Branding Israel

by Brian on January 26, 2007

in In the News,Only in Israel

During the 2003 run up to the war in Iraq, France found itself bitterly opposed to U.S. plans, earning it derision from conservatives who went so far as to insist that U.S. government cafeterias rename certain “French” foods as freedom fries and freedom toast. But at no time did France lose its image of also being tres chic and fashionable. France is a multidimensional country. Paris may have been at odds with American policy, but it was still seen in the eyes of Americans as the most romantic city in the world.

Not so with Israel. There is only one story which the vast majority of Americans hear about the Holy Land – the conflict. Israel may have some of the most amazing hi-tech advances, fabulous beaches and fascinating archeology, but we are a uni-dimensional country, and the lens through which we are viewed remains stuck on images like war, guns and concrete.

Those were among the conclusions Larry Weinberg, Executive Vice President of ISRAEL21c, a website devoted to promoting a more balanced, positive portrayal of Israel, presented at a briefing for journalists held last week to describe an ambitious new program by the Israeli Foreign Ministry to literally “re-brand” Israel.

Backed by no less than Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and managed by long time Foreign Ministry diplomat Amir Gissin, the initiative, which kicked off in October 2006, is seeking ways to go beyond the tried and true – and mostly failed – Israeli methodology of “hasbara.” Its goal is nothing less than to viscerally change not just how the media reports on current events in Israel, but what events are reported in the first place. The effort is critical: by Ministry estimates, some 97 percent of all reporting about Israel is about the conflict.

Weinberg, whose ISRAEL21c consults with the Foreign Ministry and is one of the biggest champions of the program, laid down the results of some focus groups that were undertaken by the Brand Israel Group on behalf of the Foreign Ministry. The results were as frightening as they were telling.

10 different sessions were held across the U.S. with a mix of different ages and backgrounds represented. The participants, who did not include either Jews or Muslims, were asked to imagine the “houses” of several countries including Israel. What were their impressions, just from what they know coming from the media and general culture?

For Italy, the groups used terms such as “wine and cheese,” “relaxed,” “spaghetti,” and “welcoming.”

When it was Israel’s turn, though, the imagery that came to mind included “barbed wire,” “big gates and bars,” “not accepting,” “don’t want to stay long,” “very orthodox,” “militaristic,” “male dominated,” and “attempting democracy.” (This last one is particularly vexing, as Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East.)

When the moderator asked group members to pick out pictures they felt described what they thought an Israeli looks like (keep in mind that, according to Weinberg, polls show that 50 percent of Americans say they’ve never even met a Jew, let alone an Israeli), the groups chose a black hat, a combat helmet…and a burkha. I have never seen a single woman dressed in a burkha while sipping coffee at Café Hillel, but media impressions say different.

It gets worse. When asked to describe Israel’s landscape, it was all desert and concrete. Not a single participant knew there are beaches in Israel. Tellingly, during the “house” exercise, no one gave the home a front lawn.

The conclusion is unmistakable: Israel is seen as a closed, military, religious society, lacking any green. What’s missing is the human lens. There were no children in Israel’s “house.” People don’t engage in recreation, they don’t go out to eat. In short – and this should be no surprise to regular readers of this column – Israelis are not perceived as living “normal” lives.

Israeli “hasbara” has traditionally been reactive and condescending. Israeli government spokesmen routinely assume that non-Israelis are “benignly ignorant,” that they just don’t know the facts and if we can just explain it to them, everything will be fine. But Americans think they know a lot about Israel. It’s just that they don’t very much like what they know. Watch dogging the media, as organizations such as Honest Reporting do so well, is only part of the solution.

The new branding effort is intended, Weinberg said, to focus on positioning Israel as “relevant” to the average American and to convince Americans that Israelis are not “different” but “like us.” It’s not about always proving that Israel is right, Weinberg stressed; it’s about “what have you done for me lately.”

ISRAEL21c, Weinberg’s publication – and one to which I have contributed on occasion – emphasizes Israeli innovation – in hi-tech, bio-med and university research – and how Americans touch products with “Israel inside” every day – from the Pentium chips in their computers that were designed and fabricated in Israel, to the medications they take that may very well be manufactured by an Israeli pharmaceutical giant like Teva. Those goals are shared by the Foreign Ministry’s “re-branding” initiative.

Weinberg summarized the effort. “We want to convince people that there are fewer Israelis involved on a day to day basis in the conflict – whether that’s the men who guard the malls to the soldiers in the army – than those who go to work every day to make Israel – and the world – an easier, simpler, better, and healthier place to live. We are aiming for nothing less than an ubiquitous positive presence.”

A junket for journalists last year sponsored by Weinberg’s group and organized by ISRAEL21c editor David Brinn is an example of how this effort can be brought into real life. A dozen U.S. opinion makers were brought to Israel and, other than the obligatory visit to the Yad Vashem holocaust museum and a few token meetings with politicians, they spent most of their time in trendy Tel Aviv clubs, hip hopping into the wee hours of the night. The resulting press coverage highlighted women boogieing…and no burkhas.

The effort has plenty of supporters – groups such as Israel at Heart, BlueStar PR, the Israel on Campus Coalition and the Brand Israel Group – are all involved in getting a “normal life” message out. But the real test will come when the Foreign Ministry concludes its research and begins to actively promote its new multidimensional agenda. That’s not expected to be until the end of 2007 but the good news is that there’s a multi-million dollar budget assigned to the research component alone.

In the meantime, ISRAEL21c is conducting branding summits with Jewish groups across the U.S. Weinberg is relentless in pursuit of the agenda: he says he leaves home 40 times a year to speak at groups from AIPAC to the Jewish Agency’s General Assembly. ISRAEL21c will be rebuilding its website this year, adding the ability to upload positive “normal” Israel video – a kind of YouTube for the Holy Land.

Ultimately the goal is not to show Israel as a land of computer nerds and bikini babes, but to shift media coverage from where it is today – 97 percent about the conflict – to a more “balanced” 80/20. Politics will continue to dominate – Israelis are realistic to know that war is, sadly, never far from the region – but even if only 10 percent of the coverage is on new stem cell research being conducted by Israel’s Technion university, that’s a big step in the right direction.

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