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After 60 years of Diaspora Jews complaining that Israel's hasbara efforts fall flat, there is finally reason for Jews worldwide to believe that the Foreign Ministry is beginning to get it. September marks the beginning of an ambitious new pilot program, being run by the consul-general in Toronto, Amir Gissin, to "rebrand" Israel.
Starting with print ads that will be featured prominently in bus shelters and billboards across the city, and continuing with radio and editorial content, Torontonians can expect to see Israel being portrayed as an innovative leader in technology that brings real benefits to their own lives. One ad, for example, depicts an Indian mother and daughter smiling under the words "Coronary stent. Lifesaver." At the bottom is a new iconic logo, "Innovation Israel," and the tag line "Touching lives." The message to the growing Indian community in Toronto couldn't be clearer.
Notably, one type of message that will be conspicuous by its absence is any type of explanation or defense of Israel's actions in regard to its politics. "Explaining why we are right is not enough," says Gissin. "Our goal is to make Israel relevant and attractive to Canadians and to refocus attention away from the conflict."
IN THIS Gissin is entirely correct. There is plenty of attention given to the Israeli-Arab conflict in the media already, and plenty of opportunities for pundits and diplomats to debate Israeli policies in front of audiences who listen. The conflict, after all, is not going away soon. The real challenge lies with the growing population of the Diaspora for whom Israel is not relevant and who tune out much of the news regarding the conflict as being hopelessly confusing and morally muddled.
These are people whose very indifference or inattentiveness make them susceptible to being swayed by charged anti-Israel labels that are thrown around by our adversaries, such as the word "apartheid." With campuses around the world hosting "Israel Apartheid Week" on an annual basis and ex-presidents of the United States using the word in a book title, the need to have an ongoing campaign that will implant positive emotional associations to Israel has become crucial.
But will the Israeli pilot program in Toronto work? And will it be relevant to the rest of the Diaspora? Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, with more than 200 languages spoken and with almost half the population belonging to a minority. There are, for example, 470,000 Chinese living there, many of them having little or no preconceptions about Israel. There are, as well, more than half a million Italians. That makes Toronto a very attractive laboratory to experiment in.
AND IT will be a real experiment, with a local company measuring the effects of the campaign with ongoing surveys to measure any progress. (These surveys will be carefully constructed so that respondents are unaware of who has sponsored them and will strenuously avoid politics.) Ads and editorials that are deemed successful by the consulate will, in later years, find their way to other cities around the globe.
There are good reasons for optimism. Gissin and the other people and companies involved in running the campaign are well versed in the local nuances and are aware of the difficulties involved in running a branding campaign that is short on budget. (Most of the advertising budget for the pilot program is being provided by local Jewish philanthropists). The ads are professional and appealing.
But the overwhelming consensus of marketing professionals is that no rebranding campaign can work without grass-roots involvement. Without buzz being generated by word of mouth, without the target audience discussing Israel among themselves, the campaign is likely to fail and the experiment will then not be repeated globally.
It is far too early to tell if the Foreign Ministry's campaign will generate such buzz on its own. But one lesson from the pilot program can already be taken by all supporters of Israel in the Diaspora and that is that even when the ministry does everything right, it can't really do it without local support. Diaspora Zionists must get involved. We must help create the buzz that others will perpetuate.
Even without a formal "rebranding Israel" program, we all have a role to play to help Israel's image. It can be as simple as e-mailing a news story about a recent Israeli invention to a colleague, hanging a picture of beautiful Israeli art on our walls or helping our cities and towns twin with an Israeli town. The government is, belatedly, doing its part. We must lend it a hand.
The writer is the author of the just-released 101+ Ways to Help Israel: A Guide to Doing Small Things That Can Make Big Differences (Gavel Press).nussbaum@WaysToHelpIsrael.com