Fundamentally Freund: Thinking outside the 'hasbara bubble'

We are so consumed by the minutiae of every event and how it is reported or distorted that we often lose sight of the forest for the trees.

michael freund 88 (photo credit: )
michael freund 88
(photo credit: )
Always on the lookout for a chance to talk up Israel while traveling abroad, I decided to utilize a recent appointment with a physical therapist in Manhattan for more than just a stretch of my stubborn hamstring. As this licensed professional politely twisted me into seemingly impossible contortions, perhaps mistaking me for some out-of-costume comic book hero, I ignored the desire to scream and instead asked what his impression was of the Jewish state. "Israel? That's near Gaza or something, isn't it?" he said, applying yet another sideways yank to one of my legs, which quickly began to resemble those obtuse angles we had learned about way back in high-school geometry. "Yes," I practically screeched, while quietly praying that his knowledge of human anatomy surpassed his acquaintance with Middle Eastern geography, "that's correct." "And aren't they fighting against you, or at least they were?" he asked without any sense of irony as he applied a technique to my lower body that I was sure had originated with the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi of the Iraqi insurgency. In between bouts of occasionally gut-wrenching pulls and stretches, I proceeded to give him a brief discourse on the history and intricacies of the Arab-Israeli conflict. How effective it was I cannot say, though thankfully it did appear to distract him somewhat, giving my tormented muscles some much-needed relief. Finally, before parting, he told me that he had always liked Israel and wanted to visit, and truly hoped to make it there someday. AS I hobbled down onto the busy streets of New York, I began to consider the anecdotal evidence that I had just gathered regarding Israel's status in the minds of Americans, and what lessons could be learned about our efforts at hasbara, or public diplomacy. Here was a well-educated non-Jewish professional in media-saturated Manhattan, where hardly a day goes by without various media outlets bashing the Jewish state, and yet he nonetheless felt a basic sense of sympathy and even support for our predicament. And while he would apparently have trouble finding Israel on a map, let alone understanding the intricacies of our military, diplomatic and political challenges, he had heard of our little country and thought of it as a place he would very much like to see. This scene repeated itself - minus the leg stretches of course - in various other conversations that I had with a range of people in the New York metropolitan area. Clearly, there is a lot of general backing out there among the American public for the Jewish state, much more than perhaps many of us suppose. Sure, I know what you think. New York is not America, and it would be a mistake to suggest that it is anything close to being a representative sample. Granted, that may be true. But the assertion that Israel enjoys widespread support in the US received some compelling scientific backing in the results of a survey published last week by the widely-respected Rasmussen Reports. The venerable polling firm asked Americans from all walks of life "to assess America's relations with the key Middle Eastern countries in the news." Whereas only 39 percent said they deem Egypt to be a US ally, and just 23% consider Saudi Arabia to be one, the results regarding Israel were far and away superior. A whopping 70% of Americans said they view Israel as an "ally," versus just 8% who consider her an "enemy." That is a pretty astonishing figure. Indeed, many European countries probably wouldn't score as high on a popularity contest either in Washington or Wichita. THUS, CONTRARY to conventional wisdom, Israel is doing quite well in American public opinion. Even with the regularly-scheduled bombardments directed against its image, support for the Jewish state has proven to be fairly inelastic and durable among wide swathes of the American populace. Obviously, this does not mean that Israel and its supporters can rest on our laurels, kick back and relax. There is still plenty of work to be done in terms of rebranding Israel's image so that it is not constantly associated with war, conflict and turmoil. But it does underline an important point: most of us live in a hasbara bubble, where we are so consumed by the minutiae of each and every event and how it is reported or distorted that we often lose sight of the forest for the trees. And so, when an unflattering article appears in the Boston Globe, or a derogatory piece is published in The Los Angeles Times, many pro-Israel activists plunge into crisis mode, investing countless hours in trying to rebut something that most people probably never even bothered to read. Since they live and breathe Israel, and follow everything that happens here with meticulous care, they often forget that the details actually matter far less to most people. Now don't get me wrong - combating specific instances of media bias is important, and eliciting corrections when newspapers err is an essential part of the struggle for truth. But at the end of the day, what really counts is the "big picture," the themes and narratives that take hold in the public's mind when (and even if) they think about the Jewish state. It is there that Israel and its supporters need to devote more of their time and energy. What is so desperately needed is a comprehensive strategic vision for hasbara, one that clearly articulates a set of objectives for what kind of image Israel can and should project, while spelling out an array of tactics for achieving them. So let's start focusing just a little less on yesterday's Washington Post, and more on how to position Israel and improve her brand name in the future. When it comes to hasbara, we desperately need to start thinking outside the box. But we also need to look beyond the bubble. For it is out there, in the physical therapist's office, the corner grocery and the local pizzeria, that the battle for American public opinion can, and ultimately will, be won.