(photo credit: Deborah Danan)
Israel, as I noted last week, is blessed with many staunch supporters overseas. But given its legion of detractors, it has an obvious interest in expanding this support base; the question is how to do so.
Some factors that contribute to pro-Israel sentiment aren’t in Israel’s power to influence. For instance, evangelical Christianity often correlates with support for Israel, but Christian belief is beyond Israel’s purview.
Nevertheless, one factor crops up repeatedly in stories about how people became pro-Israel: coming here and seeing the country for themselves, in all its complexity, rather than the two-dimensional caricature propagated by the media. Irish filmmaker Nicky Larkin, for instance, jettisoned his preconceived notions after coming here and talking with numerous ordinary Israelis and Palestinians. For Italian politician Fiorello Provera, the trigger was being taken up a West Bank mountaintop by settlement activists and seeing Ben-Gurion Airport in easy shooting range below, which made him realize that Israel’s security concerns were rooted in hard geographic facts, not mere pretexts to avoid ceding territory.
American Jewish organizations grasped this truth long ago. That’s why they have been bringing American opinion leaders to Israel for years – something that has undoubtedly contributed to America’s strong support for Israel. This same insight led to the founding of Taglit-Birthright, which brings young Diaspora Jews here for 10-day trips that have proven notably effective in strengthening both their Jewish identity and their attachment to Israel.
In contrast, Israel’s government has long seemed oblivious to this truth. Hence I was delighted to discover a few months ago that someone in the Foreign Ministry had finally seen the light: The ministry unveiled a plan to bring over 3,000 non-Jewish American college students who seemed likely to be future opinion leaders so they could see the country for themselves. Given the widespread perception that Israel is losing the public-relations war on American college campuses, this is clearly an important demographic to target. The ministry is also working on a similar plan for young European opinion leaders.
Nevertheless, many things could still go wrong. First, Israel has no full-time foreign minister and probably won’t for months to come, since the job is being held for Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman until the end of his trial. Thus there’s nobody with ministerial-level clout to fight for the program and make sure it actually happens.
Compounding that problem is the budget crunch. The project’s projected budget is NIS 50 million, which is small change. But when the government is seeking to slash spending by NIS 18 billion over the next two years, finding even NIS 50 million for a brand-new program won’t be easy; most ministries will be fighting just to preserve existing programs. When you combine this budgetary pressure with the lack of a full-time minister to push for the project, the prospects look grim.
Yet even if the project somehow gets off the ground, there’s a third danger: The trips could be so poorly designed as to be ineffective, or even counterproductive. After all, plenty of people come here and leave just as anti-Israel as they came; see, for instance, most of the foreign press corps. And given how ineffectual Israel’s official public-relations operation has been over the years, the chances of government bureaucrats designing an effective public-relations exercise this time around don’t seem promising.
On the plus side is an element of the plan that originally struck me as bizarre: The Foreign Ministry said it planned to recruit overseas Jewish donors to help fund the trips. Since NIS 50 million, as noted, is small change for a country whose budget
totaled NIS 366 billion last year, the government could easily afford to finance the entire venture itself; and given the project’s importance, its unwillingness to do so seems incomprehensible.
But on second thought, someone at the Foreign Ministry may have been brilliant. If American Jewish donors were involved, they would constitute a powerful pressure group pushing the project’s implementation. They would also make sure the trips’ designers don’t arrogantly neglect to seek advice from Taglit-Birthright and other Jewish organizations with experience in running trips of this kind.
Regardless of the specific itinerary, one principle is crucial: The trips should focus more on meeting ordinary Israelis than on meeting senior government officials.
Though government officials can and should give the visitors needed information, even the most talented have limited ability to change people’s minds. Partly, that’s because their audience knows they have an agenda, and consequently listens skeptically. But perhaps even more important is that government officials, like business leaders, senior journalists and academics, generally move in the same limited circle, where the similarities far outweigh the occasional political differences. Staying inside this circle (known as the branja
in Israeli slang) gives visitors no sense of the real Israel, in all its diversity; that’s one reason why foreign journalists and government officials – who spend almost all their time here within that narrow circle – usually go home with their views of Israel unchanged. People who, like Larkin and Provera, venture beyond this echo chamber are the ones more likely to come back with their views altered.
Moreover, these trips are aimed specifically at campus opinion leaders, meaning the same demographic that Taglit-Birthright targets. And Taglit-Birthright participants consistently rate their interaction with Israeli soldiers – i.e, ordinary Israelis their own age – as the portion of the trip that had the most impact on them. Taglit-Birthright achieves this by having a group of soldiers join every trip for a few days; something similar could be considered for the campus leader trips.
Responsibility for Israel’s foreign affairs currently rests with three people: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is nominally foreign minister as well; Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin; and International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz. Between them, they must make sure the Foreign Ministry’s plan goes forward instead of gathering dust in some drawer, and they must make sure it is done right. Ensuring that a new generation of supporters is always ready to replace the old is vital to Israel’s future. This plan is an excellent way to make that more likely.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.