Don’t confuse me with the facts. Tell me the truth.
Israel’s advocacy efforts suffer from too many facts and not enough faces. If we are going to evoke empathy among those who are not engaged, we need to humanize our narrative – whatever the outcome of the current impasse in the peace talks.
Michelle is on her first date with Jonathan and wants nothing less than to entice him back to her place by the end of the evening. Eavesdropping from the next table, I’m bewildered by the way she’s coming on to him. Before she’s said a word about herself to pique the interest of the young man opposite her, she says in an unnecessarily loud voice, “Listen, in case this should work out and you end up at my place tonight, you should know I’m having a horrific fight with horrible neighbors and they may end up attacking us even before I get you through the door. Assuming we do get inside, expect them to bombard us with stones all night. But I don’t want you to think that any of this is my fault. Actually, you should hear the whole story. Let me tell you how it all began…”
I’m not surprised when Jonathan excuses himself and heads off to the men’s room never to return. But Michelle, though she’s gotten precisely the same response from a dozen Jon’s before him, still can’t figure out what she’s doing wrong.
This somewhat embellished analogy of Israel’s traditional approach to public diplomacy is a favorite of Ambassador Ido Aharoni and marketing expert Fern Oppenheim. He is currently Israel’s consul general in New York and previously headed the Foreign Ministry’s Brand Management Team. She is the co-founder of Brand Israel Group, which conducted research demonstrating that Middle America is becoming increasingly disinterested in the Middle East, and perceives of Israel more or less as a bunker inhabited by religious fanatics and others who are intolerant and evoke no empathy. Kind of how many of us see Iran.
“May I join you?” I ask Michelle. I can see I’m not quite her type, but she’s feeling dejected and nods to Jonathan’s now-empty seat. “Listen,” I tell her, “they’re not interested in your problems, and they’re never going to be unless you get them interested in you first.”
“But the brutes are trying to force me out violently, as if I have no right to be here. But look, here’s the deed,” she pronounces with a twinge of hysteria, waving a yellowed piece of paper at me . “Not to mention that my great grandmother used to live here before she was forced out. I have no intention of letting my family being dispossessed again. Why doesn’t anyone care?”
“Because they don’t know you,” I answer simply. “What wine are you drinking?”
“What wine? Where did that come from?”
“You like wine? We produce some great wines where I come from. Even in the desert, which, by the way, we’re succeeding in greening. I’m really into environmental issues. I’m also developing a hi-tech app that’s going to revolutionize the way doctors care for patients, who, I might add are already benefitting immeasurably from my firm’s patents.”
“You’re into a lot of interesting things,” she observes, warming up to me now.
“That’s just the beginning. Social innovation. Alternative energy. Gay rights. Humanitarian aid. Dozens of things that express our indefatigable pioneering spirit and make us attractive”
“Hold on,” interrupts a voice from across the way. Turns out I wasn’t the only one eavesdropping. “All that’s true, and far more engaging for a first date than our conflict with the Palestinians, but what if it works? What if he does go home with her? You know as well as I that he’s going to see all sorts of distatsteful things in her backyard, not to mention the roadblocks on the way to her house. You’d just go ahead as though nothing unpleasant is going on and change the conversation?”
“Broaden it, not change it,” I answer. “We can’t ignore the disagreeable realities, but neither can we expect to explain them to others or gain their sympathies by refuting everything our neighbors are claiming is true. No one is interested in our argument.”
“So what would you do to change perceptions that wouldn’t amount to whitewashing?”
“I’d tell them stories. The story of Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, the 32-year old Arab woman from Baqa al-Gharbiyye with a Ph.D. in microbiology who just this week was declared Israel’s new Master Chef. The story of Yityish Titi Aynaw, the Ethiopian immigrant who last year was crowned Miss Israel. And the story of Stav Shaffir, a leader of Israel’s social protest movement, elected to the Knesset when she was just 27 on a wave of grassroots determination to set things right in this country. I might even find some stories about accomplished men.”
“That’s the way to reach people,” I explain, referring to extensive research on the matter. “Our brains are wired to assimilate stories, not data. And we relate to people, not numbers. Want to evoke empathy, convince someone of something? More faces, less facts. People aren’t moved by PowerPoint presentations. They’re moved by human drama, by ‘once upon a time.'”
Michelle was giving me the once-over. I may not have been her type, but I could feel I’d gotten to her. “Hey,” she finally ventured, “want to come back to my place tonight?” I smiled, embarrassed by the proposition. “Listen,” she said, “if you do, I want you to know I’m having a horrific…” She caught herself. “I want you to know,” she began again with a smile, “that I’ve got this amazing art collection that I just know you’ll love.”
We should be the last ones who need to be convinced of the power of stories. We practically invented them. Those in the Bible have fascinated across cultures and generations for centuries. And in just another few days we will be gathering around our Seder tables to retell one of them for the umpteenth time without it in any way being diminished by its repetition. The tale of our exodus from Egypt continues to be as compelling, engaging and inspirational today as it was when first woven. The story of our return to the land of our forebears should be no less captivating. We just have to learn how to tell it, to share the truth of people’s lives here, the complexities they struggle with, their passions, disappointments, flaws and successes, and, underlying it all, their determination to fashion an exemplary society answering to the high moral standards of our prophets. Israel is the triumphant story of a most amazing work in progress. If we can put a human face to all that, the world just may begin to care.
The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization.