That’s odd. You’re driving north on Fresh Pond Parkway, heading for the Concord Avenue rotary on your way to either the Fresh Pond Mall or the Alewife T station, and you see a huge billboard in Hebrew. I can’t be responsible for the Hebrew, but it’s a picture of a young father carrying his son on his shoulders, with one gigantic word spelled out in English: “DADDY.’’
Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption placed the Cambridge billboard, as well as two others in New York, three in Los Angeles, one in Palo Alto, Calif., and two in Miami, as part of a new fillip in an ongoing campaign to lure Israelis back to Israel. The government has used many different incentives in its long-term program to reverse the “brain drain’’ of highly qualified citizens to Western Europe and the United States. This most recent campaign attempts to use a new tool: guilt.
The message of the Cambridge billboard, which is reprised in several 30-second TV ads you can see at the website klita.gov.il, is that Israelis who linger too long in the diaspora risk losing their Jewish roots. In one of the ads, a family is Skyping their grandparents in Israel at Hanukkah, and the presumably assimilated daughter refers to the season as “Christmas.’’ A look of pain shoots across her grandparents’ faces. The point of the “Daddy’’ ad is that real Israeli children call their fathers “Abba,’’ not “Daddy.’’
Kelly Anne Smith, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Consulate, admits that the new campaign, which also ran for a while on an Israeli TV station available in the United States, “comes from an emotional standpoint. We don’t want to force people to go back to Israel, but it’s something we’d like them to explore. Life is pretty comfortable here, but parents need to ask themselves if this is where they want their children to grow up.’’
It’s too early to judge the campaign’s effectiveness, she says.
There are 10,000 Israeli citizens in the Boston area and perhaps a million in the United States. Israel offers generous incentives, including 10 years of tax relief from overseas income or investment, Hebrew lessons for children - even 200 free cellphone minutes - to returnees.
It’s a tough sell, as former MIT economics professor and now governor of the Bank of Israel Stanley Fischer explained in an interview with Newsweek: “The conditions are enormously better in the United States. A graduating student in economics who gets his first job in the United States will earn three or four times what he earns in Israel. And the universities are better equipped and all that. It demands something of people to come back.’’
Several friends of mine mentioned the billboard to me, and I asked what they thought about it. “I actually had tears in my eyes as I watched the videos,’’ occupational therapist Nancy Mazonson wrote me in an e-mail. “Why was I, a non-Israeli, tearing up? Deep-seated, primal guilt. Because as an American born in the ’50s, I grew up being told that Israel is my homeland and that I must consider making Aliyah - moving to Israel. My freedom to be a Jew in America, I was taught, was and would always be dependent on the sacrifices of the Israelis to maintain that homeland.
“Imagine, then, how powerful that message is when you guilt trip Israelis who have come to the States and, GOD FORBID, chosen to raise their children here while Skyping with Grandma back home on Hanukkah, telling her about Christmas. It’s the whole guilt package - done very well.
“Israel is in a tough place. There is a brain drain. The best and the brightest can have the same opportunities there and here, but here there is more affluence to be had, and more importantly, less fear and worry about safety and security . . . not to mention no heartbreak thinking about that sweet blond curly haired kid who called his dad Abba having to one day be in the military.’’
“A homeland is inevitably worried when its citizens voluntarily live outside its borders,’’ explains Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis. “When Israel was created, it was declared that Jews could only be safe inside that homeland. But America challenges that, offering a place where Jews can live in equality with other people and not suffer from anti-Semitism.
“A few years ago, the Jewish Agency complained that Jews were ‘vanishing’ in America. The portrayal of America in Israel is of a place that is good for Jews but has a harmful impact on Judaism. In America, Israel is viewed as a dangerous place with terrorism all over.’’
Sarna continues: “Eighty-two percent of world Jewry lives in these two countries, and I think it’s good that they worry about each other’s survival. It strengthens them both.’’