Associated Press – The many fronts of Israel’s PR offensive

Ivri Lider is Israel’s newest freelance ambassador.

The openly gay musician is one of a new breed of unofficial envoys trying to improve Israel’s international image – a battle the government has been waging for decades. Lider recently returned from a trip to the U.S., funded by a pro-Israel nonprofit group, where he performed concerts and spoke to college students and gay activists.

“When I met people they said, ‘We didn’t know that you could be an Israeli rock star who is out of the closet,’” he recalled. “I think Israel needs to reveal its more liberal, cool and funky sides.”

Israel has a reality problem more than an image problem, critics say. The country is still recovering from last summer’s war in Lebanon and is mired in conflict with the Palestinians. No matter how hard Israel tries, the critics argue, it will be impossible for Israel to complete its image makeover until it resolves its dispute with Palestinians.

The deepest hostilities toward Israel are found in Europe and the Arab world. But Israel also has an image problem in the U.S., where people generally view it as a war zone.

With Israeli officials still struggling to sway public opinion, a host of independent groups – funded primarily by wealthy American Jews – are trying to come to the rescue.

They include Israel at Heart – the group that sent Lider – which dispatches Israeli students on grass-roots missions to college campuses, churches and community centers. Its envoys often encounter scathing accusations regarding Israeli policies toward Palestinians, but they try to steer clear of politics, focusing instead on their personal stories to create basic empathy.

Other groups stump for Israel in the media or run ad campaigns – replete with models in swimsuits – that portray Israel as a desirable tourist destination. (See one such ad here: http://tinyurl.com/2whjyl.)

Israel’s image consciousness has even trickled into its pop culture. Channel 2 TV aired a highly successful reality show, “The Ambassador,” in which young Israelis competed to see who could present the country in the best light to a hostile international audience.



GOVERNMENT MISSION

Israel’s Foreign Ministry, which oversees much of the government’s public-relations effort, seems to be catching on.

The ministry has begun to diversify its ranks, sending women, Ethiopian immigrants and Israeli Arabs into high-profile positions – a contrast to the usual cast of grizzled, tough-talking former military men who often represent the country abroad. It even briefed Israel’s Miss Universe contestant on how to portray Israel in a positive light and deal with critical questions.

And thanks to foreign ministry efforts, Maxim magazine will soon publish a special Israeli edition featuring six of the country’s top models.

The government has also launched a “nation-branding” drive aimed at presenting Israel as a vibrant, modern society – with recent Nobel Prize winners in chemistry and economics, cutting-edge medical industries and innovative companies traded on Nasdaq.

“The product is fine; it’s the marketing that needs work,” said Amir Gissin, who has spearheaded the ministry’s drive for the past two years.



ENORMOUS CHALLENGE

No doubt, the image boosters have their work cut out. In a recent global survey that ranked the images of 36 countries, Israel came in last.

“The negative perceptions of Israel, arising from the constant reporting of the Middle East conflict, are so powerful that they basically drown out anything else positive,” said Simon Anholt, the London pollster who created the Anholt Nations Brand Index. “It simply contaminated the whole image of the country from top to bottom.”

That’s exactly what the masterminds of the unofficial “rebranding” initiative are trying to counter. They hope to shift away from the conflict and focus instead on Israel’s successes in business, medicine, science and technology.

“You have to separate the issue of policy and everything else,” said David Sable, a New York advertising executive who is one of the creators of the project. “We are just trying to highlight the natural strengths that are already there.”

Israel 21c, a nonprofit project funded by Jewish leaders from the San Francisco Bay area, has done just that, launching a Web site that reports exclusively on Israeli achievements and non-conflict issues. The Web site is geared toward foreign correspondents in Israel and says it has placed dozens of articles in newspapers around the world.



CAN IT WORK?

Anholt is skeptical of Israel 21c’s approach.

“I wonder if they know what an enormous immovable weight the country’s image is,” he said. “This is not a pair of running shoes where you can run a campaign and change its image.”

Uzi Arad, a former Mossad spy and director of Israel’s Institute of Policy and Strategy, called the rebranding drive “pathetic.” Instead of running magazine ads showing Israeli women in bikinis, he said, Israel has to defend its policies and be aggressive in the media, just as it has done in war.

“Don’t let them decide the actions. Go on the attack, go for the jugular, stop being apologetic,” he said.

