Not the new kid on the block

The new ‘Masbirim’ campaign is acting like it invented the hasbara wheel.


The debate over whether Masbirim – Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein’s new effort to involve average Israelis in the effort to defend the Jewish state abroad – is too right-wing exposes its inbred flaw and the Achilles’ heel that has hampered most hasbara efforts over the years.

As we’re all acutely aware, there is no consensus on the conundrum we call the peace process. Just as I shudder to imagine left-wing Israelis accosting Americans in the street to lambaste the country’s “apartheid” policies toward the Palestinians, I also cringe when thinking about my corner grocer Yossi explaining to the family behind him in the queue at Disney World why Arabs can’t be trusted and transfer is the only answer.

The concept of Masbirim is to be applauded for adapting the idea first conceived almost a decade ago that for hasbara to succeed, it must look beyond the conflict with the Palestinians.

But the fact that the Masbirim site, pamphlets and training sessions are even delving into the land mine of politics – and encouraging ordinary Israelis to try to talk about subjects with which even seasoned, fluent English-speaking spokesmen get tongue-tied – is not going to help the country’s image, and could do much to further damage it abroad.

The tank verses the stone-thrower

As the Foreign Ministry’s brand management team head Ido Aharoni told the annual Israel Tourism Conference in Tel Aviv last month, when you talk about the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians abroad, it ultimately comes down to the IDF tank confronting a Palestinian youth throwing a stone. Given the fact that there’s no way to articulate Israel’s position within a short TV sound bite time constraint, it’s the image that remains and sticks in the viewers’ minds.

“When we continue to try, it inevitably fails and that’s bad because it leaves the picture of the tank and the child in sight and harms the Israeli brand,” said Aharoni.

Add to the already muddled mix the issue of exactly who are we trying to convince of Israel’s natural goodness and rightful place in the world? There are a small percentage of people for whom Israel will always be the bad guy. You’re never going to persuade an Israel Apartheid Week activist that he has a skewed view of our region, and that he should give us another chance. Alternatively, there are those supporters of Israel (albeit mostly on the Right) for whom the country can do no wrong.

But there’s a vast middle ground of people, in America and in the rest of the world that frankly doesn’t care very much about politics, including the situation in our little corner of the world. Start talking about security fences and checkpoints and kassams, and their eyes will begin to glaze over in apathy.

Thankfully, the Masbirim effort includes facts about the “other” Israel that provide some ammunition that there are people with normal lives here, doing things that civilized people everywhere do.

Discussing classical music not the answer

However, as Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz succinctly satirized in a recent column (“Wrong troops, wrong ammunition,” February 26), the scenario of an Israeli couple verbally accosting British citizens about the classical music concerts that they attend in Israel reveals that there remain some bumpy roads ahead in honing exactly how we’re going to convey the image that we’d like to impart to the rest of the world.

And we do have a load of information to convey – about how Israeli innovations and people are inventing, creating and developing new techniques, products and services every day that are being used around the world to save and improve lives.

David Sable, CEO and vice president of Wunderman, a division of the Young and Rubicam advertising agency, who has conducted extensive branding research for Israel in the US, has reported that Americans “find Israel to be totally irrelevant to their lives.”

As Aharoni pointed out to the tourism conference, Americans see Israel as a grim, war-torn country, not one booming with high-tech and busy outdoor cafes. That’s why a decade ago, people like Aharoni and other top government officials started working on – and are continuing to develop – a rebranding campaign.

Just a bikini-filled vacation site?

It’s been dismissed by both the Left and Right – the former for giving short shrift to the realities on the ground and the suffering of the Palestinians, and the latter for attempting to trivialize the Jewish homeland into a spring break, bikini-filled vacation site.

However, the branding process doesn’t ignore the troubling realities of present-day Israel, it asks the world to know Israelis by the full scope of their society. Likewise those who claim that these efforts attempt to turn the country into a fun, libertine paradise are woefully off target.

Sure, the conflict exists, but so do breakthrough cancer drugs, groundbreaking computer technology – and yes – beautiful beaches and breathtaking models.

Shouldn’t the world see Israel through that broader lens instead of the tunnel vision of only the green of the military and the black of the haredim?

And maybe, isn’t that what we – and that includes the government, the left-wingers and the right-wing corner grocer – should be talking about when the topic of the conversation abroad turns to Israel? The reason for that narrow view of Israel isn’t only due to the media – it’s because the same “we” have a habit – or maybe an obsession – of only talking about the conflict when we discuss Israel with people abroad.

