Shaping Israel’s image in the world

Interview: Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Yuli Edelstein tells 'The Jerusalem Post' about the importance of Israel-Diaspora relations.

Yuli Edelstein 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Yuli Edelstein 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
YULI EDELSTEIN Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Even if the State of Israel had no external image problem, Israel-Diaspora relations would be a priority for the Israeli government, said Yuli Edelstein, the Jewish state’s minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs.
“The Jewish communities are very eager to participate in this effort, not only because they support the State of Israel but because they understand that we are inextricably linked,” Edelstein told The Jerusalem Post in an interview at his office in Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul neighborhood. “The moment Israel’s image goes down, like it did in Operation Cast Lead, there are anti-Semitic acts and attacks on certain Jewish communities, to say nothing about swastikas and other anti-Semitic images all around.”
Despite the enthusiasm from Diaspora communities, Edelstein, 52, admitted that strengthening Israel- Diaspora relations is a much more challenging task than it was 20 years ago. He felt that the main reason is the lack of a common denominator.
“For generations there were certain code words that were part of Israel-Diaspora relations,” he said. These included the Holocaust, memories from the time when no Jewish state existed, Israeli independence and the danger and uncertainty of the War of Independence, the Six Day War, the reunification of Jerusalem and the campaign to free Soviet Jewry.
“It’s much less obvious these days. Today, when you’re talking to someone who’s 25 years old, and I’m not mocking anyone, they would say, ‘What do you mean no Israel? Israel’s always been around. What do you mean the fight for Soviet Jewry? Is this the place where Russia is today? What do you mean about the Six Day War? Wasn’t that when you guys occupied all these territories and we have all this trouble because of that?’ It’s a different perception, and we are looking very seriously for a new common denominator.”
Though Edelstein is unsure whether or not a single, well-defined common issue can be found, he is nevertheless optimistic about the future of Israel-Diaspora ties.
“Our weakness is our strength – we are very diverse in the State of Israel on the religious scale, political scale and community scale,” he said. “We are different in everything, to say nothing about our interests. Hence, there are good chances that every Jew in the Diaspora who is a tiny bit interested in Israel can find his or her counterparts on this side.”
When traveling abroad for meetings with Jewish leaders, Edelstein asks to speak with younger members of the respective communities. Instead of lecturing them, he tries to conduct the discussions like focus groups so he can absorb what the potential future Jewish communal leaders have to say.
“My goal is to make sure there is future Jewish leadership,” he said. “It’s not that I think that when this generation of leaders of Jewish organizations and federations retires, there will be no people to take their positions. That’s stupid – there are a lot of talented young people, both lay leaders and professionals, who can take over. My concern is the level of their understanding of Israel- Diaspora relations and the centrality of Israel.”
Edelstein said of the present crop of Diaspora Jewish leaders, “I can like or dislike, without name-dropping, the attitude, ideology or position of this or that Jewish leader, but I don’t doubt for a second that these people are very devoted to strengthening Israel and bringing their groups, federations and communities closer to Israel.”
When he first stepped into his role, a new one in the government, two years ago, he was informed that it was a two-way street. “On the very first day someone said to me, ‘You’re no longer the Israeli minister of Diaspora affairs representing the State of Israel, it’s also the other way around. Part of your obligation is to represent Diaspora Jewry to the Israelis.’ It turned out that this statement is very true.”
ONE OF the obstacles to that responsibility is the fact that the average Israeli is uninterested about Jewish life in the Diaspora, he said. When Edelstein’s ministry decided to hold a Diaspora festival last year during Succot, he and his colleagues were afraid no Israelis would show up if it was called a “Diaspora festival.” They changed the name to the Jewish Family Festival.
Thousands of people attended the festival, held for three days at the Museum of the Jewish People (Beit Hatfutsot) on the campus of Tel Aviv University. Educational activities for children and adults were offered.
“Hopefully, more Israelis will learn that Jewish life in the Diaspora is not some song about the shtetl where their great-grandparents came from,” said Edelstein. “Yes, it’s legitimate to ask sometimes, ‘If these guys are such nice Jews and such great Zionists, why are they in Los Angeles and not in Israel?’ But in order to ask all these questions and have a dialogue, it’s important to have some idea of what’s going on in Diaspora Jewish life and Israel-Diaspora relations.”
The festival also allowed representatives from different denominational movements to work together. “It was very nice to see that it’s possible to have a tent of the Reform Movement and the Orthodox religious organizations next to them, sharing things like pencils and paper and having activities together,” said Edelstein. “The best way for people to feel they are one is doing things together.”
He stepped in last year when controversy erupted over a bill in the Knesset which included a provision that conversions be placed under the Orthodox chief rabbinate’s jurisdiction. Conservative and Reform umbrella organizations, US Jewish groups and even Jewish members of the US Congress expressed opposition.
Edelstein had to inform his colleagues in the government, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, that an urgent crisis was brewing. “The most difficult part was to explain to them there was something very serious going on, and that the outrage and uproar could really hurt not only Israel-Diaspora relations but on a broader scale,” he said. “The moment there was an understanding that there was a crisis, it was not that difficult.”
Lobbying by the Reform and Conservative Movements also led to the shelving of the bill. When the controversy died down, Edelstein told the movements’ representatives, “Your problem is that you’re here in a time of crisis reaching the leadership. You have to be here 24/7 and try to reach a broader audience.”
The message was received, and they were the first to set up tents at the Jewish Family Festival.
Edelstein’s personal history gives him an added appreciation for strong Israel-Diaspora ties. He arrived in Israel in 1987 from the Soviet Union, where he was a Prisoner of Zion. Without the efforts of Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora, he and other Prisoners of Zion might not have been freed.
