UJA misses the mark with its 2011 campaign
Two threads on my Facebook news feed have gotten me thinking about the impact of advertising in the last couple of days. The first is this video, a really beautiful trailer for a Seattle-based group that educates about gender and sexuality. The trailer features a diverse group of young people talking about what we should be teaching when we teach gender and sexuality in schools. It challenges assumptions, makes connections between issues of identity and daily life, and charges viewers with the responsibility to take action. As one of the speakers says in the video, “This is about young people being advocates and educators for themselves."
The second Facebook thread (thanks to my friend Avi for starting the conversation) centres on advertising by our local UJA Federation. These signs and billboards are intended to motivate local Jews to connect with UJA through monetary donations. The latest billboards are white, with a single photograph, and a slogan in bold, black capital letters. One photograph is of a keyboard and says, “Hate is very tech-savvy.” Another pictures a young girl and says, “Let’s teach her about her roots before someone else does.” A third features a famous photo of Anne Frank, and it says, “Let’s make sure our children never ask, “Who is that?” And another: “In the war of ideas, are we sending our children in unarmed?” Unlike the trailer described above, these ads are aimed at parents and grandparents. “Our youth are in danger,” they seem to say, “and we must save them.” Find the ads online here, or watch the video below.
The earlier video and the UJA ads have some things in common. Both acknowledge and make use of the internet as an influential source of information. Both remind us that a lot of people live their lives in fear and worry about their own safety. Both are designed to encourage viewers to take action. However, there are some key differences between these two campaigns. These differences, for me, make the first video a prime example of the kind of education and media we should all aspire to create, while the second becomes a troubling indicator of principles and priorities in the Toronto Jewish community.
Let me say at the outset that I am not disputing that anti-Semitism is a real issue, in Toronto and elsewhere, with real impacts and consequences for Jewish people today. The Glenn Beck hullabaloo earlier this year is a clear reminder of that – see here and here. However, the UJA ads trade on Jewish fear of anti-Semitism and attachment to the Holocaust to motivate donations. And because UJA carries so much weight in the community, the ads carry a lot of weight, too. Since all of the ads focus on anti-Semitism (even if the link is sometimes implicit), they suggest that the core trait that unites Jews is a desire to break free of anti-Semitism, or perhaps that we are united solely in our history as victims of persecution. They also suggest that a necessary way to combat anti-Semitism is through aggression and violence (verbal, not physical). To me, these ads make it seem like addressing anti-Semitism is the major focus of UJA’s activities, and should be a prime goal for all Toronto Jews. They also indicate that the only people who have the power to advocate and educate are adults who can afford to donate. To me, this is reflective of a larger inability to connect with growing numbers of unaffiliated Jewish youth, the kind that Peter Beinart caused a stir about last spring.
Yes, I care about addressing anti-Semitism. But my Jewish identity is about so much more than that: it’s about ritual practice, building community, celebrating holidays, learning our languages, reading our texts, and more. Being a Jew also imbues me with a responsibility to other Jews – “Kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh” (All Jews are responsible for one another). That means a responsibility to provide social services within the Jewish community, to increase access to Jewish education (which can be prohibitive in cost), and to acknowledge the diversity of experience and history of Canadian Jews that has resulted in a wide range of community needs and desires. It means campaigning for the changes we need to create within our community, not just protecting ourselves from those on the outside. It also means speaking to directly to youth – not just to our parents and grandparents.
There is so much more to being Jewish and living Jewish lives than thinking about what other people have done to us. I’d rather focus on the things that we can do for ourselves, here, at home and in our local communities (both virtual and tangible), and I’d like to see ad campaigns that reflect that focus. That’s one of the reasons I love the “Reteaching Gender and Sexuality” video – it gets at the multi-faceted aspects and consequences of two particular aspects of identity, it encourages us all to rethink our own privileges and assumption, and it challenges us to take action. It would have been great to see UJA’s campaign reflect a similar mission.