‘Beyond the conflict’ reporting began years ago

The establishment of Masbirim on its own may have some merit, but my beef is that they’re behaving like the first kids on the block, when in fact, efforts have been ongoing for a decade to equip Israelis and supporters of Israel with the non-conflict information required to make the country “relevant” to people around the world.

For example, the organization that I used to work for – ISRAEL21c – has done wonders to take the lens cap off the camera focusing totally on the conflict and to spread the word that Israel is not only a diverse place with people living normal lives, but that it’s a land of innovation for which the world would be a poorer place if it ceased to exist.

Integrating already-existing material into a new endeavor like Masbirim would do wonders to increase its chances of success and its efforts to educate ordinary Israelis about the country they live in.

What would happen if Horovitz’s fictitious Israeli couple ended up discussing their respective family bouts with cancer with the British couple – and it emerged that the British husband had swallowed a miniature camera that provided X-rays of his colon and provided an early detection of cancer that may have saved his life.

If the Israeli couple had been properly briefed to know that the camera was an Israeli invention – developed by Given Imaging in Yokne’am – they may have mentioned that and, in a second, transformed the cold, grim, militaristic Israel into one of the most relevant things in the British couple’s lives.

Will it change their opinion of Israel – provided they even had one? Perhaps. But will it be included in their montage image of Israel the next time they see a TV report in London about police and Palestinians clashing on the Temple Mount? Absolutely.

David-Brinn David Brinn is the deputy managing editor of The Jerusalem Post. Before that he was the editorial director of ISRAEL21c, and was involved in the initial efforts at rebranding Israel.

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

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Engines for social change

Israel has over 26,000 non-profits devoted to helping the underprivileged. What these organizations need now is state support.

The Purim mitzvah of sending mishlo’ah manot (Hebrew for ‘gifts of food’) may be a Jewish child’s first experience of giving, an act that may (but may not) open the giver’s young heart to the plight of the less fortunate. A bar/bat mitzvah hessed (charity) project is another way to open young eyes to needy causes. Children’s awareness of the duty to give and help other people clearly depends on the approach of their parents and teachers.

When the Israeli child reaches high school, a stint of volunteering becomes part of the curriculum and thus becomes a compulsory chore which often has little added value for either the giver or the receiver. However, when 12th graders face the end of their school career, some consider the option of undertaking a year of community work.

“Should I delay my army service and do a year of voluntary service?” asks a girl on a youth chat forum (in Hebrew) on the Internet. “I discovered that I can volunteer at an immigration center, a dog training center, a youth village, a birding center, a boarding school, a youth movement, or in a center that runs activities in nature, and I found lots of other options, too,” she writes.

Israeli youth movements, such as the Scouts, Bnei Akiva and many more, reach out to and encourage high school youth to spend a year volunteering for worthy causes before enlisting in the army.

Another contributor to the chat forum addresses the question of why it is necessary to help others. She believes that some immigrants have difficulty fitting into society and therefore young people should help them through the established youth movements. “We, in the youth movements are the salt of the earth,” writes the teenager. “We are the people who can bring about change. In my opinion, whatever you choose to do, try to think how you can help the most, give, and improve our country.”

Each year, more school leavers in Israel volunteer through a structured framework, such as a youth movement or another non-profit organization, in the hope of bringing about social change.

The volunteering experience may strengthen their feeling of social responsibility and they may become the social entrepreneurs of the future. Alternatively, because it is difficult to have an impact on society, they may well give up. Volunteers need preparation, guidance and support from those with experience in the field so that they can truly make a difference.

The impact of social entrepreneurs

Is it really possible to improve society? Many of Israel’s brightest and most passionate social entrepreneurs believe that they have found a way that can indeed influence change in a specific field, such as feeding the hungry, helping immigrants to find their place in society, or helping youth at risk to find their way back into society, but they need time and money to do this.

The private sector provides role models for successful innovation: Social entrepreneurs develop business plans, create start-up funds, manage budgets, develop professionalism and excellence, market their programs for social change and also evaluate success. The private sector also provides advisors, board members and volunteers. Programs for social change depend on contributions from the private sector, but also sometimes from the public (government) sector as well.

Social entrepreneurs work mostly in the third sector – the non-profit or social sector – by implementing just and creative solutions and pressuring the public and the corporate sectors to act for the good of society.

In Israel, this sector includes more than 26,000 non-profit organizations. It is ostensibly an autonomous economic bloc that does not belong to the private sector or to the public sector, but nevertheless it depends heavily on both for grants, donations and tax breaks. Round table discussions among the government, the corporate chiefs and the third sector promote cooperation, especially on financial issues.

