Diplomacy: Taking a more nuanced look at Israel

Israel’s consul-general in New York Ido Aharoni advocates shifting Israeli advocacy on campus from angry confrontations on the quad to showing Israel’s relevance in students’ lives.

Hasbara advocacy370 (photo credit: (Courtesy Israel Campus Beat))
Hasbara advocacy370
(photo credit: (Courtesy Israel Campus Beat))
NEW YORK – Spend any time at all in the US speaking with pro-Israel American Jews and one theme constantly emerges: Israel is losing the campuses.
If it is distress over the annual anti-Israel “Apartheid Week,” annoyance over Palestinian students disturbing high-profile Israeli speeches, or votes in student government bodies about disinvestment, the overall impression is that American college campuses are a beehive of anti-Israel activity. The concern expressed by many pro-Israel supporters in the US is simple: Tomorrow’s leadership cadre is being trained today at America’s universities, and they are being poisoned by a virulently anti- Israel atmosphere.
Ido Aharoni, Israel’s consul-general in New York, who spends hours upon hours on American campuses, has a much more nuanced – and as a result more sanguine – view of things.
Indeed, Aharoni has a whole different idea of what needs to be done on the college campuses: less trying to outshout radical Palestinian supporters on the tree-lined quads, and more quietly trying to make Israel relevant for the vast majority of students for whom the Middle East is distant and far down on their agenda.
“In today’s tech environment it is not about winning debates, but building relationships with people with influence and relevance, people who matter,” Aharoni says in his spacious office just off New York City’s 42nd Street. “The public debate on the quad is not where the battle should be waged. Fighting the fight and arguing the argument will never produce the leapfrog effect for Israel.”
While Aharoni does not discount the need to fight against moves such as divestment votes at the University of California at Berkeley, he maintains that crisis management should not take the place of a long-range strategic outlook. And that long range strategic outlook on campus should focus not on winning debates about the “conflict,” but rather on making Israel relevant.
A generational shift is taking place among Israel’s supporters in the US, and is changing the way people look at Israel, Aharoni says.
“Jewish kids are connected to a different kind of Israel. A cool Israel, an Israel of opportunity. They have a relationship with Israel different from their grandparents – not victimhood and survivability. The conversation needs to be in a different context, of a place where they can express and fulfill themselves, can start a business, can have a good time.” Without mentioning any names, Aharoni – a seasoned diplomat – discounts arguments by those like Peter Beinart and J Street, who say that young American Jews are turned off by Israel because of its right-wing political tilt.
“Those who think that what will create the attraction to Israel is a different political view on the conflict are dead wrong,” he says. “It is not about Right or Left, the very topic is a turnoff. We have to broaden the argument, and make Israel something relevant to them.”
Constantly talking about the conflict – the Palestinians, Iranians, Syrians and Egyptians – is counterproductive, he says. “Let’s celebrate what we have, the assets what we have, not what we don’t have.” The vast majority of the public, he continues, reacts to the constant debate about the conflict with fatigue, and that leads to “moral equivalence and apathy.”
“Just by the way we constantly talk about what is bad with the other side, not what is good about us, we allowed the other side to brand Israel as a ruthless occupier and aggressor, and played into their hands by insisting on continuing this debate. Rather than saying ‘stop the debate,’ [we need to] begin a conversation about what we bring to the table as a country.
We have the goods, and when you discuss the goods publicly, you see the results immediately,” he says.
In other words, don’t allow the other side to define Israel as being only about Mideast strife. “No country, movement or city wishes to be defined only by its problems,” he says. “By constantly arguing with the world, trying to win a debate, we were playing into he hands of our adversaries, allowing them to define who we are. We were defined as country without mercy and compassion making no contribution to the world, while the opposite is the truth.”
Aharoni, who studied marketing and has been involved in Foreign Ministry efforts over the years to “rebrand Israel,” said that the first rule in marketing is that if you don’t take the proactive approach and define your identity to the world, the competition will do it for you.
By sabotaging Israeli speakers, holding events such as Apartheid Week and leading divestment campaigns, Israel’s opponents are trying to define Israel for the public.
“Speaking only about the situation allows the other side to define you. It reinforces the context: tension, danger and strife, and you are alienating those in the middle,” Aharoni says.
And the middle is both immense and the key.
Aharoni says that research conducted in the US regarding where Americans stand in terms of their relationship with Israel found that there were three distinct groups.
“Israel’s support base is about 20 percent of the American people.
They are with us, no matter what we do: we go to war, make peace, they care about us,” Aharoni says, adding that there are many Jews among this group, but also many non-Jews as well.
On the other end of the spectrum, he says, are what he terms the “unreachables,” some 8% of the American people who “disagree with us, no matter what we do. We went to Oslo, and that was not good enough. Of course when we went into Gaza that was not good.”
According to Aharoni, these people will not like whatever Israel does. “We are on the wrong side of their narrative,” he says. “We call them the ‘unreachables’ because there is nothing we can do or say to convince them otherwise.”
And in the middle, situated between those who love Israel and those who hate it, is the vast middle – 72% of the American people.
“We call this group ‘at-risk.’ What is the risk? The risk is not that they will join the 8%, the unreachables; the risk is that they will be alienated from the 20%.”
Aharoni says research shows that the same themes, messages and arguments that are music to the ears of the 20%, fall flat on those in the middle, and are actually alienating them. “Not because they are against Israel,” he stresses, “but because they are different people, they care about different things.” On campus, he says, the 8% – the unreachables – are very vocal and high-profile.
“What do we do as a community on campus?” he asks. “We do the human thing, the natural thing.
Instinctively when agitated, we respond to the source of the agitation.
As a result, we spend a lot of energy trying to deal with the Noam Chomskys of the world and the like. I say it is a huge waste of energy. Don’t waste your energy on the unreachables. There is nothing you can do to change their minds.”
Instead of focusing on and responding to the 8%, Israel needs to concentrate on the middle and “find a way to be relevant to them, and the key word is relevant. If you are not relevant, forget about it.”
And where does this relevance come from? Not from harping endlessly on the conflict, but of targeting areas that are important in the eyes of the students. This means bringing in niche speakers who can talk in a controlled environment – not necessarily in large, campus-wide events – about Israel in the arts, Israel in the sciences, Israel in business, Israel in hi-tech.
Explaining this paradigm, Aharoni says the consulate has “targeted MBA programs.” The idea, he explains, is to “get them to feature Israel as part of their curriculum, get them to go to Israel as part of their curriculum. We want to trigger their professional curiosity regarding Israel.”
“While most Americans, particularly American Jews, are highly supportive of Israeli polices, many of them find it difficult to relate to Israel’s persona. One of our researchers summed it up: Americans support your policies overwhelmingly, but are not interested in having a beer with you after work,” he says.
If you want students to connect to Israel, he explains, you have to talk to them about things they are interested in, and not all – or even most – American students are interested in Mideast geopolitics.
“They care about human rights and the environment,” he says.
“They care about the good life, lifestyle and leisure, music, fashion, food product design: these are the things we need to celebrate.
“We’ve got the goods, not the other side. But we are not selling it.
“And I say stop defending, and start selling.”