Growing up in Israel in the 1950s, my father recalls what Israelis called “the
black road” in Tel Aviv, once the only asphalt paved road in Israel. It’s hard
to believe, but just a handful of decades ago when one traveled to the post
office in our country, it was on dirt roads.
Fast-forward to the present
and Israel has attracted the highest venture capital investment per capita in
the world, 30 times more than Europe. From dirt road beginnings, Israel has more
NASDAQ-listed companies than any country outside the US and China – more than
all of Europe, India, and Japan combined. Impressive, no? On the other hand, in
a recent BBC survey measuring public opinion, Israel placed in the company of
North Korea, ahead of only Iran and Pakistan. How could a country accomplish so
much yet fail so miserably in its public relations? Recently, Deputy Foreign
Minister Ze’ev Elkin complained publicly that the ministry’s budget for public
relations was only NIS 9 million, while the Palestinian Authority’s budget for
public relations was $200 million. He compared Israel’s PR war to David and
This is clearly a part of the problem.
However, even if
Israel’s leadership were to sober up, recognize their failure and invest tens of
millions of dollars in PR, I fear it wouldn’t bridge the gap. The root of the
failure lies in us, the Jewish people, and our fundamental approach. When
training student ambassadors or addressing the world, we explain Israel’s case
as advocates and not as Zionists – and there is a world of
Allow me to explain. Hasbara (public diplomacy), and
“advocacy” are the words usually used to describe Israel’s PR
Encrypted in those words lies the answers to Israel’s PR
Hasbara in Hebrew suggests an effort “to explain” (lehasbir).
From the outset, the goal of hasbara is to explain, defend and excuse Israel for
its faults. It’s a defensive, apologetic approach with no positive message or
consistent strategy. Instead, our PR efforts are relegated to crisis management
and shoot-from-the-hip responses to current events.
adds another problematic term and faulty approach to the mix. There are hundreds
of courses in schools, yeshivas, seminaries and college campuses around the
world teaching Israel advocacy. Here too, developing an advocate, literally like
a lawyer, aims at teaching students effective talking points giving them
diplomatic ammunition to handle anti-Israel activists or teachers on campus.
Israel advocacy is important and every lover of Israel needs to know how to
defend our rights, but when trying to win public opinion, exercising our
Talmudic skills of arguing may not be the best approach.
Last weekend I
hosted a four-day retreat for Jewish college students, and one of the
participants shared the most significant challenge she has encountered on
She was well-trained in Israel advocacy but when challenged to
defend Israel’s stance on human rights, her noting the free gay nightlife in Tel
Aviv or Israel’s environmental advancements did not address the core issues of
She recognized that, with people suffering, no number of
Israeli innovations justify the pain some live with, and the rehearsed talking
points felt shallow.
Although she may have walked away with the upper
hand in some arguments on campus, she also walked away unsure about her true
feelings about Israel. And here, we failed.
We cannot focus exclusively
on winning arguments. We need to win hearts. For winning the heart, advocacy and
hasbara will always fall short.
We need to shift the focus of our message
and our education. Instead of training pro-Israel advocates, we need to inspire
WHAT THEN, is the difference between being pro-Israel and a
Zionist? At a lecture I attended by Yehuda Hakohen, an alternative peace
activist, he suggested that it’s the difference between being a fan and being a
Someone who is “pro-Israel” loves Israel the way that I like the
Atlanta Falcons. I love my team, I follow their latest news and developments and
I don’t want anyone ridiculing them. If they do, I’ll stand up for my team, for
their honor and mine.
Moreover, I’ll visit my team on vacation and pay
good money for sideline seats to watch the game up close.
In contrast, a
Zionist isn’t on the sidelines rooting for his team to win – he’s running the
ball down the field. A Zionist sees himself as a player in the game. A Zionist
sees himself as an active character in the story of the Jewish people.
my years of speaking on behalf of Israel, filmmaking and teaching, I’ve found
that the most profound message that resonates is recognizing our lives in Israel
as another chapter in the 4,000-yearold story of our people.
continuously draw the lines from Abraham to Moses and Joshua to King David in
biblical times to the Maccabees and Bar- Kochba and now, in post-biblical times,
to the IDF. We are simply the next chapter in the greatest human story ever
Our goal must not only be to advocate for Israel, but to tell the
story of our people. The story of our kingdom destroyed, our bitter exile and
our ultimate liberation. It is the story of the undying hope of a people for
2,000 years; a dream to live as a free people and return to our homeland. That
is the story the world must hear again and again.
law and the wonders of Israel’s modern society are a great educational tool but
when educating the next generation, we must help them rediscover their Jewish
identity – not only as a religion but as member of a nation with a glorious
history and majestic destiny.
We must shift from Israel advocacy to
empowering every Jew to see themselves as characters in the story of the Jewish
With that in frame of mind, students are no longer just
advocating for Israel or explaining her case. Every lover of Israel must ask
himself: What is my place in Jewish history? How can I play the most significant
role possible in this magnificent story? The sages of Israel said, “Words spoken
from the heart, enter the heart.” When our spokesmen and ambassadors stop
apologetically explaining and advocating, and instead speak with clarity of
cause and sincerity of purpose as representatives of the Jewish people
throughout the ages, I believe world opinion will be changed and unabashed
Jewish pride reclaimed. ■ The author is the Deputy Director of the World
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