My Word: Doing what comes naturally

The idea of training ordinary Israelis to represent the country abroad is a welcome effort at (peacefully) fighting back.

By
February 20, 2010 23:39
Yuli Edelstein

yuli edelstein 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Israel might have won (just about) all the wars launched against it by its neighbors but there’s one ongoing battle the country is obviously losing: The public diplomacy war.

Meet the latest weapon – coming to a street, campus, restaurant or bar near you. Ordinary Israelis.

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If there are two traits that are meant to typify the average Israeli it is the fear of being a freier and an innate inability to apologize. Despite these stereotypes, most Israelis with whom I’ve discussed the national image crisis believe the country has been acting as suckers and over-apologizing (even for incidents, like the Mohammed al-Dura case, in which it is now clear that Israel was not the guilty partner).

Hence the idea of training regular Israelis how to represent the country abroad, a campaign launched last week by Yuli Edelstein’s Ministry for Public Diplomacy, is a welcome effort at (peacefully) fighting back.

Thousands of citizens are willing to help get across the message that Israel is a modern, democratic country with an impressive list of achievements. Now they can learn how.

The preparation runs from workshops for official delegations to pocket pamphlets distributed at Ben-Gurion Airport for regular travelers, and – as becomes the modern media age – information contained on the newly created Web site.

The initiative has been dubbed by Edelstein Tzva Hasbara LeYisrael, the Israeli Public Diplomacy Forces, a play on the Hebrew name of the IDF and the concept of “hasbara” or public information.

The idea is neither new nor unique (see the recent interview with MK Nachman Shai in which he explained his concept of molecular public diplomacy) but it answers an obvious need.

Just about every Israeli abroad has faced something ranging from antagonism to open anti-Semitism. The lucky ones have only had to tackle misconceptions – I recently got hit with the old myth that Orthodox Jews have sex through a hole in the sheet.

President Shimon Peres in his usual upbeat way last month dismissed fears of a public image disaster, quipping: “There are millions of Indians, who love us; a billion Chinese, who love us; and millions of Evangelicals, who love us. We have a problem with Sweden, but we’re working on it.”

Nonetheless, the stories of (verbal) attacks on campuses ranging from Oxford University to the University of California, demonstrate that the problem goes way beyond the tiny dot that is Malmö on the world map.

The masbirim site includes suggestions such as: First listen, then speak; maintain eye contact; use relaxed body language and tone; don’t preach; ask questions; answer points raised; stick to two or three messages you want to convey; and maintain a sense of humor.

The ministry is happy to provide the unofficial ambassadors with information on Israeli history, common myths that need combating, and a list of the country’s achievements ranging from the development of drip agriculture and advanced space technology to the creation of cherry tomatoes.

My main tip to travelers (of any nationality) is focus on the small stories of everyday life and always find what you have in common.

And while we’re in the mood for mutual constructive comments: I suggest the government make sure children in school are taught properly about Israeli history so that the Public Diplomacy Ministry doesn’t have to start teaching them the basic facts as they get on the plane, and stop the reported move to abolish public broadcasting. The commercial channels will never provide the same type of in-depth documentaries, analyses and news that the Israel Broadcasting Authority can provide.

It is encouraging that while this initiative comes from the government, there are also grassroots efforts by Israeli student bodies and even parliamentary aides to pitch in and make their voices heard, particularly on foreign college campuses.

Although I suspect that people abroad will always believe what they want (witness the stories that Israelis raced to Haiti not to participate in the major international effort to save lives but to harvest organs for transplant).



IN THE mid-1990s I was the first female journalist to enter the Sultanate of Oman on an Israeli passport. On my return, a gruff colleague from the Hebrew press groaned: “Now they’re going to think that all Israeli women are tiny, chatty, environmentalist vegetarians.”

Naturally, I still see this as a compliment. (He could have added perversity to my traits.)

If nothing else, I wasn’t what the Omanis expected.

A lot has changed since my foray to the Persian Gulf.

The World Wide Web has become a war zone and the technology and mind-set of the information age have completely erased the concept of secrecy. The advent of the camera-equipped cellphones and Internet have revolutionized information transfer. Social media such as YouTube, Twitter and the deservedly besmirched Buzz have undoubtedly opened borders without necessarily opening minds. They are so in your Face(book).

While virtual friends count for something in cyberspace, in the real world a positive one-on-one encounter can give somebody a completely different picture of Israel – one worth more than a thousand words of op-ed writing.

News coverage is almost always shallow. As a Russian journalist once told me, if she had to give the entire background to the Mideast crisis in every piece she wrote she wouldn’t have any space left to write anything new.

The result is that much of the world perceives the Palestinians as the victims. The only victims. It is natural to feel sympathy for wounded Palestinian children in Gaza – particularly if you don’t learn that they were placed on the front lines by armed adults from Hamas, who also shell Sderot and the Negev. And it makes for such good TV footage.

I shocked an Egyptian journalist during the second intifada by suggesting that it was Israelis who were suffering. It was our buses, restaurants, wedding halls and discos being blown up. On the bright side, at least Israelis have a nightlife – and some of them a very gay one at that. There goes another stereotype (or two).

The public relations experts behind the ministerial campaign suggest using analogies rather than apologies. For example, when the question of checkpoints in the territories comes up (as it inevitably does) they recommend comparing them to the need for security checks at airports – something unfortunately necessary rather than a means of collective punishment.

Today there is CNN and the Web. Tomorrow there are likely to be new technologies and networks that ordinary folk cannot yet conceive. But whatever the future media, the average Israeli on the street – any street, anywhere in the world – can still have the last word, if they just get personal.

There will always be people out there who want to hear the experiences of real Israelis. Especially if they can maintain their sense of humor.


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