How to deal with the public image of Israel?
Updated: May 26, 2020
Israel’s Image in the Public Eye
“Israel was always losing the battle on global public opinion to its enemies”. That was what I kept on hearing. It has been an axiom that most Israelis and the Jewish activists for Israel treated as a fact. The claim was that our narrative was not effectively presented. Meanwhile the Palestinians were using their “underdog” status to delegitimize Israel.
This is also the line I heard during my first post abroad at the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC (1997-2001), but what I witnessed professionally was very different. The reality I discovered was that we had much more influence and accessibility to the American Administration and to Congress than any other foreign embassy. I was intrigued by the gap between the way we were treated by the American elected officials and the perception that we were losing the public's support. It didn’t make sense to me that in the great democracy of America, officials’ approach would be so different from the people they were representing. However, I was not part of the Embassy’s Public Affairs Department and dealt mostly with the US Administration, so I didn’t get to the bottom of this phenomenon at the time.
It should be more about who we are and less about our image
One incident that opened my eyes to the Israeli obsession with our image was when I was asked by the Embassy Congressional Affairs Department to address Israel’s record on women trafficking. New legislation in Congress established a monitoring mechanism for how countries were dealing with this ugly phenomenon. I received information from the Foreign Ministry to present to Congress that showed a very positive picture about the way Israel handled this issue. I was surprised because I knew the reality was very different. Israel had a big problem and it was not being treated properly, at the time.
I was asking myself why we focused so much more on how to improve our image, than on how to improve ourselves. I felt this was wrong. I thought a better approach would be to state our problem in the report and ask for help in solving it. We could gain knowledge about solutions by cooperating with Congress and by learning the best practices of other countries.
Many years later, I understood that the obsession with our image was the norm. We were so busy trying to convince everyone we were perfect, that it took too much energy from our attempts to actually improve who we were. I now believe that improving who we are would not only make Israel a better country, but also that our image abroad would improve.
Understanding what the real challenge is
The next time I had a chance to deal with Israel’s public image was when I arrived at the Kennedy School for Government at Harvard (2003), where I pursued my master’s degree thanks to a generous fellowship from the Wexner Foundation.
I decided to use that year as a student to learn from personal experience about the whole issue of public opinion on Israel. At the Kennedy School were students from all over the world, as well as Americans from all political persuasions. I chose to use my student cohort as a live laboratory to learn what people thought, and how they formed their opinions about Israel.
The first eye-opening incident for me was an event at the Kennedy School Forum about gender issues. One of the speakers was a very articulate Palestinian politician named Hanan Ashrawi, who used the event for Israel bashing and twisted the issue of gender to speak about the occupation of Palestine.
For us, the Israeli students, it was a very painful experience. Many of us never encountered personally such criticism; we felt that our personal identity was being attacked. We were panicked about how our classmates would see us and thought how we could mitigate the damage. We decided to bring a speaker who would articulate the case for Israel. The natural choice was Professor Allan Dershowitz from Harvard Law School who just wrote a book by this exact name The Case for Israel.
We were successful in convincing Dershowitz to speak at the Kennedy Political Forum, and when the event was over, we were elated. Dershowitz was sharp and used all the arguments that sounded very convincing to our ears. But since I wanted to use this year to understand how American and International students thought about the issue, I asked for their reactions. I was shocked. Most of them heard the message completely opposite of the way we heard it. Most of them heard an arrogant line of arguments without any empathy for students who asked questions. For most of them, their opinion about Israel did not improve, but rather deteriorated. They identified the antagonism they felt towards the speaker with their feelings towards Israel. The saying “the messenger is the message” was proved right in a way that was completely counterproductive for us.
On that day I understood that I must challenge everything that I have heard before about improving public opinion about Israel. I realized that most of the people I considered experts on the issue were as clueless as I was. They didn’t understand how other people who were not as passionate and obsessive about Israel as we, were being influenced. I decided to get to the bottom of this and tried to get my hands on any empirical data I could get concerning perceptions about Israel.
Most of the polls and surveys I found were flawed because they framed public opinion about Israel in the context of the conflict. This created a zero-sum choice where those surveyed had to choose which side they supported. In other words, they based their judgment on the favorability of Israel by comparing Israel with the Palestinians. It didn’t make sense to me. It wasn’t a good indication to understand the favorability of Israel. Even if one used the comparative method, why not compare the public opinion of other strategic allies of the US such as the U.K. or South Korea?
The data that I found more telling showed a very interesting picture. Contrary to the assumption of most Israelis and Israel supporters in the U.S., the data showed that Israel got significant support from the American public with regards to the conflict. The challenge was rather to get people to feel that Israel was a worthwhile ally and an attractive place to visit and to invest in.
