MEDIA COMMENT: Ambassadors of goodwill

A theme which has arisen time and again in our column is the harm caused abroad by Israel’s media.

Old City (photo credit: REUTERS)
Old City
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A theme which has arisen time and again in our column is the harm caused abroad by Israel’s media. The Haaretz newspaper is a special case, but it is not alone. All too often the Israeli media provides one-sided, damaging reports about the country. Just two weeks ago we noted that local journalists use the term “apartheid” without justification, thus playing into the hands of the organizers of anti- Israel events such as Israel Apartheid Week. Too often anti-Israel bias in the foreign media is defended with the claim that it is not any worse than the Israeli media. The upshot of all of this is that, especially outside of the United States, Israel is perceived negatively.
The anti-Israel theme is something that we have to deal with, but not something that can be stopped. At times it is nothing more than a new facet of the anti- Semitism which has plagued us for millennia, and that is quite difficult to stop. However, Israel can and should find original ways to create a positive image for itself. Arguably, the best way to counter the negative portrayal of Israel is by creating positive public opinion about Israel.
We could claim that at least one out of every two people visiting Israel for the first time leaves with a very different image than expected. The authors of this article frequently come into contact with non-Jewish foreigners, and the results are invariably the same.
Our guests note that their media feeds them misinformation – and this is a generous description. When they return home they more often than not become ambassadors of goodwill, able to relate their generally positive experiences to friends (barring sad mishaps with the – at times – obnoxious questioning methods of the Border Police). Israel receives over three million tourists a year. With a bit of thought, forward planning, goodwill and willingness to innovate, we can turn most of them into ambassadors of goodwill for our country.
One way of realizing this is analyzing the things that bother us when we go abroad. Communication is a real thorn, with the need to pay outrageous sums to call home. Even worse are the fees extorted for surfing on our smartphones while abroad. These high fees prevent us from using them for GPS communications, additionally, we do not use the free Internet phones, since the fees for surfing are too high.
Let us then consider the average tourist who comes to Israel. Suppose our Tourism Ministry were to offer a tender to our communications companies, requesting the best possible deal for tourists. While still at the airport the tourist, for a modest fee, would be urged to purchase a sim card which would provide a week or two of surfing, free of extra charge, in one of the major languages. From our own smartphone bills we know that this should not come to more than $10 per week, and even this rate is high compared to that of a local smartphone user.
This small fee would provide the tourist with virtually free phone contact with friends and family abroad. Our tourist would use Twitter, Whatsapp or Facebook to describe her or his experience here in real time. One picture is worth a thousand words. Tourists who feel free to involve friends in their adventures here would send pictures and even videos, multiplying the goodwill created by their visit. Pictures of beautiful Israel might just convince our tourist’s circle of friends that a visit here is a good idea, and thus we could also increase the number of visitors from abroad without resorting to often debasing and humiliating advertisements based on half-nude women.
The goodwill does not end here. Let us consider the GPS system. First of all, the tourist who rents a car will not have to pay exorbitant rental fees for the GPS service. The more tourists use GPS the safer they are, and the safer we are. Admittedly, some rental car agencies might be upset by the loss of revenue, but others might be wise and realize that it is precisely such conditions that will help to turn Israel into a competitive tourist destination.
The GPS system has more uses than just navigation.
Suppose our tourists want to visit Acre, and are interested in advance information. Our Tourism Ministry, with not too much expense, could assure that the GPS system provided for tourists, would, when asked, provide a pop-up with a short historical synopsis and information on places our tourist wishes to visit.
Such historical blurbs might also include reminders of the Israeli presence in Hebron, or the suicide bombing which led to the creation of the separation fence, or just the history of Habima Theater. They would give information about the remnants of armored vehicles scattered along the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway.
If carried out wisely, the GPS system could also be used by advertisers, thereby covering costs, as our tourist would at times want to know where the closest restaurant is, or the gas station, or the cinema, concert hall, etc. She or he might want to order a taxi. The taxi driver, knowing that the passenger has use of a smartphone, would be very careful in demanding exorbitant fees.
We have a new government and a new tourism minister, Dr. Uzi Landau. He is also the founder of the highly successful Eretz Nehederet NGO whose goal is described on its website as: “Eretz Nehederet [A Wonderful Land] is a ‘birthright’ program for Israelis, combating the erosion of the Zionist idea by arranging for Israelis to encounter Israel through unique local trips aimed at renewing the feeling of a common destiny and mutual responsibility, and Zionism.”
The funds and resources of the Tourism Ministry are somewhat larger than those of an NGO. Landau has the opportunity to adapt some of these ideas on a large scale, one which could really create change in the perception of Israel abroad. Our tourist would feel wanted and go home with a warm feeling toward a society which welcomes tourists and makes a real effort to assure a pleasant and rewarding stay.
No one else has yet provided such communications services to their tourists, so again, we would prove that we are an innovative society. We would have created some sorely needed goodwill for ourselves at almost zero cost, and circumvented some of the negative effects created by media coverage.
One only wonders why this has not yet been implemented.
The authors are vice chairman and chairman respectively of Israel’s Media Watch.