An army of amateur ambassadors

Countering the negative image abroad.

By RON FRIEDMAN
May 21, 2010 18:48
The West Bank security barrier is an example of th

Seperation barrier Jerusalem. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

In 2001, IDC Herzliya students Gur Braslavi and Ariel Halevi won the Oxford Union Debating Competition for teams from foreign countries. Nine years later, their joint company, Debate Ltd., was chosen to carry out the Israeli government’s new public diplomacy initiative.

The company recently took on a contract to conduct 200 workshops in which its instructors teach regular Israelis the arts of rhetoric and persuasion. If the pilot proves successful, it will likely be extended and multiplied. By creating an army of amateur ambassadors, Israel hopes to counter negative media portrayals and improve its image abroad.

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Countering negative impressions

“Define terrorism,” said the instructor, entering the boardroom of the Tel Aviv district branch of the Histadrut labor union. “Come on. You’ve all experienced it. Tell me what terrorism means,” he urged.

After overcoming their surprise at the abrupt and irregular entrance, the 15 participants – members of the Histadrut’s under-27 exchange mission to Berlin – started suggesting answers.

“War,” threw out one. “A threat,” said another. “A lethal danger.” “Violence.” “Injury to civilians,” more people shot out.

“OK. By those definitions, is Israel a terrorist?” asked the instructor.

In the silence that followed the question, the instructor, a good-looking man in his late twenties or early thirties wearing a button-down shirt and sporting a short haircut, took a pause to introduce himself.

“My name is Ran Michaelis, and I am a senior instructor at Debate. Debate is a company that specializes in interpersonal relations and project management. We work with organizations in Israel and federations abroad on Israeli advocacy, on behalf of the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora affairs.”

“I was once asked that very question by an Arab woman after a lecture I gave at Richmond University,” said Michaelis, returning to his question. “I told her Israel’s definition of terrorism, which is: the attempt to harm or kill innocent civilians.

“Without pausing for a second, she pulled out a photo of an Israeli soldier aiming a rifle at an old Palestinian woman. She pointed her finger at me, and shouted: ‘You, and all the Israelis are not innocent! According to your own definition, suicide bombers are not terrorists.’

“My question to you,” Michaelis asked the group, “is: How do you answer her?”

In the hours that followed, Michaelis taught the group how best to answer the woman’s question, as well as many others. Throughout the workshop, he challenged the participants with difficult situations, all of which have come up over the years, and provided them with the best tools to approach resolving them.

Like a young soldier returning from battle, Michaelis regaled the participants with stories from Israel’s hasbara front lines, sharing his experience of speaking before hostile audiences of anti-Israel students and leftist professors in American universities, tackling issues ranging from the security barrier to the Goldstone report.

“The basic structure of the workshops was developed during an all-night marathon that Gur and I held,” explained Debate co-founder Ariel Halevi. “After an intensive brainstorming session, we attempted to turn what we knew intuitively into an organized lesson plan. The 14-hour session resulted in five principles of effective advocacy. Later we added two more, to create the backbone of the method.”

The seven principles of effective advocacy are a set of analytical and rhetorical tools that help give novice advocates the means of engaging people on issues regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“It’s not about information, it’s about knowledge. It’s about navigating the discussion effectively. Every one of the principles offers a different tactic to tackle issues that come up in encounters with foreigners,” said Halevi.

The first principle the participants are taught is the importance of terminology.

“Don’t enter into a conversation before you are clear about the terminology you’re using,” Michaelis urged. “For example, 95 percent of the security barrier that Israel built around Judea and Samaria is a fence, yet people continually refer to it as a wall. The word “wall” tends to conjure up images of the Berlin Wall. It is an inaccurate and misleading characterization of the barrier and its function – keeping out terrorists.

“I have no problem with you talking about the merits or problems of the barrier, but make sure that the conversation sticks to the facts, and not to an Israel-hater’s misrepresentation of them,” said Michaelis.

Other words to watch out for, according to the seven-principle method, are apartheid, assassinations, freedom fighters and human shields.

“Each one of them carries some kind of mental or emotional infrastructure. If you overlook the terms people use and dive straight into the ideological discussion, you are overlooking a major obstacle that someone put in your place, preventing the audience from relating to you,” said Halevi.

Another major part of the method is the use of analogies.

“Analogies are critical to make accessible what is familiar to you, but nearly incomprehensible to someone who doesn’t live here,” said Michaelis.

“I once had a discussion with a Harvard professor, who challenged me on Israel’s collective punishment of the Palestinians. Instead of going into the details and history, I presented him with an analogy he was familiar with: I asked him if it was fair that since 9/11, everybody who wanted to board a flight had to go through rigorous security inspections at the airport. I asked him if it wasn’t a form of collective punishment that everybody had to suffer because of the actions of a handful of terrorists, and if we shouldn’t cancel the security measures.

“Of course he immediately said that the security was necessary. By taking something that he was familiar with from his own personal life, I was able to change his perspective on a highly controversial issue.”

