Lending a hand to Brand Israel

A new Israeli foreign ministry promotion to rebrand Israel now launched in Toronto, could be the start of a larger worldwide campaign. Creating buzz is vital.After 60 years of Diaspora Jews complaining that Israel’s hasbara efforts fall flat, there is finally reason for Jews worldwide to believe that the Foreign Ministry is beginning to get it. September marks the beginning of an ambitious new pilot program, being run by the consul-general in Toronto, Amir Gissin, to “rebrand” Israel.

Starting with print ads that will be featured prominently in bus shelters and billboards across the city, and continuing with radio and editorial content, Torontonians can expect to see Israel being portrayed as an innovative leader in technology that brings real benefits to their own lives. One ad, for example, depicts an Indian mother and daughter smiling under the words “Coronary stent. Lifesaver.” At the bottom is a new iconic logo, “Innovation Israel,” and the tag line “Touching lives.” The message to the growing Indian community in Toronto couldn’t be clearer.

Notably, one type of message that will be conspicuous by its absence is any type of explanation or defense of Israel’s actions in regard to its politics. “Explaining why we are right is not enough,” says Gissin. “Our goal is to make Israel relevant and attractive to Canadians and to refocus attention away from the conflict.”

In this Gissin is entirely correct. There is plenty of attention given to the Israeli-Arab conflict in the media already, and plenty of opportunities for pundits and diplomats to debate Israeli policies in front of audiences who listen. The conflict, after all, is not going away soon. The real challenge lies with the growing population of the Diaspora for whom Israel is not relevant and who tune out much of the news regarding the conflict as being hopelessly confusing and morally muddled.

These are people whose very indifference or inattentiveness make them susceptible to being swayed by charged anti-Israel labels that are thrown around by our adversaries, such as the word “apartheid.” With campuses around the world hosting “Israel Apartheid Week” on an annual basis and ex-presidents of the United States using the word in a book title, the need to have an ongoing campaign that will implant positive emotional associations to Israel has become crucial.

But will the Israeli pilot program in Toronto work? And will it be relevant to the rest of the Diaspora? Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, with more than 200 languages spoken and with almost half the population belonging to a minority. There are, for example, 470,000 Chinese living there, many of them having little or no preconceptions about Israel. There are, as well, more than half a million Italians. That makes Toronto a very attractive laboratory to experiment in.

And it will be a real experiment, with a local company measuring the effects of the campaign with ongoing surveys to measure any progress. (These surveys will be carefully constructed so that respondents are unaware of who has sponsored them and will strenuously avoid politics.) Ads and editorials that are deemed successful by the consulate will, in later years, find their way to other cities around the globe.

There are good reasons for optimism. Gissin and the other people and companies involved in running the campaign are well versed in the local nuances and are aware of the difficulties involved in running a branding campaign that is short on budget. (Most of the advertising budget for the pilot program is being provided by local Jewish philanthropists). The ads are professional and appealing.

But the overwhelming consensus of marketing professionals is that no rebranding campaign can work without grass-roots involvement. Without buzz being generated by word of mouth, without the target audience discussing Israel among themselves, the campaign is likely to fail and the experiment will then not be repeated globally.

It is far too early to tell if the Foreign Ministry’s campaign will generate such buzz on its own. But one lesson from the pilot program can already be taken by all supporters of Israel in the Diaspora and that is that even when the ministry does everything right, it can’t really do it without local support. Diaspora Zionists must get involved. We must help create the buzz that others will perpetuate.

Even without a formal “rebranding Israel” program, we all have a role to play to help Israel’s image. It can be as simple as e-mailing a news story about a recent Israeli invention to a colleague, hanging a picture of beautiful Israeli art on our walls or helping our cities and towns twin with an Israeli town. The government is, belatedly, doing its part. We must lend it a hand.

Reprinted by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

ISRAEL 15 Vision: Competiveness in a Global World

If we put our minds to it, Israel could become one of the greatest exporters of quality educational programs instead of highly educated people.We face the greatest gap between our potential, based on exposure to technology and education, and our achievements. The quality of our life is at the bottom of the developed world, and we don’t have to be there. Israel is ranked 38th in the world according to the Economists’ Quality of Life Index; and 23rd according to the 2008 U.N. Human Development Index.

For some countries that might be enough; it’s not enough for us.

We face the greatest gap between our potential, based on exposure to technology and education, and our achievements. The quality of our life is at the bottom of the developed world, and we don’t have to be there.

The idea of leapfrogging Israel’s Quality of Life isn’t just a nice thing to do. It’s crucial for our survival – otherwise, we just won’t be competitive.

Competiveness is critical for a country like Israel because the world is going global. And in this world, there’s fierce competition over important resources – technology, people and investments.

These resources are mobile and they can easily move from place to place. So to succeed, a country has to be attractive, and attractiveness is measured competitively.

Since you have so many choices, you have to have a reason to want to live somewhere. There is nothing stopping someone from getting up, packing their bags and moving to Palo Alto.

In fact, right now Israel is one of the biggest exporters of highly educated people in the world.

I believe that in the future, we could become one of the greatest exporters of quality educational programs, if we put our mind to it.

Reut isn’t saying that Israel has to adopt a specific model; to become like Ireland or Singapore. However, in order to leapfrog into one of the leading 15 countries in the world, we need to initiate a bottom up process.

This includes mobilizing the key sectors of society including Arabs, Ultra Orthodox, people from the development towns and periphery, from the big cities, philanthropists, the Jewish world and government ministries to create a shared vision that can motivate us all to achieve this country’s potential.

This was one of the aims of the recent ISRAEL 15 Vision Conference organized by the Reut Institute and is the organizing logic that will guide our work in the future.

Gidi Grinstein is founder and president of the Reut Institute. The views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Reut Institute.

Reut Institute


ISRAEL 15 Vision Conference

Teeth for Peace

Teeth for Peace

We can all make our own special contributions to foster goodwill and understanding.I never thought peace was around the corner when I left North America for Israel back in 1969. But, like everyone, I hoped that one day…

Thirty-nine years have passed, and I’m still dreaming.

I’m a big believer in small. Not all of us are government ministers, but we can all make minor contributions to foster goodwill and understanding. Mine is in the area of children and dental care.

Twelve years ago we began a project at Tel Aviv University of reaching out to educate Jewish and Arab children about the importance of oral hygiene. Initially, we brought in busloads of children from Jaffa and Bedouin settlements for a dental ‘fun day’. They received gifts (not sweets!), had their teeth examined by our senior dental students and faculty, and were taught about the importance of taking care of their teeth. To keep them amused, I developed a play called The Witch and the Toothbrush in which a witch with ugly teeth turns a sassy girl into a toothbrush. The kids, their parents and teachers played the various roles. The spell is reversed only when a young boy learns to brush his teeth properly.

With donations from Ms. Sonia Braverman (LA) and the Arison Foundation, we were able to turn the play into a movie starring the great Israeli comedian Dudu Dotan (this was the last movie he ever made; unfortunately he died at the age of 54, several months later). The movie, available in Hebrew on Youtube was later translated into Arabic, thanks to the help of a prominent dentist, Dr. Bukhari, from Jaffa who did specialist training at Tel Aviv University, along with our students. Both versions are now being watched by children around the world.

In addition, my first children’s book (Bacteria Galore by Sunday at Four) was translated into Arabic and 1,000 books were donated to schools here and in the Gaza Strip (I still have the thank you letter from the UN). The English version of the book (and the Witch and the Toothbrush story) are available on www.meltells.com, a website which I have set up for kids around the world (it’s in English, but I have plans for Hebrew, Arabic and other languages too). Many of the books deal with dental subjects (What to do with a used toothbrush, The amazing tooth fairy), others deal with a variety of health and growing up issues.

Will these reaching out efforts make a difference? Perhaps a small one. I have been to Jordan twice trying to foster peace through teeth. I remember a conversation with a senior military official there who initially found it difficult to even strike up a conversation with an Israeli. At the end of our talk, I hope he came away with a more positive attitude.

One step at a time

Two Israeli-Arab women are undertaking national service as volunteers at the Emek Medical Center, despite hostility from their peers.I want to share a story with you. I do this to show you certain realities of our every day lives in Israel that you would otherwise not be aware of. I also do this so that you will not lose hope – even in the face of atrocities, existential dangers and blatant evil behavior. One step at a time is how we will get from here to there.

Israel is not the easiest place to live and maintain one’s optimism. Fortunately, I represent an institution that re-energizes me every day and allows me the privilege to observe, at eye-level, people making an effort to get along with one another – despite the maelstrom of hate swirling around us.

