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Mixed Marriage

The Israeli government wants to lure expats back home with provocative ads. For one American Jew and her Israeli-born husband, it’s a false promise.

Lisa Ann Sandell and Liel Leibovitz
December 02, 2011
Still from an Israeli Ministry of Immigration and Absorption video.(YouTube)
Still from an Israeli Ministry of Immigration and Absorption video.(YouTube)

On paper, we’re the poster couple for Jewish peoplehood. One of us is an American Jew, a lifetime Hadassah member, and a Hebrew-school graduate whose love for Israel compelled her to move to Jerusalem for a year. The other is a ninth-generation Israeli who completed his service in the IDF and moved to the United States to attend university. We actually met just outside the Israeli Consulate in New York, where Liel was a senior press officer. From the beginning, a shared passion for Israel helped draw us together and anchor our relationship.

Recently, however, not long after our seventh wedding anniversary and the birth of our first child, we got some unsolicited marriage advice from Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. It arrived in the form of a series of videos produced by the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption as part of a campaign to encourage Israelis living abroad to return to the Jewish state. Each video depicts a different scenario of Israelis in America with their American partners and families, and the threat to their national identity if they remain there. One video shows the young daughter of Israeli parents mistaking Hannukah for Christmas.

It may be hard for the Israeli government to believe, but after 34 years of life as a committed American Jew, Lisa can consistently distinguish between Christmas and Hannukah, and she even knows which holiday we celebrate. Though Liel did exchange his passion for Krembos for a love for Malomars, he commemorates Israel’s Memorial Day each year, reflecting on the friends he’s lost. Lisa understands the importance of Yom Hazikaron and empathizes. But the American spouse in one of the Israeli government videos doesn’t: A pony-tailed American dufus, he mistakes his Israeli girlfriend’s yahrzeit candles for mood-lighting. As the video ends, a voice-over says, “They’ll always remain Israelis, but their spouses won’t always understand what that means. Help them come back home.”

Once upon a time, we used to believe that Israel could be our family’s part-time home. But this advertising campaign is just the most recent indication that Israel has no intention of making us feel welcome. From the Rotem Bill, which seeks to make a small group of ultra-Orthodox Israeli rabbis the final arbiters over all Jewish rites, to the recent spate of anti-democratic legislation in the Knesset, over the past few years we’ve felt as if Israel is moving further and further away from the values—tolerance, plurality, and civility—that we believe are integral to Judaism as well as to our own lives. The videos are a painful reminder of this shift.


When we first got married, we spent a lot of our time traveling between New York and Tel Aviv. We were frequently met with a less-than-hospitable welcome at Ben-Gurion International Airport. On one occasion, Lisa was detained for nearly an hour, and on another she was subjected to a long and humiliating series of questions about her parents’ religious affiliation and other deeply personal matters. But we didn’t care: This intrusive screening, we rationalized, was the price Israel has to pay for its security.

Hanging out with friends and family on the beach or in cafés, we sometimes tried to talk about our life in New York, where being a part of the Jewish community is important to us. We attend services occasionally, are involved with numerous Jewish organizations, and spend a lot of our leisure time going to Jewish cultural events. To our Israeli friends, our interests sounded laughable. When Lisa wrote a novel about a Jewish-American teenager’s first encounter with, and burgeoning love for, Israel, she was told by several Israelis that no Israeli would ever read it—that Americans are just too naïve to be taken seriously.

Equally ridiculed as the book Lisa had written were the books she’d read: Like many American Jews, she grew up on Leon Uris’ Exodus, a fact that was repeatedly mocked by our Israeli acquaintances. Hearing the book belittled in a Haifa café, we realized how absurd it was for American Jews to idolize Uris’ Israeli protagonists for their dismissive attitude toward the book’s gullible American characters. And now, it was us being belittled by modern-day Ari Ben-Canaans for not being tough enough, real enough, Israeli enough.

It was a recurring theme in our conversations with Israelis: We heard countless times, from even our most fervently secular friends, that if we really cared about being Jewish we’d move back to the Jewish state. We found this logic offensive, but we still believed that we could build a bridge between Israel and the Diaspora, and we dreamed of raising children who would be as at home in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem as they would on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.


An interesting, and often ignored, element of Israel’s new campaign is that, beyond insulting videos, the government is offering substantial benefits for Israelis who decide to return. Particularly sought-after are former Israelis like Liel: The website associated with the campaign emphasizes the incentives awaiting any Israeli who holds a doctorate from a major American university—part of a plan to fight Israel’s serious brain drain. Yet rather than highlight these attractive offerings, and take other steps to bring people like us closer to Israel, the Israeli government has chosen to tell us that the most fundamental choices of our lives—whom to marry and where to live—are irredeemably flawed and dangerous for the Jewish people. The cure? Make aliyah and abandon other key aspects of our identities—even, possibly, our spouses—save for Israeli nationalism. The campaign, then, is much more than tone-deaf PR. It is an indication of Israel’s troubling mindset, which, as our friend Gal Beckerman noted, is frighteningly similar to that of the old-world Jews that the early Zionists mercilessly mocked: the Jews who see nothing but danger and fear outside of the small and stifling Pale of Settlement.

Often, we feel real remorse for abandoning this struggle we believe is so important, the struggle for Israel’s soul. Often, we feel as if we should brave the hurdles and the insults and jump back into the fray. But time, parenthood, and an Israeli government that seems dedicated to dismissing families like ours and driving American and Israeli Jews apart have all weakened our resolve. We cherish our family’s Jewish identity and our community, as do most American Jews we know. But our Jewish identities, and our sense of peoplehood, are based on inclusion—not exclusion and condescension. As long as Israel refuses to acknowledge this basic premise about the nature of Jewish peoplehood, we can’t call the Jewish state home.

Lisa Ann Sandell is the author of three young adult novels. Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine.

Lisa Ann Sandell is the author of three young adult novels. Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine.