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Thursday, February 4, 2010

The secret cause of Israel's PR and image catastrophe

The Herzliya Conference on Israeli national security, hosted at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary center, has finally recognized that Israel has a certain problem with people who are trying to delegitimize Israel and Zionism. They organized a workshop on what the speakers called "Public Relations" and "image." Everyone agreed that Israel has a "public relations" and "image" problem and that it needs to get "public relations" people to change its "image." But nobody understood how the problem came about, and there was disagreement about what these public relations experts should be doing, and what "image" we want to communicate.

According to one summary:

Today, at the Herzliya Conference, one session was held on strategic communications for Israel. In other words, Israel's hasbara, or PR, problem. We all know that Israel has a serious PR problem. Israel is, almost always, painted in the worst of lights.

... Ido Aharoni discussed the problem of Israel's brand, as being solely associated with the conflict...
Eyal Arad discussed the three problems, that he sees, that Israel has in changing its image. "We have basically three problems that doom us to remain in that situation… The first requirement that we need in order to build image, change image, deal with images, is to understand the flow of information about our product... .
"Our second problem is that we don't know what we really want....Now, do we want to get Jews to come and live in Israel? Do we want to be an immigration country, so what we want to do is convince people that Israel is the best place, at least convince Jews that Israel is the best place for them ?
"The third problem that we have… and the third problem is probably the most important problem, and this is the reason we fail to address the two former problems, is that we don't have a client. When we try to deal with Israel's information campaign, you really don't have a client. Israel's problem, and I agree that our main problem in the world today have become a legitimacy problem. It's not that people do not think that our policies are right, it's that people question whether we should exist or continue to exist in the first place. We are more and more becoming the South Africa of the 21st century. "

The secret cause of Israel's PR and image catastrophe is now revealed. Do you understand the problem? Part of the difficulty, that we knew about, is that we are facing a political campaign - a campaign about the legitimacy of our country and our people. Arad got that part right. The Palestinian Charter insists that Jews are not a people. That is the basis of the campaign and it always has been. But the hidden secret that is ruining Israel's "image" and "PR" is that the people who are supposed to be doing ideological advocacy for Zionism and Israel advocacy think they are supposed to be doing "PR" and image building, and don't know what message to put in their "PR" or what "image to build.

The Zionism advocates don't know what Zionism or advocacy is. The people who are considered authorities on the issue, who are sent to the Herzliya conference to pontificate about it, confess that they don't really know what they want, or how to get it. They confuse advocacy with "PR." Eyal Arad should speak for himself. I know exactly what I want, and the Israeli information apparatus is not delivering it. The big part of the problem is the people in charge of handling the problem.

Israel advocacy is not about getting Jews to Israel. It is not Jewish education. It should not even be targeting Jews. Jews are a tiny and not too important minority in the United States, and an even tinier minority in other countries.
Israel advocacy is not about PR or "images." It can't be done by PR talking heads who don't know what we want. A country is not a "product." Challenges to legitimacy must be met by earnest political advocacy, not by "PR," remaking of image or rebranding. We do not need to deal with images or build images.

We need to build reality and deal with reality and tell people the truth. That's what we did when Israel was successful. The image was terrible. A rag tag bunch of idealists on a hopeless quest, a chaotic army, rude waiters in hotels, telephones that didn't work, an economy built on wishful thinking, immigrants in rags from Europe and the Middle East: the wretched and the hopeless. A basket case. That is how Israel was viewed in much of the world. It is certainly how the early Zionists were viewed. But it was only image. It was not reality. The people of the Second Aliya told the world "We are building the future of the Jewish people." Nobody believed them. Their shirts were torn and their shoes had holes. That was the "future of the Jewish people." But they told the truth. They were building reality, not "image." The reality built our country and the image took care of itself. We need to tell the truth and we need to know that we are telling the truth.

Israel advocacy is not about telling people Israel is a good place to invest or that we have pretty girls and nice beaches. "Everyone knows," don't they, that Jews are "clever with money" and that Jewish girls are hot and loose, right? Dpes that help us? Will it win support in international fora? Bragging about Israeli economic prowess plays into the image of the blood-sucking Jew-Zionist colonialists who are getting rich by oppressing the poor Palestinians, who are minding their own business, trying to make an honest living in the suicide vest business. Bragging about our technologically advanced society plays to Palestinian propaganda too. They are poor helpless native victims of a heartless and evil advanced society. Of course, the Iranians, who are building atomic weapons, tell a different story, and that too is accepted.

People do not base political opinions on a few factoids or "images." They may use the images or the factoids to bolster their opinions. They build a narrative and force the facts to fit that narrative. One we have been demonized it doesn't matter what we do. If we send rescue teams to Haiti, the mainstream "responsible" media like TIME ignore it, because it doesn't fit their narrative about the evil Zionists, the more sophisticated Israel bashers use it as a platform for an attack on Israeli policy, and the professional Israel haters say Israelis went to Haiti to harvest organs for illegal transplant traffic.

In the business world, PR and "image" and "branding" are acceptable. In the world of ideological advocacy, they are dirty words. "Image building" is what an oil company does after a tanker spill. It's what tobacco companies tried to do for smoking. In other words, it is lying or "improving the truth." "Rebranding" and remaking of images are what sleazy politicians do in order to foist themselves on the public. Some of us remember "the new Nixon." He wasn't much different from the old model Nixon, but the "image remake" fooled enough people long enough to get him elected president of the United States.

Israel advocacy, like all good political advocacy is not about lying, distracting people from reality or "building images." It has to be about telling the truth. Pretty girls on beaches might attract some jocks and sex tourists. But we need to speak to the political leadership and the politically active leadership segments of society abroad. Serious university students, diplomats and journalists are really not going to be impressed by pretty girls at beaches, and they don't much care if Israel is a good place to invest their money.

Israel advocacy is about explaining that Zionism is not racism, and that Jews have the same rights as other people - and we shall insist on those rights, whether it suits others or not. The enemies of Israel seize on this or that issue, but they almost always admit that in reality there is only one issue: denying the Jewish people the right of self-determination. Calling Zionism "racism." It's not about what Israel did in the Gaza war. The Americans and British roasted German babies in the fire-bombings of Dresden, Hamburg and other cities in World War II. Nobody tried them for war crimes, and nobody other than Nazis tried to dismantle England or the United States. Germany was not dismantled though they murdered 17 million people, including 6 million Jews, apart from the casualties of the war they started. It's not what you do. It's who you are. The campaign against Israel starts from the premise that Jews have no rights as a people. Therefore we have no right to self - defense or any other right. No campaign on the issues will convince those people of our innocence, because we are guilty by definition in their eyes.

To Eyal Arad and all the other talking heads who don't know what they want or what is needed: What we need is for our people to tell the truth, and to know what we want and why we are here. What we want is for the world to accept that the Jewish people have a right to a nation state of our own. That's the entire issue. If you don't understand that, you should not be making the case for Israel, and you should not be talking about it in conferences.
Ami Isseroff

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