Political hatred between Jews and Arabs runs very deep and ultimate reconciliation will need to come from an equally deep place from within us all. To reach that place is a painstakingly slow process that requires awareness and the willingness to focus on something positive. There are negative, evil forces continually grabbing at the ankles of anyone trying to move ahead in a conciliatory manner. Without forward momentum, we will be doomed to repeat history’s most deadly errors and remain stuck where we are.

I just met two young women who fit within the complex incomplete jigsaw puzzle that is Israel. They are Suha Rahmoun, a 19-year-old Christian Arab from upper Nazareth and Rozan Haja, a 19-year-old Muslim from lower Nazareth. They both have chosen to perform national service as volunteers within our hospital.

National service is offered to those young citizens who do not serve in the Israel Defense Forces for one reason or another. Completion of one or two years service is rewarded by proportionate monetary grants like those offered to soldiers who complete their military service. Participants also earn a modest salary during their work period.

The two young women came to us via Shlomit, Israel’s largest national service organization serving the Muslim, Christian, Bedouin, Druze and Jewish populations that assists 2,500 young people annually to serve and benefit from national service. The majority of young Arabs choose not to become part of this network, due to complex social, religious, nationalistic or other reasons, thus limiting their inclusion into mainstream Israel. That is why I am sharing the story of Suha and Rozan with you.

They learned about national service from their family and friends and, to the dismay of their peers, decided to join. Initially the girls were challenged by their circle of friends as to why they joined, but their determination to continue won the day.

Rozan explained, “Some of my friends stayed away from me, while others remained close. I believe in what I’m doing and it gives me more hope for the future.”

Suha recalled how she was challenged by an Arab bank teller as to why she was serving and only earning a sixth of what she could earn in other jobs; “I answered him that I am helping people and that makes me feel good about myself. My parents support me and that is what is important.”

Suha is working in the adult Oncology Department as a secretary and has much contact with patients, both Jews and Arabs. It hurts her to see young and old suffering and that has made a deep impression on understanding her own mortality. The positive feedback she receives from patients and staff has proven the correctness of her decision to serve.

Rozan, whose mother is a nurse, is working in the EMC Genetics Institute. She wants to study medicine and her experiences here as a secretary and translator during medical consultations have provided a firm foundation upon which she plans to build.

She claims that patients (Jews and Arabs) are encouraged to see a young Muslim woman working with Jews and this has given her renewed hope for the future. Despite the early social pressure that Rozan experienced, she says, “If you believe in what you are doing, then others will accept it and move on.”

Will young Suha and Rozan working with the Jews in EMC change the geo-political face of the Middle East? Of course not. Will it change anything? It has for me and others. Together, we’ve taken another few steps. These young women have discovered that place deep within themselves that holds the secret to living in Israel with mutual respect and dignity.

The point being … it is possible.

When mistakes are worth making

What did Israel prove in the recent prisoner exchange with Hizbullah? It taught Israel’s kids that we may not know how to end this war, but we do know how to take care of them.For some strange reason, I remember the scene with clarity. I was in the kitchen, early on a Friday afternoon about a month ago, cooking Shabbat dinner. Micha, our youngest, now 15, was hanging out in the living room. The radio was on in the background, and on the hour, the news came on. It was over in minutes, and then the music returned.

I hadn’t really paid attention to the news, but Micha apparently had. “Do you think we’re ever going to get Gilad Shalit back?” he asked. Without even looking at him, I said, without even thinking, “Of course we are. Definitely.”

“You don’t know that,” a different voice piped in. Now, I looked up. Avi, his older brother, was unexpectedly home. “We may get him back, and we may not. How can you possibly say that we definitely will?” But the conversation was over. Micha, overjoyed to see Avi, had quickly followed his brother upstairs, and I was left alone in the kitchen. So I never got to answer Avi.

But had he pressed, and had Micha not been around, I would have said to him, “Why did I say that? Because when he hears the news each and every day, the only thing that your brother thinks about is the fact that you’re about to get drafted. And he’s beyond worried; he’s panicked. Because he worships the ground you walk on. And he needs to believe, to know. He needs to believe that you’re going to be OK. And he wants to know that though he lives in a country that asks its kids to do everything, to commit everything, that country also knows that it owes them everything in return. And getting them home – no matter what has happened to them – is part of that.”

