Hasbara? Leave it to the Canadians

By | Aug 19, 2008

Senior Editor Mandy Katz reports from Israel:

Rather than presenting its case to foreigners, Israel should save its breath, a leading Israeli diplomat asserted last week. “Yes to public diplomacy, no to apologetics,” former U.S. Consul-General Alon Pinkas told an audience assembled at Jerusalem’s Begin Center to review new projects aimed at improving Israel’s international image.

“Let the Canadians defend their right to exist,” asserted Pinkas. “Not us.”

His comments, reported in HaAretz, poured a surprisingly cold bucket of water on 150 fresh-faced university students finishing up StandWithUs, a year-long program in improving Israeli outreach. “Hasbara,” he told them—using the term for Israel advocacy, propaganda or public relations—”is not a policy, but a Jewish state of mind.”

Pinkas’s remarks may have shocked his immediate audience into temporary silence but are hardly new in the discussion of what Israel’s international voice should sound like. In fact, similar ideas underlie the multi-million dollar “nation branding” program within the Foreign Ministry itself. Branding’s backers contend that, while Israel will never win a public argument about its merits and policies, it could warm foreign hearts and minds by marketing itself in a positive way.

Foreign Ministry operative Ido Aharoni, who directs the ministry program, moves between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (and New York and Los Angeles) sowing the message. Show the world the breadth and vitality of our culture, he admonishes Israel supporters here and abroad. Is he tilting at windmills?

Results are mixed. When we met him for drinks in Jerusalem earlier this month, he was shaking his head at yet another Jewish Federation itinerary he’d reviewed that week—this time for a delegation of Christian Zionists—that harped on the tired old meme of guns and religion. It called for whisking participants among border posts, holy sites, war memorials and welfare programs. “Take them to a night club in Tel Aviv!” Aharoni exhorted the planners. (For us, he recommended a visit to Abu Ghosh, an Arab village on Jerusalem’s outskirts with some of the country’s best restaurants, but we would up in charming Ein Kerem instead.)

Aharoni and branding have plenty of critics of their own—even among branders. The most expertly applied cosmetics, the critics say, can’t cover the scars of war and conflict that persist here. Top Israeli architect Amnon Rechter, a third-generation sabra, vented his doubts about it just the other day, over treacly iced coffees near Kikkar HaMedina, one of Tel Aviv’s largest open-air plazas. The branding idea itself is dangerous, Rechter told me, even though—by touring foreign designers around his and his father’s work on the “Golda Center” arts complex at Aharoni’s behest—he’s advancing it himself. (The irony’s not lost on him: “I realize I’m pissing in the soup I’m eating from.”)

“Of course my interest is in showing the great side of Israel,” Rechter offers. “But I feel uneasy about the idea of taking a hard-core capitalist idea and applying it to your country. I don’t like to see our country productized.” Possibly more sinister, he added, is the possibility that “you start to believe your own message and stop taking action on your problems.”

Would Pinkas prefer branding to the six initiatives he bluntly dismissed last Wednesday in Jerusalem? His main objection? The same stuff has been tried before, over and over, “for 40 years,” and it doesn’t work. “All of these projects are nothing new,” he harrumphed.

The projects sought to address a range of audiences and, yes, they did look a lot like traditional hasbara. For Israelis, the “Always-an-Ambassador” project would “train” 600 well-traveled businesspeople and students to represent Israel effectively. For self-identified Jews around the world, there was a web-based, international Jewish home-stay network modeled on couch surfing. A third enterprise (already completed) took the dialogue to 200 of the mostly European volunteers who came here to aid Palestinians and protest Israel’s actions in the territories. While trying to make Israel’s case to them, organizer Lotem Goffer told HaAretz, “We also wanted to hear what they had to say, even if some of it was infuriating.”

There are many, though, who think nothing can work, or everything can, depending on day-to-day variations in what people here tend to call “the situation.” Journalist Tom Segev, author of one of the premier critical histories of the first Israelis, commented earlier this year that no whitewash is needed for Israel’s current facade, but that could change. “As we approach the 60th anniversary” of the country’s founding, he said in an interview, “I would think it’s not so difficult to be an Israeli ambassador or cultural consulate or to sell Israel.

“But, by the time we hang up the phone, who knows?”

—Mandy Katz

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