. As Goldberg claims in a recent article, “These government-sponsored ads suggest that it is impossible for Jews to remain Jewish in America.” Offensive indeed. And quite (capital p) political, given his last line: “The message is: Dear American Jews, thank you for lobbying for American defense aid (and what a great show you put on at the AIPAC convention every year!) but, please, stay away from our sons and daughters.”

One can understand why an ad that assumes American Jews are clueless about Judaism and Israel is problematic, but many writers have come to the fore denouncing such an attack on the ads with two main arguments. First, the ads weren’t aimed at American Jews but Israelis. Rachel Olstein Kaplan covers this issue at HuffPo Culture, saying that the reason American Jews were offended was because they misinterpreted the American partner in the ad as being Jewish. She writes:

If the partners in the video clips are Jewish — then they are portrayed as Jews who are disconnected from Israel and their Jewish heritage — understandably offensive. If, however, they are non-Jews, then 1) the campaign is not offensive but simply realistic and 2) the campaign has nothing to do with American Jews. I believe the intention of the Israeli government was the latter and that the target audience, for whom the campaign was designed, also understood it this way. Most Israelis I spoke to found the campaign poignant, effective and honest. When I view it through their eyes, I do too.

I believe many Israelis would disagree with the campaign, especially if it is directed solely towards them. I also believe that, regardless of who the “partners” are, this campaign directly involves American Jews. If the U.S. launched a campaign for American Jews in Israel to return to America, it would disturb Israelis. Alas, the sea is not so divided.

A still from an ad, no longer available.

The second apologetic arises from an anxiety about American-Israeli relations. Brent Sasley’s piece at HuffPo Religion reminds us that the campaign reflects a traditional tension between America and the quintessential Zionist tale that seeks to gather the scattered diasporic Jews. For Sasley, the central problem is that Israel and American Jewry understand Jewish diasporic identity and politics in disparate ways, and these ads present an opportunity to repair that:

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.

While I’m all for taking this opportunity to rally together in peace, love, and harmony, there’s something about these ads and their responses that I want to dwell on a bit longer. There’s a reason why  these ads caused such a stir. Even those who find the ads mildly humorous rather than threatening might pause at this obtrusive fact: the ads were stamped with a not-so-hidden government seal. As much evidence as we have to the contrary, most of us still theorize media as a public space of neutrality, objectivity, and free speech. If the ad came from an NGO or private Israeli advocacy group, would we be as outraged? In other words, how exactly does an overtly political advertisement circulating in mainstream media threaten civil society?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but (and I’m not the first one to say this, actually I think Talal Asad said it quite poignantly) there is no neutral public sphere. So when we see a state-sponsored ad, we are reminded perhaps of how little power we have when the market and the state work together. The good news?