I never said any of that to Avi, but I recalled that conversation several times during this agonizing week of prisoner exchanges, of returned coffins, of funerals expected but still tear-stained, of Hizbullah celebrations and of all the columnists who insist that the trade was a terrible idea, that you don’t trade Samir Kuntar for two dead bodies, that they were “deeply ashamed to be an Israeli [and] not very proud of being a Jew either,” that we’ve weakened our bargaining position in the future, and, according to Rabbi Menachem Froman, that we’ve even made peace more difficult to attain, that Israel is committing suicide, and that we have now officially given the Hizbullah the crown of victory in the Second Lebanon War.

So, in the face of all the good arguments about how no self-respecting country trades almost 200 dead bodies and several living terrorists including Samir Kuntar (who, we should recall, shot a man at point blank range in front of his four-year-old daughter, and then killed the girl by smashing her skull against a rock with the butt of his rifle – and all this at the ripe old age of 17) for two soldiers who were almost certainly dead, how does one justify this decision? Wasn’t it certainly a mistake?

Yes, in strategic terms, it was probably a mistake. But sometimes mistakes are worth making. Take the Disengagement. It is now clear that the Disengagement from Gaza was a horrifying, costly and still painful mistake. But – and I realize that this is not a popular position – it was a mistake that Israel needed to make. It was the mistake that proved, once and for all, that the enemies we face have no interest in a state of their own. They just want to destroy ours. That is what Israelis learned, now without a doubt, as a result of the Disengagement. There’s almost no one left around here myopic enough to imagine even for an instant that further retreats will get us peace. OK, there are still a few armchair peace-niks in the States, insisting that there is simply no conflict that cannot be resolved. But here? Precisely the opposite. Now we know that the right was correct – further retreats will only embolden our enemies. They’ll demand more. And more. Until we’re gone.

The benefits of that lesson are understandably of no consolation to the families who paid so dearly in the summer of 2005, who are still living in temporary housing, whose marriages didn’t survive, whose livelihoods have never been restored, whose children hate the country that did that to their parents – but despite all that, the Disengagement was probably a horrifying mistake that Israel needed to make. For now we know, even those of us (and I include myself) who were naïve enough to imagine something else. Peace is not around the corner. Peace is not a year or two away. Peace is not possible. Not now. Not a year from now. Not a decade from now. Because their issue isn’t a Palestinian State; it’s the end of the Jewish one. We learned that through the mistake we made in 2005, a mistake that we probably needed to make.

And that’s why we had to make the trade this week. Yes, according to a variety of strategic criteria, the trade was problematic. It may raise the price for Gilad Shalit (not that those negotiations have been going anywhere, of course). It may affect future prisoners of war.

But if it was a mistake, it was a calculated mistake, a mistake well worth making. It was a mistake worth making when we think about what is the real challenge facing Israel. The challenge facing Israel isn’t to win the war against the Palestinians. The war can’t be won. We can’t eradicate them, and they won’t accept our being here. The challenge that Israel faces is not to move towards peace. Peace can’t be had. No – the challenge facing Israel is to learn how to live in perpetual, never-ending war, and in the face of that, to flourish, and to be a country that our kids still want to defend. And that is what we did this week.

I didn’t watch much of the Hizbullah celebration on television. I just couldn’t stomach it. I watched enough, though, to see the crowd cheering a man whose main accomplishment in life has been smashing a girl’s skull with his rifle – after he made her watch while he killed her father. I watched enough to hear about how Mahmoud Abbas – our alleged peace partner – congratulated the same Kuntar on his release. I watched enough to chuckle at the sight of Kuntar in a decorated Hizbullah uniform – even though Hizbullah didn’t even exist when he perpetrated his murders and was captured. I watched enough to be reminded of what (the word “who” somehow doesn’t feel appropriate) it is that we’re still fighting.

But I’ll confess to having watched more than my share of the Israeli side. On the morning of the trade, I woke up and like many Israelis, I thought to myself, “Who knows, maybe all the intelligence reports are wrong. Perhaps one of them will walk across the border, or maybe still be on a stretcher.” Maybe. This is a county that doesn’t easily give up on hope. Our anthem, after all, says od lo aveda tikvateinu – “Our hope is not yet lost.” o I watched the live feed that morning, waiting along with the rest of this breathless nation, until we saw the two black coffins.

