What 9/11 taught us about the emotional connection to Israel - comment

The impact of 9/11 on Israel’s positioning is mixed; it heightened the level of anxiety associated with the Middle East, and Israel coupled with it.

 THE TWIN Towers burn (photo credit: Brad Rickerby/File/Reuters)
THE TWIN Towers burn
(photo credit: Brad Rickerby/File/Reuters)

The morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was supposed to be just another day at the Consulate General of Israel in Manhattan.

I assumed my position as Israel’s consul for media and public affairs in New York, the country’s largest media relations apparatus, just 10 weeks earlier. Transportation minister Ephraim Sneh was scheduled to address the leadership of the Anti-Defamation League at 8 a.m. and I had to attend the daily conference call with the Foreign Service in Jerusalem at 9 a.m. Those were fierce days of the Second Intifada, and the Foreign Ministry viewed New York as the world’s most important media capital, and rightly so. At 8:46 a.m., just as I was walking to my office near the UN, the hijackers aboard American Airlines Flight 11 crashed the plane into floors 93-99 of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. At 9:03 a.m., just as I sat at my desk and tuned in to the weekly call, I watched live on CNN how the hijackers crashed United Airlines Flight 175 into the WTC’s South Tower.

It was clear to us all at the consulate that this was an event of biblical proportions.

9/11: An event of biblical proportions

In the months prior to 9/11, and per the recommendation of consul-general Alon Pinkas and myself, Israel retained the services of New York’s public relations magnate, the late Howard Rubenstein. Rubenstein was one of the smartest people I have ever met. But the fact that we had to pay his firm a monthly retainer was not viewed favorably by the people in charge of the budget.

By 11 a.m., when we were instructed to leave the building, the man in charge of the budget stormed into the consul general’s office and declared: “That’s it. We won. No need to pay Rubenstein anymore.” And as if Rubenstein heard him, he was on the phone looking for Pinkas: “Keep quiet,” Rubenstein said. “This is not your event. Stay out of it.” It was very smart advice. Too bad few Israeli officials listened to Rubenstein.

The twin towers after being hit, 9/11 (credit: SEAN ADAIR/ REUTERS)The twin towers after being hit, 9/11 (credit: SEAN ADAIR/ REUTERS)

In the days and weeks that followed, I thought about that moment. It crystallized the intuitive reaction of Israelis to the worst terrorist attack within the continental United States: “Now the world understands what we must deal with on a regular basis.” That was the prevailing (self-centered) sentiment in Israel.

This sentiment triggered my curiosity: Was 9/11 indeed a game-changer in terms of the positioning of Israel in the US and beyond?

Through a series of studies conducted by the Brand Israel Group, a team of experts that volunteered to provide insight to Israel’s diplomats in the US, we discovered that the situation is more complicated than we thought: Sadly, Israel was better known than liked.

Americans could tell the difference between Israel and its neighbors. They felt they knew enough about the country (which also meant they were not curious), they did not hold Israel in high regard and, the worst part, they did not think Israel was relevant to their lives. This study was conducted in late 2002 and early 2003.

In other words, Israel was perceived by Americans post-9/11 as a “distant,” “unfriendly” and “unattractive” entity.

Yet, when asked about the “conflict,” their support for Israel was decisive. This was consistent with other surveys conducted from 1967 until the present day.

These findings raised a core question: What better predicts people’s behavior? Their political stand regarding the conflict or the quality of their emotional tie to Israel?

Further studies conducted in the US clarified the situation: Americans can support Israel politically, but can also dislike Israel’s “persona” at the same time. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman was right.

Since the early days of Zionism, our founders and well-wishers believed, wholeheartedly, in the power of “historical facts,” “legal arguments” and the “clinical approach” to public relations. They were litigating on our behalf. Many of them still do. So, it was only natural for post-9/11 Israel to assume that if Americans do support Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, then all is well.

Wrong. This was the main failure of Israel’s “advocacy doctrine,” popularly known as “hasbara.” People can support and dislike Israel at the same time.

The main predictor of people’s behavior is their emotional landscape. Not what they “think” but rather what they “feel.” There was an acute need to “humanize” Israel in the eyes of Americans post 9/11. Israel needed Americans to relate to the country not just as a political entity (that seems to be constantly in trouble) but also as a community that is relevant to their lives and represents an opportunity.

Indeed, despite Israel’s best efforts to “explain” its positions on the conflict, the country was still severely underperforming in the areas that mattered. In 2003, fewer than 750,000 tourists traveled to Israel (many of them former Israelis) and the number of foreign students studying in Israel was statistically insignificant. Post 9/11, most American Jews had no desire to visit Israel, let alone investing their hard-earned dollars in the country’s industries. Between 2003-2016, massive global studies conducted by consultancy group BAV (Brand Asset Valuator) revealed that despite Israel’s own self-perception as “like America,” Americans certainly do not think Israel is like them.

The events of 9/11 triggered a data-driven process that revealed the most important diplomatic truth: it is important to be right, but it is more important to be attractive.

During the years post 9/11, through its various agencies (such as the Tourism Ministry, the Export Institute and the Foreign Service) Israel started highlighting its attractive dimensions. The change in the country’s international ranking was immediate.

This was done by inviting world-class influencers from all walks of life, promoting local events globally, engaging in niche marketing efforts, launching programs that broadened the scope through which the country is perceived – indeed, good things started to happen. In 2020, incoming tourism was at the 5 million-person mark. Israel can triple that. Direct foreign investment reached the $24 billion mark in 2021, the highest ever. Israel can triple that as well. And to that, we should add the tremendous “Taglit [Birthright] factor,” the No.1 emotional agent Israel possesses.

The impact of 9/11 on Israel’s positioning is mixed; it heightened the level of anxiety associated with the Middle East, and Israel coupled with it.

Israel still needs to work harder for every tourist, investor, or foreign student. But better late than never.

The writer was Israel’s longest-serving consul general in New York (2010-2016), consul for media and public affairs in New York (2001-2005) and the founder of the Brand Israel Program.