Gissin, the director of the foreign ministry’s PR efforts, said the rebranding drive was aimed at improving Israel’s economic results by making it a more attractive destination for investors and tourists. Regardless, he said Israel could not disguise its reality and the drive needed to accompany the traditional, conflict-centric PR, not replace it.

“The conflict could go on for another generation; that does not relieve us of the responsibility to improve Israel’s image,” he said. “That people see us just through the conflict is not our destiny, we can change it.”



ISRAEL’S NEW FACE?

In the meantime, Israel is busy framing its new look. Ismail Khaldi, a member of Israel’s Arab Bedouin minority, a nomadic tribal society plagued by widespread poverty, recently took up the post of deputy consul in San Francisco. While other Arabs and Druse have represented Israel overseas before, Khaldi is the first Bedouin to reach such a high position.

One of 12 children, he lived in a tent until he was 8 years old, and his village in northern Israel only received electricity four years ago.

Despite his past hardship, he says he is ready to be the new face of Israel.

“America and the West can learn from Israel’s democracy. It’s a great achievement, one to be proud of,” he said. “We’re the unheard voices, and now we’ll be heard. That’s the beauty of diversity and democracy.”



Aron Heller is an AP reporter based in Jerusalem.

A welcomed alarm bell in Israel

Thanks to the Winograd report, Israel’s democratic life is being invigorated.
Something good is happening to Israeli democracy these days. Precisely when several indicators seem to show that Israelis are becoming weary of their democratic system; when the Index of Israeli Democracy, published by Prof. Asher Arian and his team from the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), reveal that many citizens prefer a ‘strong man’ over ‘all those deliberations in the Knesset’; when there are complaints that the Supreme Court, with its ‘judicial imperialism’, has taken over the political arena; in light of all this – and despite all this – we are experiencing today a surge of rejuvenation in our democratic life.

The trigger, of course, was the interim Winograd Report, which severely criticized the decision making of the Israeli leaders, both political and military, during the Second Lebanon War. The report set in motion a formidable democratic machine, and some 100,000 Israelis came to Rabin Square last Thursday, to call for the resignation of two government leaders – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. If you think about it in American terms, it’s like having six million people marching on Washington DC to rally for a certain cause (in the largest rally against the Vietnam War, in 1969, 250,000 people showed up).

Apart from this impressive show of citizens’ involvement, the Winograd Report brought back to the Israeli political sphere the essence of democracy, originating in ancient Greece: free citizens engaging in a serious discourse on their most crucial public affairs.

For years, this discourse in Israel has been contaminated by partisan politics, consumer craze and attack journalism – not uncommon in other societies, except that Israel is maybe the only country in the world whose existence is threatened, and therefore, it cannot afford to just lay back like others. The decline in voter turnout from 68 percent in 2003 to 63% in 2006, and the decline in the public’s trust in state institutions – both indicated by IDI’s Democracy Index – signaled the weakening process of democracy in Israel.

But the Winograd Report sounded the alarm. With a clear voice, this commission of one woman and four men told us exactly what went wrong last summer, and who is responsible for it. The commission not only criticized the military flaws and the poor decision-making exposed in the war, but also put on the table for discussion the key fundamental issues: Who should qualify to be a prime minister or defense minister in Israel? Should leadership that failed step down or rather be given a chance to fix what had gone wrong? What is the true meaning of responsibility in the public arena? What is the unwritten contract between the electorate and the elected? How should we balance between accountability (resigning of failed leaders) and stability?

All these issues and more are now at the center of a lively debate in Israel. Whether eventually Olmert resigns or not(I think he shouldn’t), is beside the point. The public has already taken its cue from the Winograd Commission. It has called its leaders to order, by rallying in big numbers and by expressing its opinions in the polls. Now the struggle switches to the Knesset, where the representatives of the people will have to decide how they respond to the wishes of the electorate.

There have been voices criticizing the whole idea of a ‘commission of inquiry’ taking over the roles of the regular organs of government. Furthermore, the critics say that the commission, headed by a former district judge, is another example, or an extension, of the ‘judicial imperialism’, in which the courts decide about public affairs instead of the representatives of the people.

Yet the Winograd Commission has done nothing of the sort. After laying the facts on the table – and few question the seriousness and professionalism of the inquiry – the commission members stopped short of making any personal recommendations. That’s the role of the public, they reasoned. Indeed, the public stood up to the occasion, and now is vigorously debating the Winograd findings, pondering what’s best for Israel: letting Olmert carry on and implementing the report; re-shuffling the government; or new elections.