While I was learning these eye-opening facts, Ido Aharoni, a colleague and a friend at the New York Consulate, reached the same conclusions through research that he had conducted. His research showed that many Americans saw Israel as a war zone and a very religious place. It was not attractive and relevant even to those who supported us on the conflict.
How to address the real challenge
My first conclusion was therefore that our challenge is not to “win the debate” against our adversaries, but rather to “win the hearts and minds”. This paradigm is very different from the traditional “Hasbara” one, which puts the conflict at the center of the agenda and uses the “blame game” method in order to win.
The data which I gathered about the American public opinion on Israel showed that the traditional paradigm was moving the needle in the wrong direction. It made Israel less attractive and less relevant to the public who we expected not only to support us but also to visit and tour Israel, to do business in Israel and to invest in Israel.
While I was at Harvard, one of the pro-Israel organizations brought to Boston a bus that was bombed by Palestinian terrorists. They did this to show that Israel was the victim in the conflict and to get sympathy. I couldn’t understand how this bus would persuade people to go to Israel for a vacation, invest in Israel, or convince parents to send their kids to “Birthright”. It would probably achieve the opposite.
The results of the research showed how wrong the “Hasbara” paradigm was, both in terms of identifying the challenge, and even more in the way we communicated with the public. The “Hasbara” paradigm is arrogant on the one hand, trying to explain that we are right as if it was an argument about math or physics. We made the wrong assumption that people don’t get it right because they don’t know the facts. If we would just explain it to them, they will then understand. On the other hand, it was apologetic because it assumed that we must explain why we did what we did and therefore focused on the controversial issues.
It became evident that public opinion was about engagement with people and about meeting them where they were; not preaching to them like we always did.
So, just like Ido Aharoni, who initiated the “Israel Branding Project”, I looked for a way to expose people to the attractive and relevant aspects of Israel that we love – the creativity, the warmth, the diversity, etc. However, it was also clear to me that we couldn’t ignore the political issues and speak about our successes with drip irrigation and Waze GPS , when some people would like to get answers for their questions about the violence and the occupation.
I was trying to understand how we could connect with the public more effectively as we addressed the political issues, especially those related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This has been at the center of many people’s minds, especially Progressives, when it came to their perceptions about Israel.
I decided to keep on using my fellow students as data and to learn from my interactions with them about reaching their hearts and minds. I used to listen to arguments between students from other conflict areas around the world such as India/Pakistan, Serbia/ Croatia, etc. My conclusion was that it was not about the facts of history, as I was taught in the Foreign Ministry. It was not about what happened in 1948 and the fact that the Palestinians didn't accept the United Nations General Assembly resolution about the partition of Palestine. I identified with certain protagonists in a conflict when I felt that their values were close to mine. Then I could connect with them emotionally and my rationale followed.
When I tried to understand what those values were we needed to connect with, I realized that it was different between Conservatives and Progressives. If I may generalize, it seemed that Conservatives tend to see the world in a more binary perspective – in their mind there are “good guys” and “bad guys”. Some of them tend to see us on the good side for religious reasons (the Judeo-Christian). Some Conservatives identify Israelis as akin to their western democratic culture.
Progressives on the other hand, see the world with more nuances and with many “shades of gray”. They are more challenging for us also because they have the tendency to support the “underdog”. Since the 1967 war, we have become the Goliath and not the David.
How to connect with the values of Progressives
Learning how to connect with the values of Progressives was therefore key to improving the image of Israel. Of course, the best way to achieve that would be having progressive policies, but as diplomats we must work with what we have. That led me to crystalize some insights about how to speak with Progressive audiences, insights that were proven very effective in my following years as an Israeli diplomat.
The first insight was that Progressives tend to be supportive of those who seek peace, even if they must protect themselves by force. But it is not enough to say that we seek peace. We must demonstrate it in the way we talk about the other side and the way we conduct ourselves as speakers - Messengers of the Message of Peace. For example, when we stick to the “blame game” approach, it doesn’t sound like we really want peace, but rather that we are trying to put down the other side.
With the help of Daniel Taub, a colleague from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who became our ambassador to the U.K., I packaged my insights into the Acronym – H.E.L.P.S. As in, what HELPS to connect with the values of Progressive audiences?
H - Hope
Progressives tend to be attracted to hopeful messages. They lose interest in hopeless stories and are inspired by optimism. For Americans, hope is the story of the American dream. For us, it was supposed to be the same. After all, hope is the name of our national anthem “Hatikva”. However, when we use the “Hasbara” paradigm, we usually speak as victims – we describe how we are surrounded by enemies, by terror, by anti-Semitism. This approach is a turn-off for Progressive audiences who reach the conclusion that our conflict is unsolvable; it is not worth caring or connecting with a State in this situation.
