Israel’s public diplomacy guru

Sitting down with PR expert Ran Bar-Yoshafa.

Mince kebabs served with eggplant and tehina; (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Mince kebabs served with eggplant and tehina;
Ran Bar-Yoshafat’s dream is to create the Jewish superhero. The 31-year-old is locally known as Ran the Explainer, an Israeli-PR guru, who on a six-month tour of the US battled anti-Israel sentiment in churches and schools for the pro-Israel group StandWithUs.
He’s a past champion of mixed martial arts, served in an elite combat unit and is now vice president of a Jerusalem-based investigative institute, Kohelet Policy Forum. He is also a project manager for the Israeli Jewish Congress, an organization that works to strengthen the Jewish character of Israel and create connections between the Diaspora and Israel. If that weren’t enough, he’s a lawyer with an MA in business management and a second MA in history.
He recently published I Flew to Talk About Israel (Hebrew), on his experiences talking about his home country to international audiences.
GOAL: To learn how we can improve Israel’s public diplomacy in the world
MEANS: Estate 2009 wine by Tishbi Winery, and a gourmet meal at Jerusalem’s Papagaio restaurant
How did you get into the area of public diplomacy?
It all started during my military service. I was a combat soldier and commander in Maglan [an elite combat unit], caught terrorists and, from my point of view, was doing the most ethical job: protecting Israeli citizens, whether Jewish or Arab, from terrorism. Once I was discharged and went for a trip overseas, I saw that I’m looked at as one of the bad guys.
The general perception [in the world] is that Israel is a terrorist entity. When I heard these accusations, it was clear to me that there was no connection at all between [the accusers] and the reality [of Israel].
So far you’ve described the experience many Israelis have. What was different about yours?
I met with people overseas and realized that there’s a completely warped view of what happens here in Israel. I went to the Foreign Ministry with this, but it wasn’t a first priority [for them]. They were creating a project called Brand Israel, which tells the world about all the good things Israel does, but it didn’t focus on anti-Israel propaganda.
So where’s the problem?
It doesn’t often help when someone says to you, “You’re doing ethnic cleansing,” and you say, “Wait, but we’ve invented cherry tomatoes!” That’s how it started. I’ve frequently flown overseas on behalf of various organizations to do PR for Israel. The book I recently published describes a six-month, intensive mission in the USA. I was sent through the StandWithUs organization.
Do you ever get tired of speaking on the same subject?
It’s as though it burns inside of me. On Saturdays I’d go talk in synagogues, on Sundays in churches, and during the rest of the week, in high schools and colleges. In those six months, I had only one day off. It was the second festive day of Passover; it fell on Easter, so there really wasn’t anyone available to talk to.
Pretty intense!
Yes, very. And I was also alone throughout that whole experience, which wasn’t always the most pleasant. All in all, the American public supports Israel, but in some areas they’re virulently anti-Israel.
What parts of the US did you travel?
Primarily the Pacific Northwest, from Alaska to California. I was in Seattle, Washington, a lot, Portland, Oregon, and northern California.
Any reason why there especially? Greater concentrations of Israel-haters?
A study was once conducted that showed the radical Left developed in Berkeley, in northern California. Also, in those areas there are small and fragmented Jewish communities. You’ve got to understand that the true majority of Americans support us, for theological or national reasons and so on. On the other hand, there are specific cells that are extremely anti-Israel, and their actions against Israel are irrational and illogical.
Can you give an example of “irrational and illogical”?
I once met a Seattle student holding a sign, “Jewish Lesbians for Hamas.” So get this: to be Jewish in Gaza under Hamas rule is out of the question for her, out of the question because they’d kill her, since being gay equals death according to Hamas. Just for her haircut and clothing Hamas would execute her. It’s not really pro-Hamas activity but, rather, anti-Israel activity.
How do you differentiate between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Israel activity?
Natan Sharansky wrote a formative article on the “three Ds,” or how to assess when the argument you’re facing is not legitimate. The first D is “delegitimization,” which is the academic and pleasant way to say: “You’ve got no right to exist,” which incidentally is not said of North Korea or Saudi Arabia and not even of Syria, a basically fictitious entity comprised of four minorities. By contrast, fingers are pointed at Israel, and the accompanying statement is: “You have no right to exist, because we don’t agree with your policies.” Crazy.
The second D is “double standard.” For example: When the IDF’s activities are criticized it’s called a “terrorist organization,” but by contrast, Hamas is called a “charitable organization.”
And the third D is “demonization.” These fabricated claims have no anchor in reality. The first time I arrived in Seattle, I received a flyer explaining that Israelis methodically rape the Arab population in order to frighten it.
That’s pretty miserable.
When I saw that flyer, I thought that it’s not possible anyone would believe its content, that it’s so removed from reality. Very quickly I realized that these brochures are often the only information people get about Israel, which shapes what they think about us.
I’ve seen this firsthand, when I asked people, “What do you think about Hamas?” and the answers I received were, “There are some extremists there, but for the most part they’re okay.” By contrast, you get “Israel’s a terrorist state.”
What do you think the reasons are for this?
There are several. I visited a classically anti-Semitic church with a theological problem: that Israel exists.
