'Israel isn't getting killed abroad, it's being celebrated'

After six years as Israel’s top diplomat in New York, Ido Aharoni returned late last month with a message some may find counterintuitive: "Israel is doing great in North America."

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August 6, 2016 09:04
FORMER CONSUL-GENERAL Ido Aharoni speaks at a press conference of city officials in support of Israe

FORMER CONSUL-GENERAL Ido Aharoni speaks at a press conference of city officials in support of Israel, outside the Israeli Consulate in New York in 2012. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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New York, get ready for a very different type of Israeli consul-general.

Ido Aharoni, who served in that post for the past six years, returned to Israel last week and, a few days later, retired from the Foreign Ministry, after a 25-year run in which he was largely responsible for pushing the notion that Israel needed to market itself differently; that it needed to free itself of the shackles of “the conflict” and present itself to the world as a vibrant, thriving, energetic, creative country of great diversity, great food and great innovation.

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He was replaced by Dani Dayan, whom Brazil refused to accept as ambassador because of his past leadership of the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea and Samaria.

Dayan, from Ma’aleh Shomron, started his tenure this week with a personal and candid article in The Huffington Post that made clear his style was not that of Aharoni.

In this article he introduced himself as someone who for years has “resided in a town nestled within the hills of Samaria, overlooking Tel Aviv and Israel’s Coastal Plain, considered by many in the international community as a ‘settlement.’” Dayan wrote that he did not intend to fall into a trap many Israelis fall into: “... I don’t intend to ignore the elephant in the room: ‘The Conflict,’ our long and seemingly interminable dispute with the Palestinians, and the heated discussion how it should be solved or managed.

“Israel is indeed the ‘Start-Up Nation,’ Tel Aviv really is an LGBT paradise and surely there is no city more special than Jerusalem,” he wrote.

“But those are not relevant answers to questions asked that merit serious responses. Therefore, I come to New York to maintain an open conversation, about the most delicate issues as well. I will listen attentively and I will do my best to persuade my interlocutors that a Palestinian State does not exist because our neighbors have always preferred to continue their struggle to eliminate Israel from the map, instead of taking any of the far-reaching offers made to them by successive Israeli governments.”

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Aharoni, in an interview last week at a Jerusalem coffee shop before Dayan penned his words, had only good things to say about his replacement, with whom he had a lengthy meeting just a few days earlier in New York. Without any reference to what Dayan wrote, it is clear, however, that Aharoni’s approach to representing Israel was significantly different.

WHILE DAYAN wrote that he would not ignore “The Conflict,” Aharoni believes that it is a mistake – just plain poor marketing strategy – to allow it to become definitional.

“Here is what they teach in Economy 101,” Aharoni said energetically, still enthused by a topic that he has spoken about hundreds of times over the years.

“If your job is to sell a particular product, you’ll never be able to do so by constantly highlighting the product’s problems. So the first thing you need to do – and this is applicable not only to products but also to concepts, movements, ideas and personalities – is that you can’t constantly be talking about your problems. That’s the No. 1 rule in marketing.”

Acknowledging that Israel does have real, complex problems, he added, “There is nothing in it for me to define myself to the world based on my problems. I want to be known for my assets, not for my weaknesses.”

And Israel – said the Jaffa-born Aharoni, whose optimism about Israel is infectious – has many, many assets.

In marketing it is absolutely vital to figure out what makes your product special, he said. “And we know what makes Israel so special. It is the unique creative spirit of the Israeli people that they use in every dimension of their life. They are creative in the way they fight terrorism, and they are creative in the way they cook their food.”

This vibrancy, this creativity – and not the conflict – is what must be stressed abroad, something he did during his six years as consul-general in New York, and also for four years prior when he was the director of communications there, and during a stint in the 1990s as communications director at the consulate in Los Angeles.

“There is a sharp increase in coverage about Israel that is not related to the conflict – life and lifestyle issues,” he said.

But, still, with all the stories praising Israeli wine and its beautiful beaches, he is reminded, the general impression many have is that “Israel is getting killed” abroad; that support is waning; that even Jews are disillusioned; and that boycotts are lurking just around the bend.

Aharoni doesn’t buy it.

“You are telling me Israel is getting killed. Israel is getting killed in some places; in other places it is not being killed, but it is being celebrated.”

Asked where he sees that celebration, he cited the following examples: Tourism to Israel has never been higher, with the first quarter of 2016 the best it has ever been. Missions and delegations from all over the world flood Israel regularly to learn about its innovation. Political leaders from around the world beat a steady path to Jerusalem.