This is a major event, where the Israeli citizens are once again debating real issues, not products of spin meisters, and there is a fresh feeling of the people being able to freely decide about its crucial matters. Democracy in Israel is being invigorated.

Asylum for Sudanese refugees in Israel

The Jewish instinct obligates us to free these fugitives from genocide and give them full asylum. Holocaust Remembrance Day is behind us, but it is incumbent on us to focus on the genocide taking place in the Sudan. We need to think about the 160 men and women, refugees of the genocide in Darfur, now sitting in Israeli jails. (Many other detainees were released after alternative arrangements were made for them, thanks to Kav LaOved Worker’s Hotline and the Kibbutz Movement.)

How did refugees running for their lives end up in our jails, when jails are for dangerous criminals? The answer is complicated.

A few hundred refugees from Darfur reached Israel, via Egypt, in their search for asylum. At first authorities used the prohibitions against illegal entry into Israel to keep them out. But the law allows for judicial review, which gives the courts discretion to release the refugees from jail.

Because of that, authorities began using a different law, one to prevent infiltration. This approach permits the deportation of those infiltrating from enemy countries and contains no recourse for judicial review. The High Court of Justice has been petitioned on this matter and will soon rule on the legal aspect.

But a larger issue remains: Is it Israel’s duty, as a Jewish state, to provide asylum to war refugees?

Israel signed two covenants that recognize the right of entry for political refugees. These were in response to the refusal of the enlightened world to open its doors to Jewish refugees during the Nazi era. In practice, Israel performs its international duty for refugees arriving at its shores only in a minuscule number of cases.

And what about refugees fleeing enemy countries? Israel has determined that the covenants do not apply to them. The UN has not explicitly recognized this demand, but it has helped to find such refugees asylum elsewhere.

The third-country alternative was found for Iraqi pilots (and other refugees from dictatorial Arab regimes) who fled to Israel because we accepted the principle that these refugees must not be returned to the places where they face danger. A committee of experts that I was privileged to head, which included four deans of law schools and three Israel Prize laureates, debated this matter. It proposed that the right to political asylum be defined by law, that the term “refugee” be broadened to include those fleeing from starvation or war; that such refugees be allowed to stay in Israel and be granted immigration rights (limited by quotas for refugees from enemy countries) “with each case… judged on its own merits, in accordance with its circumstances and… security considerations.”

The committee proposed that such refugees be granted the same rights as foreign workers and that they be issued travel (laissez-passer) documents while they continue to live Israel. However, our recommendations were never even discussed at the Ministry of Justice, and for all intents and purposes they were discarded. The Knesset’s Interior Committee held just one debate on them and made no decision. Yet the plight of the Darfur refugees underscores the importance of accepting the recommendations of the committee.

These are people fleeing for their lives. A new agreement between Sudan and the UN regarding the positioning of an international force in Darfur may, perhaps, put an end to the genocide being carried out there, undisturbed, for so long; but if, heaven forbid, the massacres should continue, our duty to provide legal status and human rights to those fleeing from them would continue too.

But what if we are inundated with refugees from Sudan, you may ask? The answer is that at this point we are not talking about a mass immigration, and the duty we have is absolute. However, should the numbers increase to levels we can no longer deal with, Israel would have to foster an international arrangement to distribute the burden of absorption among a number of different countries.

Israel is no ordinary state. It is a Jewish state. That is not a figure of speech: We remember how the gates of freedom were closed to our parents and grandparents; we remember the White Paper, which served as a death sentence to many tens of thousands of our people; we remember the Evian Conference, which convened on the eve of the Holocaust and officially resolved to do nothing for the Jewish refugees; we remember the fate of the Saint Louis, the ship filled with Jewish refugees fleeing from the Nazis that the United States sent back to Germany just a few weeks before the extermination was to begin.

Even if we wanted to, we could never erase these horrors from our memories and national consciousness. And while nothing should be compared to the crimes of the Nazis, the Jewish instinct obligates us to free the refugees – fugitives from genocide – from their jail cells and give them full asylum.

That is what Menachem Begin did immediately after he was elected prime minister, when he opened Israel’s gates to the boat people from Vietnam and, in this respect, showed us the way. This is the way of Israel, which maintains its right to defend itself against its enemies but, at the same time, never forgets its humane mission and the universal lessons of the Holocaust.

(Originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post)

9-year-old makes waves in jazz

JERUSALEM – Ariel Lanyi sits on a pillow to reach his piano and needs to stand on a chair to play the double bass. He peeks over the rims of the drum set and isn’t big enough to use a full-sized violin.

The piano is the 9-year-old Israeli prodigy’s favorite instrument, but when he gets going at a jam session, he can’t stick to just one, playing each with dexterity well beyond his years.

The classically trained whiz kid has already recorded a jazz album and is now the youngest member of the Kadima Collective, a leading avant-garde jazz troupe in Israel.

Ariel began playing his family’s piano at 2. By the time he had his first formal lesson, two years later, he could already play a Bach prelude. At 7, he discovered jazz.

He said he knows he’s different from other children, but that’s a good thing.

“I’m special – unique,” he said.

On a recent weekend, Ariel stayed up past his 9 p.m. bedtime to perform a free-form jazz concert in a small bar in Jerusalem.

His gray-haired teacher, Jean Claude “J.C.” Jones, squeezed rhythms from every part of the bass during the performance, while the dimpled, blue-eyed protege replied on the violin.

“The music is completely mature and exceptionally developed,” wrote local jazz critic Adam Baruch on his blog at jazzis.com. “It’s almost scary to imagine what this kid will be up to in a few years.”

The high pressure of the classical music world can be cruel to children and cause young geniuses to burn out. That’s why Gabriel Lanyi is pleased his son has chosen jazz.

“The people in jazz are so laid-back,” he said. “There’s really no pressure here, and that’s good for Ariel.”

While surfing the Internet at age 7, Ariel accidentally clicked on a link to the great jazz pianist Earl Hines. He couldn’t get enough.

“Within months of hearing jazz, he was an expert because he downloaded hundreds of songs,” his father said. “He lives half his life on the Internet.”

When it comes to music, Ariel has no inhibitions. During a jam session, he’ll reach over and pluck the strings of Jones’ bass. During a concert, he’ll stomp the stage and play a jig on the violin while performing an Irish step dance.

“Not only do I want to be a classical pianist and jazz pianist and a composer,” Ariel said. “I’ve decided I also want to be a musical comedian.”

His family wants him to have a normal childhood. In his spare time, he takes judo and swimming lessons. He also has a regular study schedule, though he gets Wednesdays off from elementary school to take special music classes at the prestigious Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

And like many young musicians, he doesn’t always like to practice.

“I could practice half an hour; I could practice two hours – I don’t care” he said. “I care how well I practice, not how much.”

Still, Ariel is anything but normal as a musician. At 8, he recorded a jazz album, “31 Bars,” which includes several original compositions.

He also speaks fluent Hebrew, English and Russian, his parents’ native language.

Lea Sarni, principal at Ariel’s school, said the third-grader is a good student who gets along with his classmates and works hard. “We’re all very proud of Ariel,” she said. “Maybe he’ll be famous one day, and I will be very proud to say he was my student.”

Jones, who doesn’t usually teach children, said he didn’t know whether Ariel would become a great jazz pianist, but he was certain he would be “big in music” in some form.

“He’s tough. He knows what he wants,” Jones said. “That’s good in music.”

Israel’s still standing, still proud

Our very existence is worth mentioning as an achievement… but there’s so much more.Life in Israel is an emotional roller-coaster. When we’re up, we’re riding high with a clear view; but when we’re low, we seem to scrape the dirt.

Haim Gouri, the archetypical Israeli safra vesaifa – writer and fighter – told me in an interview marking the 60th anniversary of The Jerusalem Post: “We are a people of ups and downs, euphoria and pathos, pride and pique. Everything about us is drastic. Look even at the weather: We had snowstorms and brilliant sunshine in the same month this year [1992]. Every day there is a sudden sunrise and an equally dramatic sunset, but there is no twilight. Hazal [Sages] wrote: ‘The Jewish People is compared to the dust of the ground and to the stars of the sky. When they sink, they sink down to the dust; when they rise, they rise into the stars.’”

This time of year as Independence Day approaches, Gouri’s words always resonate. One of those “Only in Israel” experiences is that incredible combination of sad and happy as the ceremonies for Remembrance Day for fallen soldiers and terror victims fuse back-to-back with the Yom Ha’atzma’ut festivities, this year on April 23.

