Justin Bieber, the hottest pop music sensation on the planet, just spent a week
in Israel. It could have been a public diplomacy bonanza for the Jewish
nation-state. This was a no-brainer.
The mega teen idol commands a
bigger following on Twitter alone (six million followers) than Fox News commands
for its top-rated prime time shows. Add to that the hundreds of millions of
people, perhaps far more, whom Bieber reaches through the Web, print,
television, live performances, online downloads and discs, licensing and
merchandising sales. And he just spent seven days in Israel.
It was not
the usual “ in and out” visit made by most visiting performers. Bieber prayed at
the Western Wall and worshiped at Christian Holy sites in Jerusalem, Tiberias
and the Galilee. Bieber tweeted his fans that he “wanted the chance to walk
where Jesus walked in Israel.”
He stayed so long that he had time to go
bowling at a mall in Jerusalem three days after his concert in Tel Aviv’s
Hayarkon Park, where he performed for more than 22,000 ecstatic fans. My teenage
daughter showed me Bieber’s Twitter account, where he described the experience
as “AMAZING FANS, AMAZING CONCERT, AMAZING PLACE.”
Despite the perfect
setup for a major Israeli public diplomacy victory, official Israel did not
reach out to the teen icon. And to be frank, from an international media
standpoint, Israel needs Bieber more than Bieber needs Israel. According to news
reports, a last-minute approach by the teen idol to the Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu failed to generate a meeting, despite sincere and determined efforts
by the prime minister’s advisers to make it happen.
Some news reports
indicated that the singer’s team opposed the political overtones of the prime
minister’s request that children from the South who suffered incessant Hamas
rocket attacks should also take part in the meeting. Curiously Bieber’s manager
publicly denied requesting a meeting, while Bieber tweeted his fans online that
“I want to see this country and all the places I’ve dreamed of and whether it’s
the paps [paparazzi] or being pulled into politics it’s been
While the incident’s details are less important, this
episode raises a larger strategic public diplomacy issue.
dealt with the Bieber visit at the last minute.
In the best case, it
would seem that a month or so before Bieber’s arrival, in view of his
international super profile, his positive predisposition toward Israel via his
Christian faith, and his Jewishly identified team – they and Bieber reportedly
say Shema Yisrael backstage before every concert – the Prime Minister’s Office,
the Foreign Ministry, the Culture and Sport Ministry and the Tourism Ministry
might have might have met to determine the most effective strategy to create a
PR win-win for Israel and its guest.
In this case, a strategic
opportunity was lost.
It’s not hard to imagine seeing the pop superstar
on every major TV news network in the world – including Al Jazeera – from
Israel: visiting, playing and laughing with its “rainbow coalition” of children,
Jews of all ethnic backgrounds, Druse, and Muslim and Christian
Arabs. This would reflect Israel’s true character as the free, democratic
and pluralistic nation-state of the Jewish people – and on the eve of Pessah, to
A senior government minister could easily have taken Bieber to
visit one of the country’s world-renowned children’s hospitals, an immigrant
absorption center, a school – even one for the performing arts, where he may
well have agreed to give a master class.
THE CONTEXT of the visit is
significant. In the past year, some major international artists have joined the
ongoing cultural assault against Israel. Acts like Elvis Costello, Pink Floyd
and Carlos Santana, to name a few, have submitted to pressure by the Palestinian
Authority and its Western supporters and boycotted the country.
It was no
small achievement that Bieber withstood that pressure. Aside from his own firm
Christian faith, the strong Jewish identity of his manager, Scooter Braun, and
his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, whom Bieber honored at the concert, there
were additional elements for Israel to consider. His Jewishly identified
lead guitarist Dan Kantor picked out “Hatikva
” on his electric guitar to kick
off the April 14 show.
An official and public embrace of Bieber, his band
and his entourage would only have enhanced the so-called “third party
validation” of Israel, which would likely have radiated across the international
music scene. One cannot overestimate the force multiplier effect of one of the
world’s most popular song-and-dance men since Elvis Presley speaking well of the
nation-state of the Jewish people in the media, which today quotes Bieber even
more frequently than it misquotes Israeli leaders and misreports Israel’s
The resulting “echo effect” would have helped counter the
poisonous and grotesque Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against
Israel that has gripped Europe and even some circles in
Bieber’s overall experience ended up rebounding from a
negative to a positive one, as he noted in his post-concert exuberance. However,
it might better serve Israel’s overall public diplomacy interests if government
leaders were to reach out to high-profile visitors, and especially mega-stars
like Bieber, well in advance of their planned visits to increase the prospects
of Israel’s receiving the positive, accurate and critically important exposure
it desperately deserves.The writer is secretary-general-designate of the
World Jewish Congress.