“We shouldn’t diminish the role of the Israeli government or of Israelis, but the fact that so many Jewish communities in the US, Canada, France, England and other countries were able to influence their elected officials to work vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, when Israel didn’t have diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, made their role unique,” said Edelstein.
He feels the rallying cry of the campaign to free Soviet Jews, “Let my people go,” which united world Jewry, can’t be easily replicated today.
“Because of my past and my background, many people say, ‘You have to find this common denominator to unite us.’ But unfortunately, the ideas that come up these days are fighting against something, like fighting against the Iranian threat or fighting against delegitimization.
It’s not the same. Back then we were fighting for something.
‘Let my people go’ was an obvious message, and we’re lacking something that obvious today.”
To some extent, Israelis themselves are responsible for their state’s hasbara difficulties, said Edelstein.
“We’re too busy with all kinds of wonderful things in Israel – we’ve been building the country and we’ve been pretty successful, but at the same time I think we lost our narrative. We’re not investing in continuing, modernizing and spreading the Exodus story. Forty or 50 years ago there was Paul Newman and Exodus [Newman starred in the 1960 film adaptation of the novel by Leon Uris] and everyone knew which side they were on. They were with the good guys, the Israelis, and it was so obvious that we neglected it.”
As one of those in charge of Israel’s hasbara efforts, Edelstein is often asked why the image of Israel abroad is so awful.
“Sometimes I get very frustrated with all these questions about how come Israel looks like this and that, and I say, ‘I have the perfect solution.’ “Seventy years ago, we didn’t have any PR problems.
There was the picture of this kid in the Warsaw Ghetto, with his hands up and big German soldiers holding guns. Today the picture is different. The Israeli army is strong, and it has tanks, planes and all these things that don’t look good in pictures.
“With the other side, we can say they’re terrorists, but they don’t wear uniforms and they’re not a regular army, so we are gradually turning into bad guys. Being strong has its disadvantage in terms of PR, but thank God not in terms of life or the ability to defend ourselves.”
The Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs is engaged in about 80 hasbara projects, though not all of its initiatives are credited.
“There are projects we support in different forms without making it very public or writing in big capital letters ‘sponsored by the Ministry of Public Diplomacy.’ I think it’s part of the rules of the game because in this modern world, especially on the Web, things that have a big stamp of this or that government are immediately suspected of being propaganda. I don’t mean to imply that we are putting out propaganda and operating anonymously, but to support younger projects and more popular initiatives without labeling them as government activities is, I think, very important.”
One of the ministry’s pilot programs, Face of Israel, will be expanded.
As part of the inaugural Face of Israel mission, a group of Israelis from the Druse, Arab, Ethiopian, gay and lesbian and other minority communities traveled to university campuses in the US and Canada shortly before Israel Apartheid Week this year.
The ignorance about Israel that the speakers encountered was unbelievable, said Edelstein. For example, a young Israeli Arab woman from Nazareth was asked why she can speak Arabic. She answered that she was an Arab, and the questioner responded, “But you’re from Israel.”
She followed up by saying, “Yes, I’m an Arab from Israel,” to which the questioner asked, “Oh, so you’re a Jewish Arab?” In another instance, an Ethiopian woman from Tel Aviv was asked on one of the campuses, “Where are you from?” When she said she was from Tel Aviv, the response she received was, “But you can’t be from Tel Aviv – you’re black.”
The ministry provided the speakers with some training but did not tell them exactly what to say, instead encouraging them to tell their personal stories about living in Israel, said Edelstein.
“The fact is they didn’t want to be labeled as being part of an apartheid state,” he said. “They told their stories and described the real Israel in which people belonging to minorities can get an education and a career and live a normal life, which does not exactly resemble the South Africa of 25 years ago.”
In March, the ministry began receiving calls and e-mails warning about a Facebook group calling for a third Palestinian intifada. The page had accumulated over 230,000 “friends” since its creation.
Edelstein sent a letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg asking him to remove the page. “On this Facebook page there are posted many remarks and movie clips which call for the killing of Israelis and Jews and the ‘liberating’ of Jerusalem and of Palestine through acts of violence,” the letter stated. “I turn to you with the request that you order the immediate removal of this Facebook page.”
The page was taken down, but the threat of online anti-Semitism remains.
The Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism, for which Edelstein serves on the steering committee alongside Italian MP Fiamma Nirenstein, British MP John Mann and Canadian MP Irwin Cotler, among others, held its second conference on combating anti-Semitism in Ottawa in November. The protocol the conference participants adopted mentioned, “We are alarmed by the explosion of anti-Semitism and hate on the Internet, a medium crucial for the promotion and protection of freedom of expression, freedom of information and the participation of civil society.” The coalition created a committee to further address this issue.
Fortunately, the staffs of Facebook and other social media sites are usually helpful when contacted about anti-Semitic postings, said Edelstein.
“I’m sure those who are behind all these wonderful Internet projects didn’t start them in order to turn them into hate projects, so the moment things like that happen you have partners [for rectifying the situation].”
He also said the ministry is “seriously working” on the launch of a 24-hour satellite television news network which would broadcast content about Israel. He has spoken with investors interested in backing such a project, including billionaire Alexander Machkevitch.
Nevertheless, there are still many details that have to be finalized, such as whether the network would be a state or private venture, and which languages would be used for programming.
“There are many challenges, and I always say to those who say to me, ‘why don’t you have an Al Jazeera, is it a question of money?’ that Al Jazeera, from the moment of its first broadcast, had the potential for 100 million viewers,” said Edelstein. “As far as we’re concerned, it’s a little more complicated.”
But, he added, “It’s doable, it’s not not possible, but it is a serious prospect.”