So they distribute large numbers of brochures on campuses – unfortunately, assisted by Israelis. But the vast majority is ignorance.
For the most part, Israel has some pretty good attributes. It sounds like it should be simple to cope with this situation.
The problem is that the only voice being heard there is anti-Israel. They are a minority, but they have no counterpoint from the other side. Sadly, this area is a free-for-all because Jewish students aren’t always so well connected with their Jewish identity either, leaving the anti-Israel voice primarily heard. And you know what they say: Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes truth. Where is the problem for Israel public diplomacy? The main problem is in feeding information from our side in real time. In our current world, the side that speaks first is the one that determines the discourse’s narrative. So far, Israel always reacts rather than initiates.
How about an example?
A horrific image was publicized described as an Israeli soldier threatening a Palestinian girl with his weapon. Every Israeli soldier who saw it knew immediately that this wasn’t an Israeli, that the rifle was a Kalashnikov, which the IDF doesn’t use. Additionally, the soldier’s jacket is not the IDF uniform, and there were a bunch of other indicators that were highly suspect. The thing is that someone looking at that image and who isn’t Israeli can’t know the difference, and we can’t expect the average American to differentiate between a Kalashnikov and an M16. A long time passed before someone found the original photo, and it was proven as not having been taken in Israel but apparently in Bahrain. From the PR perspective, though, it made no difference anymore. The narrative was set and the damage done. That image was engraved in people’s minds.
It’s very sad how easily the public can be manipulated.
Sometimes these lies are so blatant that they play out badly for the other side. In one high school I visited, I was in a discussion against a Palestinian called Amin. Partway through he says, ‘It’s really hard for me to be here with someone who murdered my family when I was a child.” I asked him if he was referring to me as a representative of Israel or a representative of the IDF. His answer was, “I remember you from when I was a child. You came and murdered my family.” All the kids there looked at him, and then at me as though I were some kind of monster, a murderer. I just answered very simply, “Amin, you’re about 50, and I’m 28, so I wasn’t alive yet when you were a child.” The high school kids understood instantly that they’re dealing with a liar. He lost his credibility in one instant. On some other occasion, he was in another standoff with me, and again his claims came crashing down. He constantly spoke about the “strong Israel lobby.” At some point when he got really angry, he blurted out that “the Jewish lobby controls the media.” So I answered, “Thanks for showing us your cards. You’re nothing more than an anti-Semite.”
What do you answer to claims of “Your grandfather expelled mine from the village”?
There’s a failure of logic here, because mine was busy dealing with the Holocaust in Europe. It must be someone else’s grandfather.
And what about “You oppress Israeli Arabs and negate their rights”?
Here’s a photo of me with High Court Justice Salim Joubran handing me my certification as a lawyer. By the way, he sent a Jewish-Israeli president to jail.
What about “Israel prevents Gazan children from getting water”?
First of all, Gaza also shares a border with Egypt. Why don’t you ask the Egyptians the same question? Second, check the Joint Water Committee Report which shows Israel gives 140 percent more water to them than what was agreed in the Oslo Accords.
You’re not bad at this. Here’s my last attack: ‘But water in Gaza is expensive!’
Whoever’s selling water to Gazan citizens at exorbitant prices is the same group that controls Gaza: Hamas. Direct your question to them.
What’s the most important principle in public diplomacy? Familiarizing yourself really well with your audience in advance, before you speak. Once someone was sent to an Evangelical church to do PR for Israel, and she claimed to support two states. For them, that’s a theological contradiction. She insulted their religion.
In your view, how should the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement be handled?
With a whole lot less hysteria.
Which means?
There’s a store in New York with maybe 1,000 clients maximum, and BDS is threatening to boycott it because it sells Sabra brand hummus. In the end, their boycott collapsed. But the reaction from all the Jewish organizations, and Israel itself, made a lot of noise over it.
Up until then, it was a tiny and unfamiliar bubble, but because of us, it got prime time and even made it to John Stewart’s The Daily Show. As a result, many others tried to copy the boycott.
BDS is not an organization but a movement, and we’re empowering it even when it fails. It needs to be handled in a proportionate manner.
Who are the toughest people to face in arguments?
Israelis who talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as though from firsthand experience, but it’s actually not. Although, in truth, it’s not too easy for them to face me, and some of them really touched me at the personal level.
After one of the operations in Judea and Samaria that I was part of as a soldier, the Breaking the Silence organization publicized testimonies about Maglan, my unit. I read them and couldn’t believe it. We weren’t even in that area at that particular time, and we certainly don’t operate according to the methods described. I checked it in depth, because it just wasn’t possible that these events had occurred as described.
I called Breaking the Silence to point out their error, and the answer they gave was “We authenticated this with two Arab sources.”
Share an amusing moment.
I often say that Israel is not perfect, just as no one is perfect.
Even my mother, the greatest, whom I love dearly, and who really doesn’t know how to cook…
Wonderful son that you are…
I tell her, “Ima, I talked about you in my meetings. You’ve contributed greatly to Israeli PR.” 
This text was translated from Hebrew; it has been edited for content and clarity.