March 17, 2010, Updated September 12, 2012

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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