Wednesday, July 21, 2021

By Daled Amos

After Israel's miraculous victory in the Six-Day War -- has Israel ever not had a problem with its image?

Israel's image problem got so bad that in April 2007, Newsweek described the quandary the Jewish State found itself in as Girls: Israel's racy new PR strategy:

The Israeli consular official based in New York approached Maxim six months ago. His proposal: the government and other pro-Israeli groups would fly a camera crew across the Atlantic in an effort to remake the Jewish state's public image. Israel's reputation had suffered after last summer's war with Lebanon; in a recent BBC poll taken in 27 countries, 56 percent of respondents considered Israel a "negative influence" in the world, higher than both Iran and the United States. But Israel's real PR problem, according to [the Israeli official], is that Americans—particularly men aged 18 to 35—either associate the country with war or holy relics, or don't think of it at all. "We have to find the right hook," he says. "And what's relevant to men under 35? Good-looking women." [emphasis added]

Newsweek goes on to quote Benny Elon, a former tourism minister and then a settler leader, who described Israel's marketing strength as being "the only state where you can take the Bible as your tourism guide." Based on that, Elon was open to a recommendation by the consulting firm Ernst & Young to target American evangelical Christian tourists, though focusing on attracting Christian tourists could alienate secular liberals.

Which brings us to 2008, and a new approach.

That was the year that Nefesh B'Nefesh's hosted an International Jewish Bloggers Convention. Zavi Apfelbaum, Director of Brand Management of the Foreign Ministry was a featured speaker and described the problem of Israel's negative image. She illustrated the issue with the results of focus groups where small groups of Americans were asked to imagine themselves invited to different homes, each one inhabited by people from a different country, and to describe what they expected to see and experience at each home.

The houses were described as warm, welcoming and colorful, filled with good food, talk and laughter.

But not Israel.

As opposed to all the other homes, the Israeli home was dominated with cement and did not have a grass lawn. The man of the house answers the door and the woman of the home is not even seen. One participant said that it would be uncomfortable to enter, because the home would be 'Orthodox' and the people living there would probably not even want guests. 

These are the impressions people had, from Apfelbaum's presentation:

Hat tip: Mystical Paths

Here were intelligent Americans, people who tended to support Israel -- and yet they had no clue as to what Israel and Israelis were really like. Americans supported Israel, but not because they actually understood or could really identify with her.

Apfelbaum described the solution to the problem as "Nation Branding" or "Country Positioning," which would be a departure from the traditional Hasbarah approach, which assumed that Israel's image problem was due to a lack of knowledge, and that the goal was to gain political support.

As described earlier that year by Ido Aharoni, founder of the ministry’s Brand Israel concept, the problem was that
Israel is viewed solely through the narrow prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict…Israel’s personality is 90 per cent dominated by conflict-related images and some religious connotations. Those of us who know the brand intimately are disturbed by the divergence of brand and the perception. [emphasis added]

The new approach would take into account that

aspects of Israel are worthy of promotion, including its culture and arts; its accomplishments on environmental matters such as water desalination, solar energy and clean technology; its high-tech successes and achievements in higher education; and its involvement in international aid, he added.
This was not an entirely new approach to Israel advocacy. An article in The Forward from 2005 describes the competition between the old approach -- presenting Israel's side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- and the new approach:
The new approach to Israeli image control first began to take on institutional form about four years ago with the founding of Israel21c, a small California-based group that has worked with public relations experts to place news stories about Israel that do not focus on the conflict with the Palestinians. The organization has a Web site where it posts articles about, among other things, medical and technological advances in Israeli laboratories.

...The battle of old approach versus new has been crystallized in the competition between Israeli21c and The Israel Project, another American group formed at about the same time. The Israel Project has followed the more traditional path of presenting Israel’s side of the conflict with the Palestinians. Among other things, The Israel Project has paid to air ads in influential markets touting Israel’s commitment to peace and democracy.

Larry Weinberg, executive vice president of Israel 21c, called The Israel Project’s work “crisis management” and said that such efforts frequently end up reinforcing Israel’s image as a conflict-ridden place. [emphasis added]

Comparing the goals then with the way Israel is perceived today, it would seem that the new approach has been a success: Israel today is in fact identified with hi-tech and international aid.

The question is: has this new approach actually helped Israel's image?

According to a 2017 article from JTA, via Haaretz -- not so much, claiming that, The more Americans learn about Israel, the less they like it, study suggests. Those studies are by the Brand Israel Group, which was launched by Ido Aharoni in 2002. In addition to focus groups in 2005, it also commissioned surveys in 2010 and 2016. 

Those surveys found that across every demographic group except college students, knowledge of Israel increased: while 23% of Americans claimed they knew a fair amount about Israel in 2010, in 2016 that number had increased to 37%.