Other principles taught in the workshop are role reversal, where the two sides exchange positions and the critic becomes the policy-maker, deepening their level of analysis in a way that confronts them with the impossible challenges Israel is faced with.

The principle of cross-referencing is used to expose inner contradictions within the overall criticism of Israel among anti-Israel activists, by cross-referencing their standpoint regarding one issue with their standpoint regarding another issue.

Yet another principle is comparative justice, which demonstrates international double standards in a way that makes the criticism of Israel seem comparatively unjust, and even creates a sense that Israel is a role model when compared to other global violators to whom nobody seems to be paying any attention.

“One thing I can never get my mind around is why there is no outcry similar to what we experience against Israel on campuses about the human rights violations in Sudan or China,” said Halevi. “Where is the consistency?”

The principles are taught in a highly interactive way, making use of simulations and role-playing to help train the participants in what they are likely to encounter when meeting foreigners who are critical of Israel and its policies.

“It’s important to stress that we don’t expect magic results. We are aware of the limitations in the amount of material we can pass on, given the limited time,” said Halevi. “What we want is to provide the participants with awareness of the challenges, and the tools to overcome them.”

An underlying premise of the workshop is that in order to be successful at Israel advocacy, participants must rely on more than just factual knowledge of the conflict and its background. In creating the lesson plan, the instructors took their knowledge from the world of effective debating and translated it into the language of advocacy. Professional debaters and spokespeople know that often how you say something is more important than what you say.

At one stage of the workshop, Michaelis introduced the participants to the “Correct Advocacy Table” showing the relative importance of different factors to effective argumentation.

“What do you think influences people more – logic or emotion?” he asked. “Studies have shown that appeals to emotion are far more effective than appeals to logic when trying to convince someone of your position.”

Similarly, he explained, non-verbal behavior is more important than verbal statements; latent messages are more influential than overt ones; and the personality of the advocate is more important than the message itself.

“Over the years, one of Israel’s main advocacy failures was dependence on pure rationality,” said Halevi. “Beyond the operative problem that it is nearly impossible to make a rational argument in a two-minute interview on television is the fact that most people simply don’t make decisions based on rationality. The positions that people take regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts is proof of that.

“Using analogies, we see that the same issues, framed differently, garner completely opposite results from Israel’s critics. I’m not sure why that’s the case, but I promise you that if someone takes it up as a doctoral thesis, they are bound to come up with interesting results.

“What’s vital,” Halevi stresses, “is that the participants understand the huge importance that their own personal bearing carries. They are the ones who are traveling abroad, and they have to make sure that the impression they leave behind is a positive one – because the way people will think of Israel depends on how Israelis present themselves.

“The government was wise enough to identify the incredible asset they have in the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who travel abroad each year. They recognize that Israelis are, as a whole, charismatic and approachable and can be used to promote the nation’s image. They understand that real change can only come from the bottom, and are using regular Israelis as an army of guerrilla advocates.”

The use of citizens in public diplomacy is a developing trend in international relations, and Israel is at its forefront. In 2009, with the formation of the Netanyahu government, a new ministry was formed to take the lead in Israel’s battle for favorable world opinion. In the past year, the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, headed by Yuli Edelstein, has built up a wide range of initiatives to help boost Israel’s image to the world.

In an interview for Metro, Ronen Plot, director-general of the ministry, laid out his office’s activities and presented its plans for the future.

“Ultimately what we are interested in is that every Israeli who goes out of the country knows how to advocate on behalf of Israel,” said Plot. “Obviously we can’t train all of them to be at the same level, and we can’t expect them to be professional spokespeople overnight, but we can give them the tools to become effective advocates on Israel’s behalf by preparing them for the type of questions they are likely to meet and providing them with talking points that reflect Israel’s positions.”

For that purpose, the ministry has printed hundreds of thousands of small booklets outlining Israel’s position on a wide variety of topics. The booklet is handed out free to passengers flying out of Ben-Gurion Airport, and travelers are urged to read it on the flight.

Another information source available to Israelis who want to find out more about how to assist in the advocacy effort is a new website developed by the ministry that includes a wealth of information and covers topics ranging from notable Israeli-made inventions to the Israeli stance on the Palestinian right of return. The website, which currently features only Hebrew text, will soon appear in both English and Russian.

“This is the first time that a country has published its government’s formal policies on a website,” Plot noted.

Where the ministry is really focusing its attention, though, is on filling the ranks of Israel’s hasbara army.

“We have created a cadre of 50 notable people, leaders in their field, who have taken upon themselves to help represent Israel proudly,” said Plot. The list includes professional athletes, actors, actresses, successful business executives, artists and other public figures.

Members of the “elite unit” undergo extensive training and are urged to speak about Israel in public when abroad, and meet with groups of incoming visitors, when at home.

“People like Olympic gold medalist Gal Friedman, renowned actress Noa Tishbi and respected businessman Ya’acov Peri were happy to answer our call and enlist in our service,” said Plot. “They understand the relative weight that their word carries, and were kind enough to lend it to the cause.”