E – Empathy
Progressives want to know and feel that we care about the other side, that we see them as a human, and that we can feel their pain. They want to know how much we care before they care how much we know. It is not the facts of history but our values they care about.
L – Listening
It is not about winning the debate, it is about winning the hearts and minds, and hearts and minds are won through dialogue. When the speakers demonstrate they can listen to other opinions, Progressives see them as one of their own.
In one of the negotiations workshop I took at Harvard Law School, a Lebanese Shiite student, told us about an incident between Lebanon and Israel that happened the night before. She described it from her point of view, which was very different from the Israeli perspective I had heard. My first instinct was to counter her with my story, but I reminded myself that I was a student and not an Israeli official. I would learn much more from listening to her. Because l listened to her, she was able to vent and was more open to listen to me. I understood her perspective much better, so I was more effective in addressing her. As a result of that exchange, I learned a dialogue was so much more impactful on people’s views than a debate. All the overrated polemics that we use as part of the traditional “Hasbara” paradigm were futile. I learned there is no inherent conflict between empathy and advocacy and that we could be much more effective in advocating a message when we use empathy as the counterpart to the dialogue.
P – Proactiveness (problem-solving)
Progressives tend to believe that every problem has a solution and when they hear a speaker who doesn’t provide solutions, they believe that he or she is not really interested in solving the problem. When an Israeli speaker says that we want peace without a plan to get there, Progressives will not be convinced that we want peace. They expect us to be constructive and proactive especially because we are the stronger side and the responsibility is on our shoulders.
S – Self-criticism
Progressives don’t expect countries and leaders to always be right. They prefer the side that can admit mistakes and are reflective about their actions. They know democracies are better because they have the mechanisms to learn from mistakes. Most Israeli speakers are so busy with apologetic and defensive arguments; they lose Progressive audiences who respect the ability for self-criticism rather than hear talking points of politicians or diplomats.
Back to diplomacy – implementing HELPS
The next time I had a chance to deal with Israel's image challenge was when I served as Consul General to New England (2006-2010). I had a great opportunity to apply the insights that I learned from my year at the Kennedy School. I arrived in Boston right after the 2nd Lebanon War and during the military operation in Gaza called “Cast Lead”. Both events were very challenging to talk about, especially on campuses. I can attest from my experience that using the HELPS method has worked.
During my service as Consul General to New England, I had the chance to represent two different Israeli governments and could witness how Israel became less attractive as the new government came to power. It was perceived as not seeking peace. Our work became much more challenging.
During that period, I participated in a strategic evaluation about the role of the Jewish Federation of Boston (Combined Jewish Philanthropies) led by Barry Shrage, an extraordinary leader. Barry decided that one of the strategic committees would deal with advocacy for Israel and I was invited to serve on that committee.
At the beginning of the process, the committee worked under the assumption that Israel was losing the public opinion battle and we should go on the offensive in the U.S. against the adversaries of Israel. This assumption was “common wisdom” in Jewish communities in the U.S. I suggested conducting research about public opinion about Israel before we accepted these assumptions.
The result of the research showed that the public was much more inclined to be positive towards Israel than the committee members expected, and the challenge was to convince the residents of Massachusetts that they could benefit from the connections with Israel. These results changed the approach of CJP to a direction more aligned with mine. They started to arrange events about the contributions of Israeli innovations to the life of Americans and to focus on cooperation and synergy between Massachusetts and Israel.
As a result, CJP decided to fund research about the contribution of Israel to the economy of Massachusetts. That showed great results and became a model for other consulates and Jewish Federations around the US. This new approach helped me convince CJP to support the New England – Israel Business Council. The Council was established that same year by a group of amazing volunteers from the business world who were passionate about the connections between Israel and the United States. With the support of the consulate, Israel was presented for the first time as an attractive and relevant business ally and destination.
Another lesson that I learned as Consul General was that we should address different audiences with different messages, according to their interests. For those who mainly care about the conflict it would be counterproductive to use the “startup nation” argument, which they dismiss as “tech wash” or discuss Tel Aviv as the gayest friendly city, which they dismiss as “pink wash”. Similarly, it would not be productive to talk about the conflict with people who were interested in Israeli wine or culture.
It was helpful in this respect that the technology and information revolution changed the way people consumed communication from BROADcasting to NARROWcasting that enabled us to reach specific audiences according to their interests.
I understood this when we arranged the visit of the Israeli Minister of Finance to present at Harvard Business School (HBS). Before the event, the Minister asked me how he should speak about the “Goldstone Report” which was just published by the UN Human Rights Council. It blamed Israel for the way it used military force during operation “Cast Lead” in Gaza. I told him, to his surprise, that nobody in HBS knew or cared about the “Goldstone report” and that they wanted to hear how Israel became the “startup nation” and how it recovered so successfully from the dot.com crisis.
