An important study by Prof. Yoel Cohen of Ariel University looked at the topics that are often covered by international reporters in Israel, as they obviously have an impact on Israel’s global image.
The study found that the most widely reviewed topics are those related to war and terrorism, whereas other (and no less important!) topics – such as science, technology, innovation and culture – are widely neglected or brushed aside.
While one may assert that the trend to cover terrorism, war and all forms of bloodshed at the expense of other issues is a general phenomenon in world media, it is nonetheless evident that where Israel is concerned, this tendency is overwhelmingly out of proportion.
This approach serves to entrench a very distorted and negative image of Israel – one that ultimately ignores Israel’s significant international standing in many crucial fields, let alone its recognition by many global leaders as a pivotal player in such arenas as science, medicine, agriculture, water management, R&D, technological innovation, global security and social endeavors.
There are many examples, which continue to pile up every day: Waze, the world’s largest community-based traffic and navigation app that was acquired by Google in 2013 for $1 billion; Israeli hi-tech experts who have significantly influenced the global market – e.g., Dov Moran and Gil Shwed, inventors of the USB flash drive and firewall respectively; or renowned scientists and Nobel Prize laureates, such as Yisrael Aumann (economics) and Ada Yonath (chemistry).
Only recently an Israeli company announced the development of a nano-printing technology which has already received orders nearing half a billion euros.
Nowadays, with the help of new media, any person, group or organization can run a negative campaign against Israel, while harnessing one-sided, non-contextualized and manipulative information to depict the country in distorted manners. Many a time these campaigns rely on superficial, incorrect and/or biased foreign media coverage concerning Israel’s (obviously much more complicated) geopolitical reality. That said, articulating the challenge alone will get us nowhere. We should, and can, take this matter into our own hands and use same tools to work in our favor. New media can be used to seriously balance the current image by presenting a different view of Israel – a country that persistently demonstrates that size, in fact, does not matter – quality, imagination, values and creativity do. A country without whom many of the inventions, innovations and technologies the world takes for granted today would still be beyond reach.
Israel should focus some of its efforts on persistently seeking and inviting key opinion leaders – from all walks of life – to visit the country and experience it in a more holistic fashion. Such individuals could experience different dimensions of life in Israel: the challenging and the difficult should not be ignored by any means, but should be brushed against other aspects, which demonstrate Israel’s immense contributions as a member of the family of nations. A critical mass of such key figures may serve as a strategic game-changer in a counter campaign that aims to improve the perception of Israel worldwide.
It is therefore vital that leaders and others who visit Israel are shown more than historic landmarks such as Yad Vashem, Masada or the Dead Sea. They should also be exposed to influential innovations and developments, social endeavors and scientific breakthroughs.
In recent years Birthright Israel has become a major player in the realization of this vision, and has positively touched tens of thousands of participants by crafting its educational trips to explore the historical and the contemporary alike; by witnessing Israel as a fascinating combination of ancient Jewish values in ultra-modern expressions; and by seeing firsthand that Israel is much more than meets the media eye.
This year Birthright Israel (in collaboration with the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange) has initiated the first-ofits- kind Innovation Center in Tel Aviv, where a variety of Israel’s unique and groundbreaking achievements in such fields as agriculture, medicine, space, security, cyber and transportation are displayed for interactive learning and engagement. This summer, thousands of Birthright Israel participants from abroad will explore the Innovation Center, witness firsthand some of Israel’s greatest achievements and meet with Israeli entrepreneurs from different fields of expertise.
The Innovation Center is merely one example of how Birthright Israel promotes international awareness of Israeli innovations and harnesses its momentum toward a broader appreciation of the country and its people. An additional example is the Birthright Israel Excel program, now in its sixth year of existence. Birthright Israel Excel brings to Israel dozens of outstanding students from top academic institutions in the US, Canada and Mexico (chosen out of over 1,500 applicants per year). These students take part in this unique program that introduces them to the many aspects of Israeli society, business, economics, finance and consultancy. Students intern in top Israeli firms, alongside tours and seminars led by executives from leading Israeli companies.
An additional program, Birthright Israel Ventures, was launched this year as an accelerator and hub for startup companies. This program offers 10 young American entrepreneurs and 10 former IDF soldiers from elite technological units the necessary knowhow and guidance to set up their own company. The participants are also mentored by leading members of the startup industry, and become immersed in the culture whose aim is turning a concept into a reality – as so often happens in Israel.
These programs strive to impress upon our participants the understanding that Israel is a country of innovation, a thriving hi-tech center, second only to Silicon Valley, so that upon their return home, the achievements and business opportunities of Israel will remain in their minds and play a role in their future professional decisions. This way, the large network of Jewish intellect will continue to grow and prosper, paving the way for international cooperation between Israel and the Diaspora. Creating such strong social and professional ties is one of Birthright Israel’s true missions.
These joint efforts are part of a broader concept: only by making Israel relevant to people’s interests, as well as their personal and professional aspirations; and only by exposing it in its fuller colors to current public opinion shapers, as well as future Jewish (and non-Jewish) leaders, can Israel build a solid foundation for improving its status and image in the eyes of the world. Emphasizing the country’s unique contributions will tip the scales in its favor, setting the wheels of this country in motion, one startup at a time.
The author is CEO of Birthright Israel.