Recruitment efforts don’t stop there. Recognizing that a trip to Israel can do more than anything to shape people’s perspectives of the country, the ministry recently invited a group of 70 licensed Israeli tour guides to take part in one of Debate’s workshops.

“The tour guide workshop was different than the others,” explained Adi Balderman, the head trainer for Debate. “Whereas with most groups we train we have to provide the participants with information on what they can expect to encounter on their visits, the tour guides came to us with a wealth of experience from the field, and with concrete examples of difficult cases they encountered.”

Ariel Stolar, deputy director of the Israel Tour Guides Association, attended the workshop and said he gained a lot from it.

“There is little they could teach us about the facts – I expect every tour guide to have the information about Israel’s history at his or her fingertips – but what they did help us with was tools on how to deal with touchy issues and negative criticism of Israeli policies,” said Stolar.

He explained that while most visiting tourists are not completely ignorant of Israel’s security situation, many come with misconceptions about the nature of the conflict, which they received from foreign media reports.

“They may not think that we all drive around in armored cars, but they do have an inflated view of the role the conflict plays in our life. The workshops gave even the most experienced guides valuable tools to diffuse misconceptions and better explain Israel’s policies,” said Stolar.

Plot’s and the ministry’s plans don’t stop there. In the future they plan to take the advocacy initiative and plant it abroad.

“Thousands of young Israelis spend long stretches of time traveling around the developing world. We see them as likely candidates for the workshops too. In their travels they meet up with lots of foreigners, especially young people, and we’d like to take advantage of those meetings to spread the word.

“The difficulty is finding them in one spot, so one idea is holding workshops in Chabad houses in places like India and South America. It will require some incentive to get people to attend, but we believe that if they have the advocacy tools, it will make the long heart-to-heart conversations that take place between young people in trip settings a golden opportunity for public diplomacy,” said Plot.

Looking to the future, Plot expressed a vision of holding regular advocacy workshops in major cities for regular people to attend before they leave for foreign destinations as tourists. “It will require more resources than what we currently have and, again, we will need some sort of incentive to get people to come, but the potential is there. If we can reach 10% of the millions of Israelis who travel abroad every year, we will have done our job,” he said.

Not everyone is crazy about the idea of the government guiding people on what to say to foreigners. Ze’ev Beck, who leads guided tours of Israel for groups of visiting VIPs, said the workshops were a badge of shame for the government, and that people who attend them are blind to reality.

“Out of blind nationalism, people attach themselves to a lost cause. I don’t think there is anything here to advocate in favor of, in a country that has lost all hopes for the future,” said Beck. “I don’t see my role as apologizing for the empty promises of the government and the groups that I lead wouldn’t fall for the propaganda they are trying to pass on.

“Real professionals don’t need the tools the workshops provide; they are only suitable for people who grew up on a single narrative and are defenseless before someone who knows a different one.

“I may be blunt, but I am part of a thinking minority.”

Beck is not alone. Others have criticized the ministry for producing materials that supposedly represent the state, but actually represent the narrow views of the current right-wing government. In an editorial, Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s largest newspaper, wrote: “Many of the opinions we are supposed to learn by rote are not part of any consensus. In fact, they mainly reflect the right wing of the political spectrum, which currently dominates.”

The editorial cited as examples the ministry’s lack of reference to the settlements as an obstacle to peace, its denial of Palestinian peoplehood, and its selective memory when it comes to the October 2000 riots by Israeli Arabs.

Plot is aware of the criticism, but said that the public support expressed in favor of the ministry’s website and the campaign that accompanied its launch proved that while the media and groups like Peace Now, opposed it, the public overwhelmingly backed it.

“The comments people leave on the website are tremendously supportive. People say they are thankful for the tools and that their only criticism is it took so long to do it. The advertising company we worked with on the campaign said it was their most successful campaign in terms of public reaction to it.

“There may be criticism, but it’s from the fringes,” said Plot. “Besides, this is a democratic country. The current coalition represents a majority of the people in the country, and it is only proper that we promote that government’s agenda.”

Plot said the ministry was open to any criticism and would seek ways to improve its activities, based on public reactions.

“We don’t want to alienate anybody, or force anybody to say or do anything they don’t believe in,” he stressed. “The workshops do not tell people what to say; they only give them the tools to say what they want more effectively.

“Our underlying premise is that advocacy is geared toward people who believe in Israel’s right to exist. That, I can safely say, is in the consensus.”

Debate has currently delivered roughly 20 out of the proposed 200 advocacy workshops that make up the pilot. A hundred and sixty have already been commissioned, mostly for the summer months that see many Israeli groups go abroad.

The company operates through a contract with the Jewish Agency and was selected by tender from a pool of three companies that offer Israel advocacy instruction services.

At NIS 350 per hour, Halevi said the company charges a fraction of their normal consultancy fees because of their ideological support of the project.

“In a sense, carrying out this project brings me back full circle to my roots,” he said. “I truly believe in the saying ‘You and I will change the world.’ Many people think it’s a cliché – but really it is the most effective way of getting things done.”


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