A few weeks ago, when I was in the city’s central park playing with our dog, Clapton, and I was bitching about how crowded the park was at 9 PM, it was another reminder of the dissonance between reality in Israel and the perception of people who have never been here. How many inner city parks in the USA and Europe are even open after dark, let alone have kids, families, teenagers and basically everyone traipsing through them, without as much as a thought for their personal safety? I would venture to say that there are very few. Most cities close the gates at dark. Most city dwellers wouldn’t venture inside, for fear of personal safety, at most of these parks. Not so in Israel, that really dangerous war zone in the darkest of areas in the Middle East.
This is far from being the only area of dissonance when it comes to popular perception and reality in Israel. Of course every place is different from the layperson’s popular perception, but the amount of daylight between your average Joe’s thoughts about daily life in Israel and actual reality could not be further. And it’s everywhere, and in practically every realm.
I work a great deal with foreign companies. When their reps come to Israel for the first time it is inevitable after about 4-6 hours that they all of sudden look at me and say, “I feel really safe here.” They always and without fail bring it up themselves, and then they go on to tell me how their family and friends all told them to be careful here at best, and in many cases, tried to persuade them not to come near this horrific war zone. The irony is that this happens with people from such ‘safe zones’ as Mexico, Brazil, India, and may I dare say, the USA. Any quick google search would show clearly that personal safety is far better in Israel than any of these places, but the perception is quite the opposite. Why is that, and what are the repercussions?
Well, for one, terrorism works. Obviously it does. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be doing it. And while Israel has managed to build one of the strongest world economies, is a leader in security and hi-tech, and even has a respectable tourism industry, this false perception does huge damage to the country – both in terms of image and lost tourist dollars. The fact that comedians will make jokes about the danger here, or that people’s first reaction is ‘stay safe’, when going to Israel, is a subtle weapon working against the country. No large international fairs and conventions, sporting events, and a surprising lack of books in the travel section at popular book chains, which also has a subtle effect of discouraging individuals from even considering coming here.
It is still strange that New York City, Washington DC, Madrid, London, Paris, Mumbai and the list goes on – do not suffer from this dangerous image, despite being more dangerous before the terrorist acts that occurred there, and certainly more dangerous after terror has struck in these places, and big time!
The other reason for the dissonance is the disproportionate, for lack of a better term, response of the international news outlets to violence in Israel, or often blurring violence in Gaza or the PA with events in Israel itself. Pictures and video without much context lead the viewer from afar, to the quick conclusion that there is chaos here.
The truth is that personal safety in Israel is very high. Women walk and go out alone in the large cities without a second thought. Public parks have people in them at all hours, and I’m talking families, kids or just people enjoying the park. You can’t get a seat at any good restaurant, even in the middle of the week, because people are just out and about and living and enjoying themselves.
Is there violence? Sure there is – sometimes. Is there terrorism? Yes! But we adapt and learn quickly. And we don’t give in! We don’t stay in our homes for fear of the next terror act, or stop riding public transit, or stop going to our parks. That would give the terrorists their victory.
The dissonance does not begin and end with personal safety. The perception and reality are blatantly everywhere. People think it is a homogeneous society, when in fact the composition is a mosaic of cultures, religions and countries that somehow comes together and works. People think that Arabs have fewer rights than Jews; while under the law, and in practice, Arabs are full-fledged citizens faring off better in Israel economically and in terms of freedoms and their will to practice any profession, than any country in the Middle East. Yes, that’s right. Arabs in Israel live better than Arabs in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and even rich countries like the UAE. Is there discrimination? Sure, but where is there no discrimination? Legally they are protected and they reach the highest levels in many professions, including medical and legal.
Why should we care how Israel is perceived, and that fact that the perception is almost an exact inversion of the truth? Because these perceptions matter, and when we don’t nip the misperceptions in the bud, they morph into worse and worse ideas and perceptions. Once, Israel was seen as somewhat more dangerous. There were some terror attacks. Now, the common perception is that it is a war zone. Once, the perception of Israel as some homogeneous Jewish society was quaint. Now it is used against Israel in claims that it is racist. The fact that Israel does not tout its record on human rights and the rights of minorities, allows its enemies to smear it with lies that often go uncontested.
We cannot fight every lie all the time and simultaneously. We need to start somewhere. I think the issue of personal safety, and the perception that Israelis live in some sort of constant state of war, afraid to even go out, is a good place to start. The reality is that it’s pretty good here. People feel safe, and know how to adapt and get used to situations. Walking around with pepper spray may not be the best thing, but at least we’re all out there walking around, and not cowering in our homes. The streets are brimming, the kids are running about and making noise, and the parks are full with revelers, even at night.
Something needs to be done to rid Israel of this false perception. We’re getting along fine with it, but you’ve got to admit, we’d be better off with a more realistic and true perception of what life here is really like! A positive perception on personal safety here will help improve tourism, business and other aspects of Israeli life.