“This shows that not only are we not boycotted, we are being celebrated.”

But how about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement? he is asked.

“Israel is not being boycotted in the US. Period. No boycott,” he asserted.

“There is, however, a very disturbing idea that Israel should be isolated and boycotted,” he continued. “And this is coming from academic circles, the intellectuals, who say that Israel is the only post-colonial player in the arena; that just as Europe ended its colonial chapter in Algeria in the mid-1960s, Israel started its colonial chapter following the Six Day War. This is how you end up with people who are completely unable to understand our need and right to defend ourselves.”

This narrative, which also posits that Israel was created because of European guilt for the Holocaust, is a problem for Israel that “can be dealt with in academic circles,” he maintained.

Aharoni believes that the focus of Israel advocacy on campus should be more toward the faculty, rather than on confronting pro-Palestinian activists on the college quad.

“You will be hard pressed to find Zionism – the teaching of Zionism on campuses – in the context of a Jewish liberation movement; rather, [you’ll find it] more in the context of the oppression of the Palestinians.”

And that, said Aharoni, who is leaving diplomacy for the private sector, is an academic problem that can be addressed with a “concentrated effort to introduce Israel not to the current generation of academics – they are lost – but to the next generation of PhD candidates.”

Aharoni’s advice to all those he has heard over the years saying that they have the perfect answer to BDS is to simply pool their funds and bring budding academics in the humanities – in fields such as political science, Middle East studies, history, gender studies, sociology – to Israel to see the country.

“Bring them in droves,” he said. “We have nothing to hide; this is an amazing country. These are people who are buying into the negative narrative because they are not familiar with who we are, and look at the Palestinians and immediately identify with the perceived underdog.”

JUST AS Aharoni tries to put BDS in context and pare it down to real dimensions, so, too, does he puncture holes in the perception gaining traction that young, so-called millennial Jews are distancing themselves from Israel because of the government’s policies. This is a notion gaining traction thanks to people like Peter Beinart and Bernie Sanders campaign activist Simone Zimmerman, who was hired and then fired as Jewish outreach director because of an expletive-deleted laden rant against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on her Facebook page.

“There is a generation of young Jews who are looking at Israel as a place of opportunity, not just – as did their parents and grandparents – as a place plagued with problems,” he said, going against the conventional wisdom. This perception of Israel as a place of opportunity, he added, is historic and something that has actually not been as widespread since the days of the first and second immigrant waves in early Zionist history.

“Something historically important and positive is happening, but we are not paying any attention to it because we are too preoccupied – if not to say obsessed – with the conversation about BDS,” he argued.

“You have a new generation of young Jews that look at Israel and say to themselves that this is a place that represents an opportunity for them. The opportunities are abundant.

It can be a relationship: ‘I can find my soul mate there’; or a business opportunity; or just a place to have fun; or for education: You can get the best degree in the world in Israel almost for nothing.”

This generation’s parents, Aharoni continued, did not look at Israel in a similar manner. Rather, when they thought about the Jewish state, they thought about a problem and about what they could do in their own country to help.

“But what exists now is like what existed during the generation of Ben-Gurion, the spirit that infused the early days of Zionism,” he said.

“Palestine was a place of opportunity for Ben-Gurion and his friends.”

Birthright and similar programs are responsible for this spirit, he argued, saying that not a day went by over his last six years in New York without seeing evidence that Birthright – the bringing of young Jews to the country for a visit – is a “game-changer.”

While Beinart constantly argues that young US Jews are disconnecting and turned off by Israel, Aharoni sees instead 500,000 youth who have come on Israel programs like Birthright over the last 17 years, with 84 percent saying those programs changed their lives. He sees a generation that has developed a strong attachment to Israel “that has nothing to do with politics or the case we used to make for Israel, but has everything to do with the fact that they find Israel relevant to their futures.”

Aharoni is not Pollyannaish, and recognizes well that there are problems.

But he also recognizes that there are achievements that far outweigh the problems.

“You will always find people who are critical of Israel,” he said. “But we can’t conclude from that that we are in dire straits.”

This attitude was summed up in his response to the demonstrator filmed burning an Israeli flag outside the Democratic convention in Philadelphia last week.

“It is a bad thing, and I wish it did not happen,” he said. “But it represents a fringe element. It needs to be addressed, but at the same time we should never forget the big picture.”

And looking back at his six years in New York, Aharoni concluded sanguinely that in the big picture, “Israel is doing great in North America, and we should never forget that.”

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