Media Matters: Let me explain...

Even the best public diplomacy campaign can’t make up for bad government policies, but that doesn’t mean Israel should stop trying.

By STEFANIE GARDEN
March 12, 2010 17:50
3 minute read.
One of the commercials running on Israeli TV depic

hasbara commercial 311. (photo credit: Screenshot)

Last month the Ministry of Public Diplomacy, headed by Yuli Edelstein, launched the Masbirim Web site. The site, which literally means “explainers,” operates as a “how-to” guide for representing Israel abroad. Chock full of cutesy video ads, tips on how to conduct an effective conversation and specific talking points, the site looks like the country’s first real attempt at serious public diplomacy.

Critics of the new public diplomacy program – and there are many – have raised a number of concerns about the Web site: It’s an attempt to turn the country right-wing; its goal is to make the world forget about the Palestinian issue; and Israel is trying to distance itself from a conflict which defines it. These concerns are all valid, as not even the best public diplomacy campaign can make up for bad government policies. But while Edelstein hopefully understands this, that fact should absolutely not deter the government from continuing and expanding its Masbirim campaign.

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One critic of public diplomacy efforts, journalist Dmitry Reider, wrote a piece in Foreign Policy magazine slamming the Masbirim campaign.

“Rather than changing the policies that are rapidly turning it into an international pariah, or even honestly arguing its viewpoints, the state is inoculating its citizens against realistic and very real outside criticism,” he wrote.

The policies of the state are the policies of the state, and like it or not, this is the reality we presently live in – but that should not mean the people should be ashamed of their heritage or of the beautiful things about their culture and country.

THE MASBIRIM site features a series of sarcastic, witty clips illuminating common misconceptions about Israel abroad. One clip plays out like a national geographic segment, showing camels roaming through the desert while a fake British reporter describes how the animals are the primary means of transportation in the desert known as “Israel,” remarking that even the military uses them. Another clip in Spanish shows a woman at a park describing how a man barbecuing is the classic example of Israel’s primitive people who still use coals and flames to cook their food.

While the ads are funny, the reality is not. As an American who has spent most of my life defending Israel from exactly these misconceptions, all I can say is kol hakavod to the ministry for doing its homework and getting it right.

What the critics of the Masbirim campaign have failed to understand is that the goal of a public diplomacy campaign does not necessarily have to be political. It can be just as much about culture, tourism, academics, and even sports. The point is that Israel is not engaging in a public diplomacy campaign to bring about some sort of global political objective, but rather in a well-tailored and plausible citizen diplomacy initiative.

The multiplier effect assumes that one activity starts a chain reaction that generates more activity than the original. This is precisely the logic citizen diplomacy campaigns follow – citizens debunk misconceptions of people they meet abroad, who then perhaps share that information with their friends or during conversations, and slowly more and more people have accurate information. There is no part of the Americas that hasn’t been traveled by a group of post-IDF Israelis, and the Masbirim campaign relies almost entirely on that Israeli propensity to travel abroad.

The Masbirim campaign is a fresh approach to public diplomacy. Its focus is nonpolitical, and instead puts the spotlight on the country’s achievements and contributions. It helps Israelis feel a heightened sense of pride in their country that they can take with them wherever they go. The critics are missing the mark when arguing that avoiding the political question is dangerous.

The logic behind a citizen diplomacy campaign is that it’s easy to write off government spokesmen as propagandists, but its impossible to discredit an ordinary man or woman passionately expressing pride in his or her own country. While this would certainly work for Western countries, the concern with Israel is that mandatory military service makes every Israeli citizen prone to the criticism that they operate as an extension of the government.

For far too long Israel has failed to be proactive in shaping its image. By adopting a “who cares what the world thinks” attitude, it has frustratingly stood by and watched its identity distorted to the point where it’s little more than a hostile, backward, desert country. There is no question that conflict remains the obvious character flaw, but no Israeli citizen should accept it as the defining characteristic.


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