Israel’s government has a vested interest in the survival of non-profit organizations that provide important services, especially for those people with special needs, and therefore supports the third sector to the tune of well over a billion shekels per year.

And yet, if the government becomes the main funder of non-profit organizations, this third sector will no longer constitute an independent entity and it will lose its current role as an engine for change and diversity. Non-profits are already heavily burdened by governmental regulation, bureaucracy and surveillance, to avoid any potential abuse of charitable funding.

Social entrepreneurs who have their own source of wealth have more freedom and potential to improve society by engaging in human rights issues, teenage alcoholism, peace, the environment or whatever they choose, than do those who have to compete with thousands of other non-profits for limited funds to implement a creative solution and prove its effectiveness.

Those who don’t have their own fortune have to hunt for financial backing for their programs. For this reason, in recent years some non-profits have set up their own income-generating businesses in the hope of generating funds that can sustain their program of social change, with no strings attached.

Effi Toledano of Zionut 2000 has helped in the setting up and running of 42 third sector social businesses, giving people with special needs valuable work experience. He admits, though, that most of these businesses are unable to generate sufficient income to sustain the non-profit organization’s effort for social change.

The new “fourth sector” in Israeli society

Now a fourth sector is sprouting in Israel, in the form of “for-benefit” corporations with a social mission. This is venture philanthropy, where stakeholders expect an interest on their financial investment in the social enterprise. However, in my opinion, although every citizen should be involved and help out, it is the government’s responsibility and not that of the private, non-profit, or for-benefit sectors to improve society.

The Declaration of the state’s establishment spelled out the government’s responsibility to “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants… ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex… guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture… [and] safeguard the Holy Places of all religions,” as agreed on May 14, 1948.

The Welfare Ministry is right to fund the third sector, if the third sector can indeed improve society for the government. That is the big question. The business sector can and should help, too, but ultimately the state has to keep the engine running toward equality of social, political, educational, and religious rights for all citizens.

Michele Klein has a doctorate in adolescent psychology and volunteers for several projects for youth at risk in Israel’s third sector, including Wing of Love and Bikes for All.

Alexander Haig was my friend

Through thick and then, Alexander Haig never wavered in his friendship for Israel.

Al Haig, who died Saturday, was a good friend to Israel – through thick and thin, both at the best of times and during difficult times. He never wavered in his friendship for Israel. A very cerebral man, Haig’s support for Israel was not only based on the rationale that the United States and Israel had shared strategic interests; it was also tempered by an admiration for Israel’s courage in the face of daunting odds.

I first got to know him well when I arrived in Washington as Israel’s ambassador in February 1982, when he was president Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state. My first order of business was to request a private talk with him, just the two of us. He immediately consented. A few days after my arrival in Washington, on a Saturday, I was secretly whisked into the State Department building through an underground entrance. For the next two hours he and I, with no one else present, discussed the problems facing Israel and the situation in the Middle East.

When I told him our prime minister, Menachem Begin, was concerned that after having made substantial concessions during the negotiations leading up to the peace agreement with Egypt, he might now be pressured by the White House to make additional concessions inimical to Israel’s interests, Haig responded by saying “not on my watch.” He showed understanding for the problems we faced at the time along the Lebanese border, with the Palestine Liberation Organization militias encamped there launching attacks against northern Israeli villages. When we parted, I knew that Israel had a good friend in Washington and that I had also established a personal friendship with Al Haig.

While there is no truth in the persistent rumor that Haig gave Ariel Sharon – Israel’s defense minister at the time, who visited Washington and discussed Israel’s problems in the north with Haig – the “green light” for an Israeli military operation in Lebanon, we did have his steadfast support throughout the operation until he left the office of secretary of state. When at one point I described the operation to him and told him “Al, we are winning,” he responded “you guys always win.”

To read the full article click here.

Printed courtesy of Ha’aretz

Moshe Arens was a member of Knesset. He served as Minister of Defense three times, and Minister of Foreign Affairs once. He also served as the Israeli ambassador to the US, and was a professor at the Technion University in Haifa.

Israel’s bird watchers

In Israel, even the Knesset has a bird observatory.

You don’t have to be a political quack to realize that the Knesset is unique among parliaments around the globe. It’s not only the politicians in the Jewish state who make it so different. It’s the fact that the House is also home to a bird observatory, which is a delight for ornithologists and nature lovers alike.