And at first glance, that sounds encouraging:

Israel’s touting of its tech industry, warm climate and Mediterranean food may have worked a bit on Americans, who view Israel as innovative (78 percent) and cool (63 percent).

Israel's image, however, did not change in the process:

But around three-quarters of Americans still see Israel as dominated by conflict. And though only 10 percent of Israeli Jews are Haredi Orthodox, 73 percent of Americans view Israel as ultra-religious. [emphasis added]

And when it comes to viewing Israel favorably, things are not getting any better:

The groups with relatively high levels of favorability toward Israel, according to the study, included men, Republicans and older Americans. The groups that like Israel less are the mirror image: women, Democrats and millennials, along with African-Americans and Latinos. And those population groups are all growing.

A majority of all of these groups still sees Israel favorably, but the numbers are falling. Favorability among Democrats dropped 13 points, from 73 percent to 60 percent. Among women, it dropped from 74 percent to 57 percent.

Among African-Americans and Latinos, favorability toward Israel fell 20 points each, from about three-quarters each to just over half. Fewer than half of African Americans and Latinos believe “Israel shares my values.”

That was in 2017.
And we all know that 4 years later, things have only gotten worse.

But wait.

How can Americans say they know more about Israel if they still think that Israel consists of fundamentalist, religious fanatics?

The JTA article doesn't address this, but the answer may be that when people claim they are more knowledgeable about Israel, they are in fact confusing their knowledge of Israel with the added exposure they get to Israel on social media.

And that is something that the marketing gurus and branding experts might not have anticipated 16 years ago.

A 2005 article on the Israel21c website quotes a marketing CEO who explained that the fact that Americans see Israel as a war-torn country as opposed to a hi-tech wonder 

doesn’t mean Americans are anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian. They just find Israel to be totally irrelevant to their lives, and they are tuning out, and that is particularly true for 18- to 34-year-old males, the most significant target in such studies. [emphasis added]

And according to Aharoni, part of that tuning out is because of “media fatigue,” and that the longer the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes on, the less interested Americans become and the more they blame both sides for not ending the violence.

Larry Weinberg, executive vice president of ISRAEL21c chimes in that, "When it comes to Israel, 98 percent of what the media focuses on is the war with the Palestinians and 98 percent of pro-Israel advocacy is going to waste because it’s all about the crisis.” --

Proving that Israel is right and the Palestinians are wrong may be emotionally satisfying for advocates, said the former New York public relations expert, but not necessarily effective in changing people's way of thinking about Israel.

“We’re not saying there should be no more discussion of political policy,” he said, “only that we have to change the mix. Let’s not spend almost all of our time on it. We need a strategy that includes more positive imaging.”

The thing is, people are not tuning out to news about Israel.
There does not appear to be media fatigue or less interest.
And defending Israel on social media is not as emotionally satisfying as Weinberg makes it out to be.
In fact, it takes a toll.

This month, a poll came out finding that 25% of American Jews consider Israel to be an Apartheid state and 22% thought Israel was guilty of genocide. Despite questions on the objectivity of the poll, the results point to a major failure in the Jewish leadership in the US.

And a failure by Israel.

David Horovitz writes in the Times of Israel:

A multitude of factors, some of them far beyond Israel’s control, have led to poll findings such as these. But self-evidently, Israel would help its standing if it explained itself more effectively.

Yet Israel has a long history of failure in doing this.
According to Horovitz, just this past May, during Operation Guardian of the Walls:

There was no experienced English-language spokesperson to regularly present Israel’s point of view to the media

o  Instead, the job of explaining the war was left to the IDF and to its Spokesperson’s Unit

o  But instead of presenting the context of the war for an international audience, the IDF’s prime focus was on  Hamas and Gaza’s other terror groups, to impress upon them the IDF’s strength and capabilities.

o  Among the IDF's "diplomatic" failures were its attempts to deceive world media -- and Hamas -- with false information about a ground offensive and its inability to quickly produce compelling evidence to the public of why it was necessary to destroy a Gaza high-rise that it claimed was a Hamas military asset where the Associated Press had its offices.

o  In the US, Israel’s demanding diplomatic posts of ambassador to the US and ambassador to the UN were filled by one man, Gilad Erdan, who, according to Horovitz "avoided almost all of an avalanche of interview requests, apparently because he was concerned that his English, though serviceable, is not entirely up to the task." 

o  The office of consul general in New York was unfilled at the time 

o  Major international diplomatic posts, including the ambassadors to Canada, France and Australia, were vacant.

o  Prime Minister Bennet has no English-language spokesperson yet. 

o  Erdan has stepped down as ambassador to the United States but has not been replaced

Let the experts argue about the best approach to improving Israel's image.

But first, Israel must finally address the bread-and-butter need for hasbara, to clearly present its case -- not just to its allies, but to Jews around the world inundated with the overwhelming flood of hate in social media, and threatened by the spike in antisemitic attacks that result from it.


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