Countering negative impressions

Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein says he wants people to get to know the ‘real Israel’

NYuli Edelstein 311 (photo credit: NCourtesy)
NYuli Edelstein 311
(photo credit: NCourtesy)
Yuli Edelstein, a former underground Hebrew teacher, political prisoner and aliya activist in Soviet Russia, today heads the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs. He spoke to Metro about the ministry’s new public diplomacy campaign and the value of citizen patriotism.
As the person shaping the Israeli message to the world, aren’t you stepping on the toes of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister?
“Not at all. Our niche is public diplomacy. We don’t shape state policy.
Of course we won’t do things like respond to international crises instead of the Prime Minister or tell diplomats what to say. We just want the public to represent themselves and by extension, Israel, in the best possible way.”
What is the rationale for the hasbara campaign?
“We want to counter negative impressions. There are radical Muslim groups and some on the extreme left, who do battle by unfriendly methods, things like boycotts and silencing campaigns. The silent majority absorbs a negative image of Israel as a country and its citizens as people who are totally irrelevant to their lives. The faces of the Israelis they see are usually covered with a steel helmet. They end up thinking that the world would be a better place without Israel. Our goal is to give Israel back its face.
People don’t understand Israel because they don’t know the real Israel, but when you take time to explain, they understand.
They understand that if they want to really boycott Israel, they have to throw out their laptop, because it’s bound to have been partially made in Israel. They understand that they have to call the hospital and tell the doctors to stop giving their loved ones medicines and have them taken off life-saving medical instruments, because many of them, too, were made in Israel.
We don’t aim to silence the radicals and we don’t aim to convince people that we are right and the Palestinians are wrong.
Our message is simply that Israel is very relevant to the lives of the people of the world.
When the campaign came out, there were questions about what you hoped to achieve and criticism about some of the content. How would you respond?
There was criticism and I’m aware of it. People said it wouldn’t work. People said it was too right-wing. People said it was too simplistic. People said it would be a joke. One thing that I learned and was happy to find out, was that according to the advertising company we hired, there was widespread public satisfaction about the campaign. There is a wide consensus about hasbara in Israel.
Public officials and media people have lost the ability to say things directly and speak simple sentences. If we hear somebody say ‘I am a Zionist,’ we immediately translate it into ‘I am a right-wing fascist.  The Israeli public sees things differently. For them it expresses a longing for important things that simply need to be said.
What about the criticism that it reflected the views of the government and not the public?
“When I read the columnists I heard those things, but when I saw that 81% of Ynet readers approve of the campaign, I knew we did something right. This is Ynet, not some right-wing party newsletter. There is no politician in Israel who enjoys such approval ratings.
I find that when you develop a campaign that’s so focused on grassroots, you avoid the issue of right and left wing.”
Why did you choose to work with an outside company. Doesn’t Israel have enough professional spokespeople in the public service?
“We had many discussions about what we want to achieve with the workshops and who should run them. Some suggested diplomats. Some suggested professors. Some suggested journalists. My attitude was that real knowledge couldn’t be imparted in several hours, but what could be taught was a method. So we went for the coaching workshops.
Many people have knowledge, but what a company like Debate gives us is expertise in developing lesson plans on how to teach an effective hasbara method to diverse audiences. It may well be that the state has people who can do it, but we needed someone who could dedicate themselves to the issue full time.” (R.F.)