The extremeness is infectious: The world, it seems, either loves us or hates us, unfortunately too often the latter.

This year, undoubtedly, was not one of the easiest for this proud nation – but it doesn’t mean we have to abandon all reasons to be proud. A 59th birthday is an ambivalent occasion – still, it gives us a year to get into a suitable mood for our 60th anniversary.

What a difference a year makes: The day after Independence Day last year, on May 4, the 31st government of Israel was sworn in.

New prime ministers are traditionally given a 100-day period of grace – known in Hebrew as mea yemei hessed. Ehud Olmert, who had already had his 100 days in office due to Ariel Sharon’s stroke, did not get even that. He might have thought his toughest challenge would be quieting the opposition and holding together his fragile coalition with Labor. Ultimately, as we all know – hindsight being the flavor of the year – it was the out-of-the-blue attack on northern Israel, for which he was so clearly unprepared, that rocked his political career and shook the country’s faith in the leadership.

The corruption scandals, sex scandals, The War, the Kassams; the kidnapped IDF soldiers; spreading poverty. This has not been Israel’s finest hour.

Ups and downs are to be expected on the political and establishment merry-go-round anywhere, let alone in Israel where swinging from high to low is a way of life. But who would have thought that from one Independence Day to the next we would have a new IDF chief of staff, new police chief and the need for a stand-in president?

Who would have imagined that the hottest name in politics and social affairs would be Arkadi Gaydamak, a Russian-speaking billionaire immigrant who helped look after the ‘refugees’ from the war and is planning a huge, free Independence Day bash?

Who would have considered that Labor leader Amir Peretz, previously better known for fighting the security establishment for funds for a social agenda, would this year be the defense minister, with no real reason to celebrate as he awaits the findings of the Winograd Report into his functioning during the war and the Labor leadership primaries, which will help determine his political future?

As we blow out the Remembrance Day candles and prepare for Independence Day’s fireworks displays, it seems almost natural this year to add the Shehechiyanu blessing, praising God “for keeping us alive, sustaining us and bringing us to this moment.”

For after all, we’ll still here, battle-scarred but not beaten.

Our very existence is worth mentioning as an achievement – if only for the pleasure of annoying our many enemies. The fact that we can celebrate Independence Day at all, albeit wiping away a tear for those who gave their lives and didn’t make it to the country’s 59th birthday, is noteworthy.

Hizbullah’s Hassan Nasrallah threw some nasty surprises in the form of Katyushas; Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems set on dropping something even worse. But on April 24 there will be parties, barbecues, nature trips and celebrations.

We’re on a roller-coaster, but the screams of fear are mixed with laughter. For the most part, we’re enjoying the ride.

People abroad often forget that most Israelis live ordinary lives worrying about ordinary things: family, health, finances. We argue about politics. And how. But it is a family argument. And at least we aren’t concerned about the neighbors hearing the shouting.

There’s terrorism, but we don’t have to deal with anti-Semitism. Indeed, we’re free to laugh at ourselves with famous Jewish humor and don’t have to worry whether saying things like “famous Jewish humor” is insulting.

In previous years Jerusalem Post columnist Barbara Sofer has done a wonderful job pre-Yom Ha’atzma’ut reminding us of the 50-or-so reasons she loves Israel. The articles still hang – slightly yellowing and stained – on the fridge doors of more than one friend of mine.

They’re a reminder that years come and go; wars come and go; our leaders come and go (with alarming frequency); but the things that make this country great remain.

We’re still concerned about each other. The Katyushas in the north caused perfect strangers (and I use both words in their most literal sense) to open their hearts and homes to others less fortunate. Proving we are truly one family, Diaspora Jews came to offer solidarity and support. New immigrants came to stay.

The dollar weakened, the shekel rode high. In the country that created the phrase “routine emergency situation” – matzav shel shigrat herum – it’s been business as usual. Innovations, investments, construction and development abound. If the Palestinians put as much energy into building their de-facto state as they put into trying to destroy ours, Warren Buffett could make a double deal – investing in Gaza as he did in Galilee – and we’d all be better off for it.

Another year has gone by without our prayers for peace being answered. But despite the prayers of our enemies, we’re still here, not just surviving, but thriving.

And that’s why this Independence Day, as every other, I will hang the blue-and-white flag and raise a glass in that quintessential Jewish toast: “Lehaim – To life!”

(Reprinted with permission from The Jerusalem Post)