Late last month, bird lovers flocked to the Knesset for a day of events marking 30 years of organized bird-watching here, kicked off by the inauguration of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory’s new visitors center.

The Knesset has really taken the local birds under its wing. Touchingly politicians across the political spectrum joined in the discussions and festivities, with barely a nod to the natural pecking order and without ruffling feathers.

A former environment reporter, I have been watching the bird-watchers for about 20 of the last 30 years. They are a rare breed.

I once witnessed the unbridled enthusiasm of perhaps the country’s biggest name in the field, Tel Aviv University’s Dr. Yossi Leshem (a former head of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel) whose eagle eyes spotted a large, slightly menacing raptor sitting atop the stone monument at Gesher Ad Halom near Ashdod. I was missing the symbolism. It was no ordinary bird perched on the Memorial for Fallen Egyptian Soldiers: It was an Egyptian vulture.

A birds-eye view of Israel

Since Israel is located at a natural crossroads, some 500 million migratory birds of more than 500 species get a bird’s-eye view of the land twice a year. Few countries can boast skies simultaneously filled with buzzards, storks and pelicans; wetlands full of egrets, herons and wildfowl; and hillsides that are home to warblers, wheatears and buntings.

Hence, hundreds of foreign visitors a year go on a very special form of pilgrimage – on a wing and a prayer. From Eilat in the South to Gamla in the North, for these avid bird-watchers Israel is a paradise.

Occasionally, I have had a glimpse of what so excites them. Sitting in a camouflaged safari truck in a field in the Hula Valley surrounded by some 8,000 pairs of courting cranes is a thrill you cannot get anywhere else in the world.

For another only-in-Israel experience, take the Vulture Path to a panoramic lookout above the ancient city of Gamla on the Golan Heights where, in the first century, thousands of Jews plunged off the cliffs rather than fall captive to the Romans. Here, bird-watchers can see impressive griffon vultures in what is, sadly, their last remaining stronghold. Leshem notes that due mainly to secondary poisoning, the population of griffon vultures in the country has dropped from thousands to just 60 pairs.

People with more patience – much more – don’t stick together with the other bird-watchers but take the route of acclaimed nature photographer Yossi Eshbol, among others. Eshbol goes to great lengths to shoot birds. Through a telescopic lens, that is. He tells of spending days, even weeks, in a tiny camouflaged tent waiting for the right moment to click the camera.

Several of Eshbol’s remarkable photos are currently on display at the Knesset in an exhibition named Agriculture and Birds – coexistence or conflict?

Elite IDF troops rappel down to save buzzard

Vultures, pelicans, cormorants and a host of other birds fall prey to farmers who do not think of them as feathered friends. Many magnificent creatures have been the victim of secondary poisoning as they eat the carcasses of cows that have been (illegally) placed as bait for wolves and jackals. Some 50 bird species are on the endangered list and other birds, such as the bearded vulture (the bird which inspired then-Shimon Persky crossing the Negev to change his name to Peres), have died out altogether.

Fortunately, there are still some uplifting experiences. A few months ago when a honey buzzard got trapped on the ninth story of a Tel Aviv high-rise, the wardens of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority did not so much call out the cavalry as summon the IDF’s elite 669 search-and-rescue team. Some of them, by chance, had spent the morning touring the Ramat Poleg nature reserve learning about nature protection. They quickly rose to the occasion, or more to the point, rappelled down to save the poor creature.

It’s not just the Knesset that takes bird protection seriously, it seems.

Indeed, Leshem’s work with the IAF on preventing accidents when flocks of birds can bring down a plane is recognized around the world.

Another project with growing support across borders is the use of barn owls as a biological pesticide, safely ridding fields of rodents. Each nesting pair can prey on more than 2,000 rodents a year and apart from the obvious advantage of allowing organic, nonpolluting farming, another benefit is that rodents don’t develop a resistance to owls, as they do with pesticide.

The program and study, pioneered by Kibbutz Sde Eliahu in the Beit She’an Valley, has spread its wings and can now also be found in cities – including the anything-but-rural Tel Aviv – and is being implemented also in the Palestinian autonomous areas and Jordan, showing, as Leshem likes to note, that “birds know no boundaries.”

Turning ammunition crates into nesting boxes

In a nice, new twist, in cooperation with Israel Military Industries, local farmers are now turning old ammunition crates into cozy nesting boxes for owls.

Nowadays, the project has been upgraded to a 24-hour system, using lesser kestrels to do the daytime shift while the barn owls nap.