I told him that if the event were to take place at the Kennedy School of Government on the other side of the Charles River, the students would want to talk only about the report and other issues connected with the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.
Another valuable lesson I learned during that period was not to let the provocateurs define our strategy. Our “knee-jerk” reactions tend to respond to those who attack Israel and ignore the more important public; those who could be influenced, those whose attitude towards Israel was somewhere between apathy and ignorance. For years, Israeli diplomats were spending a lot of time and effort with academics on the Middle East, because there was a lot of drama caused by some Arab Professors. At the same time, research showed that most of the decision-makers in America were graduated from business and law schools which we had been ignoring.
Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and anti-Semitism:
These insights were very useful for me when the challenge of BDS came up. I witnessed the expected “knee jerk” reaction of Israel and the Jewish organizations and was frustrated how counterproductive it was. The typical alarmism put BDS next to Iran and Hezbollah as an existential threat to Israel and the reaction was also typical – attack the BDS activists and connect them with anti-Semitism.
We turned a tactical challenge that was not a real threat to Israel’s security and economy into a monster, and we addressed it in a manner which helped the BDS movement to become much larger than it was. We helped the BDS activists by pushing those who were legitimately critical or confused, away from Israel. We treated the people as racists who didn’t want to harm Israel but rather wanted to pressure it to stop the occupation and the settlements. We depicted the Progressives who criticized Israel as anti-Semites. Many of them were actually Jews and that made the argument specious.
BDS activists were almost always on the left side of the political spectrum while anti-Semites were mostly on the right side of the political spectrum. By connecting the two different phenomena, the wrong diagnosis led to the wrong prognosis. We sounded as if we couldn’t deal with criticism, so we used Jewish victimhood to silence it. By identifying our critics with racism and xenophobia, the real causes of anti-Semitism, we only pushed some Progressives away. By trying to pass legislation against BDS, Progressives saw Israel and its supporters as curbing free speech, which is a holy value for Progressives This action also connected Israel more and more with the right-wing populists’ leaders who did the same.
The instinct to attack those who attack us is very human and natural, but in this case completely counterproductive. Any attack by the Israeli Government and its supporters against free speech brings more supporters to the BDS movement and every time we connect BDS to anti-Semitism we hurt our ability to cope with both.
In order to cope with anti-Semitism, we must understand that it is one of the manifestations of racism and xenophobia and that the best way to deal with it would be by creating coalitions with other minorities. Instead we usually claim that it is only about us while ignoring other forms of racism such as Islamophobia. The worst way to deal with anti-Semitism is when we treat minorities badly in our own state, and when we create alliances with populists around the world who are actually anti-Semites. These populists believe that Muslims are more dangerous to their ethnic purity than Jews and would like to join us against a so-called common enemy for opportunistic reasons.
1. It is much more important to spend our energy and resources on improving who we are rather than on the way we are being perceived by others. For example, when Israel is acting proactively to promote peace, its public image is being improved automatically. Peace is a core value and interest and is more important than our image, however it is also very helpful to our public image when we seek it. Promoting peace should be in the center of Israel’s diplomacy.
2. For the most challenging audiences today, who are on the progressive side of the spectrum, it is much more important we act as a liberal democracy that respects human rights than do PR.
3. In order to convince people, we should meet them where they are and that is why dialogue and engagement with everybody, including our fiercest critics, are much more helpful than the propaganda efforts. The polemics and the arguments that we use in all the pointless debates we are conducting are counterproductive.
4. Don’t let our opponents define our strategy. They want us to react to their provocations because it helps them to become larger. Remember that the important audience is the persuadable people in the middle and not the fanatics on the extremes. Be proactive but not confrontational.
5. Stay away from the traditional “Hasbara” paradigm – connect with people through the attractive sides of Israel and by creating common causes. At the same time don’t ignore the problems and address them honestly by embracing and coping with criticism rather than fighting it.
6. Use hope about the future of Israel and the region, speak with empathy about the other side of the conflict, listen to your counterpart in the exchange, be proactive in terms of ideas for solutions and use some self-criticism and reflection towards our own mistakes in order to improve. The messenger is the message.
How we do it at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation
At the Peres Center we implement the lessons and conclusions above in our vision and in our daily work. We help make Israel relevant and attractive to the many international guests who come to see the Israeli Innovation Center. At the same time, we are proactively coping with Israel's challenges in promoting projects for peace, development and shared living within Israel and with our neighbors.
We highlight our success in becoming the Innovation Nation while promoting diversity and inclusiveness in our ecosystem by integrating minorities and the periphery into our success story.