Nadav Tamir, Senior Advisor for Governmental and International Affairs
The Israeli approach to dealing with it's public image is not effective and wrong - here's why
This article is the fourth in a five-part series
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.
Nadav Tamir is The Peres Center's senior advisor for governmental and international affairs and former personal adviser of Shimon Peres for diplomatic affairs.