Justin Bieber and Israel’s missed opportunity

The teen mega-idol’s visit to this country could have been a major PR victory.

Justin Bieber fan at concert pink 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Justin Bieber fan at concert pink 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
Justin Bieber, the hottest pop music sensation on the planet, just spent a week in Israel. It could have been a public diplomacy bonanza for the Jewish nation-state. This was a no-brainer.
The mega teen idol commands a bigger following on Twitter alone (six million followers) than Fox News commands for its top-rated prime time shows. Add to that the hundreds of millions of people, perhaps far more, whom Bieber reaches through the Web, print, television, live performances, online downloads and discs, licensing and merchandising sales. And he just spent seven days in Israel.
It was not the usual “ in and out” visit made by most visiting performers. Bieber prayed at the Western Wall and worshiped at Christian Holy sites in Jerusalem, Tiberias and the Galilee. Bieber tweeted his fans that he “wanted the chance to walk where Jesus walked in Israel.”
He stayed so long that he had time to go bowling at a mall in Jerusalem three days after his concert in Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park, where he performed for more than 22,000 ecstatic fans. My teenage daughter showed me Bieber’s Twitter account, where he described the experience as “AMAZING FANS, AMAZING CONCERT, AMAZING PLACE.”
Despite the perfect setup for a major Israeli public diplomacy victory, official Israel did not reach out to the teen icon. And to be frank, from an international media standpoint, Israel needs Bieber more than Bieber needs Israel. According to news reports, a last-minute approach by the teen idol to the Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu failed to generate a meeting, despite sincere and determined efforts by the prime minister’s advisers to make it happen.
Some news reports indicated that the singer’s team opposed the political overtones of the prime minister’s request that children from the South who suffered incessant Hamas rocket attacks should also take part in the meeting. Curiously Bieber’s manager publicly denied requesting a meeting, while Bieber tweeted his fans online that “I want to see this country and all the places I’ve dreamed of and whether it’s the paps [paparazzi] or being pulled into politics it’s been frustrating.”
While the incident’s details are less important, this episode raises a larger strategic public diplomacy issue.
Israel only dealt with the Bieber visit at the last minute.
In the best case, it would seem that a month or so before Bieber’s arrival, in view of his international super profile, his positive predisposition toward Israel via his Christian faith, and his Jewishly identified team – they and Bieber reportedly say Shema Yisrael backstage before every concert – the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry, the Culture and Sport Ministry and the Tourism Ministry might have might have met to determine the most effective strategy to create a PR win-win for Israel and its guest.
In this case, a strategic opportunity was lost.
It’s not hard to imagine seeing the pop superstar on every major TV news network in the world – including Al Jazeera – from Israel: visiting, playing and laughing with its “rainbow coalition” of children, Jews of all ethnic backgrounds, Druse, and Muslim and Christian Arabs. This would reflect Israel’s true character as the free, democratic and pluralistic nation-state of the Jewish people – and on the eve of Pessah, to boot.
A senior government minister could easily have taken Bieber to visit one of the country’s world-renowned children’s hospitals, an immigrant absorption center, a school – even one for the performing arts, where he may well have agreed to give a master class.
THE CONTEXT of the visit is significant. In the past year, some major international artists have joined the ongoing cultural assault against Israel. Acts like Elvis Costello, Pink Floyd and Carlos Santana, to name a few, have submitted to pressure by the Palestinian Authority and its Western supporters and boycotted the country.
It was no small achievement that Bieber withstood that pressure. Aside from his own firm Christian faith, the strong Jewish identity of his manager, Scooter Braun, and his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, whom Bieber honored at the concert, there were additional elements for Israel to consider. His Jewishly identified lead guitarist Dan Kantor picked out “Hatikva” on his electric guitar to kick off the April 14 show.
An official and public embrace of Bieber, his band and his entourage would only have enhanced the so-called “third party validation” of Israel, which would likely have radiated across the international music scene. One cannot overestimate the force multiplier effect of one of the world’s most popular song-and-dance men since Elvis Presley speaking well of the nation-state of the Jewish people in the media, which today quotes Bieber even more frequently than it misquotes Israeli leaders and misreports Israel’s story.
The resulting “echo effect” would have helped counter the poisonous and grotesque Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel that has gripped Europe and even some circles in Hollywood.
Bieber’s overall experience ended up rebounding from a negative to a positive one, as he noted in his post-concert exuberance. However, it might better serve Israel’s overall public diplomacy interests if government leaders were to reach out to high-profile visitors, and especially mega-stars like Bieber, well in advance of their planned visits to increase the prospects of Israel’s receiving the positive, accurate and critically important exposure it desperately deserves.
The writer is secretary-general-designate of the World Jewish Congress.