And I watched the soldiers standing at attention – and weeping – as the bodies were transported into Israeli trucks and driven into Israel. I watched the thousands of people who, the next day, lined the roads on the way to the cemeteries. I watched a country that is about life, and yes, even love, not about the celebration of death and hatred.

We did the right thing. We gave Karnit Goldwasser her life back. We gave Udi and Eldad the burial they deserved. We gave their parents some certainty, and with it, the hope that maybe, just maybe, they, too, can start to live again, even with the searing pain that will never subside. And perhaps most importantly, we showed the next generation of kids who will go off to defend this place that this is not a country about calculus, but about soul. We showed them what it is to love. We showed them that we’ll get them back. No matter what.

And I was proud, not ashamed. I wasn’t ashamed to be Israeli. I wasn’t ashamed to be a Jew. We proved to our kids once again that we’re the kind of country that’s worth defending.

There are those who claim that by making this trade, we’ve now formally admitted that Hizbullah won the Second Lebanon War. But, really, was there anyone who did not already know that? Have we forgotten the Winograd Commission and its two devastating reports about the government’s conduct of the war? Have we forgotten the report that showed that, weeks before Udi and Eldad were killed, the army knew that the reservists they were sending there were sitting ducks, but that no changes in deployment were made? Have we forgotten the IDF Chief of Staff who left the War Room in the first hours of the war to go sell part of his stock portfolio? Have we forgotten the most cynical of political arrangements that got us as a Defense Minister a labor organizer who didn’t even pretend to know the first thing about military matters, but who still insisted on playing a role in the conduct of the war? Have we forgotten the mayors of some towns in the North who fled their own cities when the rockets started to fall? Have we forgotten the horrific non-use and then misuse of ground troops, the arrogance of a former Air Force commander who imagined that he’d win the war from the air? Have we really forgotten already how badly we lost? Does anyone really imagine that this trade gives them the victory? Please.

We lost. We knew that already. What we did this week is that we did right by the families who paid the price. We showed that at the end of the day, it’s not only strategic calculus that matters in this country. There will be other ways to get our deterrent edge back. We’ll get around to that; there’s sadly no way that Hamas in the West, Hizbullah in the North, Syria to the east of them and Iran off in the distance will not force us to. We’ll attend to that in due course.

But in the meantime, we showed ourselves once again that this country is about soul. They won, and we lost. They celebrated, and we buried. They cheered, and we wept. And I’d rather be one of us, any day.

Wednesday night, we drove Micha to the airport to drop him off for his flight to the States. The radio was on during the entire drive, and we listened to the interviews with people who’d known Udi and Eldad, the constant updates on the plans for the two funerals to be held the following day. “I feel bad being excited about going on vacation,” he said to us on the road from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. “It’s a sad day here.”

“Yes,” we told him, “it’s a sad day, but it’s OK for you to be excited. Going to America is a big deal.” He didn’t say anything. We got off at the exit for the airport, pulled up to the security checkpoint, still surrounded by all those guys with the submachine guns at the ready, because the war’s not over and it’s not going to be. I turned off the radio so I could talk to the young woman manning the checkpoint. After a few quick words, we were ushered through.

It was quiet in the car. We followed the access road to the departure terminal, each lost in our own thoughts. I don’t know what Micha was thinking. But I’m pretty sure that it was about the two soldiers. About the funerals the next day. About his brother. And about America.

We pulled to the curb, still not saying anything. I stopped the car, and said to him, “OK, buddy, let’s go.” Micha looked at me. “I’m really going to miss this country,” he said.

I was stunned. Not, “I’m going to miss you,” but “I’m going to miss this country.” And then, if I’d had any doubt before, I knew. We did the right thing. If we made a mistake, we made the mistake that we just needed to make We taught our kids that we may not know how to end this war, but we do know how to take care of them.

And he taught us, too. He reminded us that even the kids here understand what an extraordinary country it is that they call home. That this is sometimes a scary place. But that it’s also a country that a teenager knows he can love, that he’s going to miss and that one day, he’ll defend.

In the end, that’s what matter most. Even on the saddest of days. Especially on the saddest of days.

Printed by courtesy of Daniel Gordis.