One expert in the field is the super-modest Dan Alon. Among the feathers in his cap is being acknowledged several years ago by Time magazine as a “Hero of the Planet” for his work in a joint Israeli-Palestinian project to save the lesser kestrel. Even birds of prey can turn into doves of peace.

Over the years I have watched and admired many birds that have flown. There will always be a special place in my heart for the vulture named after MIA Ron Arad whose release I witnessed at Ramat Hanadiv in the mid-1990s.

And following the closed-circuit monitor observing a colony of Jerusalem’s lesser kestrels a few years ago was like watching an avian telenovella.

I have been captivated by courting cranes and nesting storks in the north and proudly followed plucky spur-winged plovers – which think nothing of dive-bombing bird-watchers who get too close to their young. I participated, like thousands of others, in the democratic nationwide elections to choose a national bird in honor of the country’s 60th anniversary. And although my vote did not go to the winner, the hoopoe – which is now the subject of a new Israel Post stamp – I like finding them bobbing their heads up and down in the local park.

Birding might be a fun hobby, but it’s far from a lark. Sifting through owl vomit and poop (for incontrovertible evidence of their diet and pest control skills) can certainly bring a person down to earth.

You can discover the secret lives of many of the country’s birds via the Web site and there’s no limit to what you can find in the skies if you take the time to look.

Liat Collins is the editor of the International Edition of the Jerusalem Post.

Printed with permission from The Jerusalem Post.

Using new media to seek peace

Facebook, YouTube, Twitter – these are the tools that can help us resolve conflict.

“Be the change you want to see in the world” said one great informal educator. Modern technology empowers us to be that change – for peace.

By enabling self-expression and interaction, new media tools are helping our efforts for conflict resolution in the Middle East. Horizontal transfers of knowledge on social networks like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter empower us to build understanding through lateral learning. While teaching tends to be top-down, lateral learning lets us learn from one another. We decide what we learn, as well as where, when and how.

Traditional media no longer dictates our news, we do. Take Facebook for example. Status updates keep us up-to-date with our friends; news feeds tell us what is new and comment walls let us post and receive feedback. Like my status? Give me a thumbs-up or just leave a comment. Through video sharing on YouTube, we produce and distribute video content. On Twitter, we tweet our news in 140 characters or less. With new media, we are the media.

Social networks are empowering us as peacemakers. By making it possible for Israelis and Palestinians to interact, they let us see and humanize the “other”. In a conflict where Israelis and Palestinians are physically separate, new media allows us to see and hear each other beyond the stereotypes and the physical barriers.

In 2007, I created – a social network and platform for peacemakers. The name communicates the goal: Middle East peace, and the method: combining “me” and “peace”- it begins with each of us. Ha’aretz nicknamed it the “Facebook of peace” because it works like Facebook and is based on a shared commitment to Middle East peace. All are welcome to join.

The web platform has become home to thousands of “peacemakers” in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and more than 100 other countries. These peacemakers are communicating through text, photo and video and supporting one another with personal profiles, blogs, real-time chats and more than a thousand active discussions.

Some claim such a peace is virtual. But through, peacemakers meet online and on the ground -overcoming many barriers to meet at the organization’s Peace Cafes, “Peace Talks” and other events. The organization is now offering joint leadership training for young Israelis and Palestinians. Young people are most in touch with networking tools which enable youth (often stereotyped as potential radicalizers) to actively contribute. A new generation of activists is in creation.

Next for is building an online resource center for conflict resolution. Knowledge for communication and conflict resolution exists to support people’s hopes, but information must be organized and shared. Community and knowledge sharing can nurture peacemakers from the bottom up.

True, the Middle East consists of different viewpoints from moderate to extreme. At the core, each of us wants peace. We may seek peace differently, but let us not be indifferent.

We can use technology to reach out and overcome our differences. We can connect, convince and create coalitions. Today with WIFI and smart phones, the Internet is portable and so are our networks. We carry with us the power to effect mass change. Can we utilize this power for peace?

Yes, we can. Social networks are empowering individuals and organizations in significant ways. With this power comes responsibility. While our political leaders fail to forge peace, let us network for peace. Let us not wait for our leaders – we are the leaders we have been waiting for. Networked and empowered, we have the tools we need to learn, to teach and to inspire one another. Together, we are the change we want to see in the world.

Eyal-Raviv Eyal Raviv is the founder of – a network for peace. He is studying conflict resolution at Ben Gurion University.

This article originally appeared in the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).