Insights about the image of Israel

The mismatch between perception and reality

“Israel is always losing the battle on global public opinion to its enemies, if they only understood the truth, they would change their mind.” That was what I kept hearing. It had been an axiom that most Israelis and Jewish activists for Israel regarded as a solid fact. The repetitive claim was that our narrative was not effectively presented. Meanwhile the Palestinians were using their “underdog” status to delegitimize Israel. The assumption was and still is, that Israel’s main challenges have to do with the perception rather than our policies.

This is also the storyline I have been hearing during my first post abroad as a political officer at Israel’s Embassy in Washington DC (1997-2001), but what I witnessed professionally was very different. The reality I discovered was Israel 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 Israel’s Embassy Public Affairs Department, I was dealing primarily with bilateral policy issues, so I didn’t get to the bottom of this messaging phenomenon at the time.

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 the trafficking of women. New legislation in Congress established a monitoring mechanism to track and report 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 in this area, and it was not well handled, 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 that this was backward. 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.

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, but I was still a junior diplomat and a civil servant, and I couldn’t change the well-established norm, so I tried to understand the image challenge.

Understanding what the real challenge of Israel’s image

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, there 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 opportunity for Israel to bash and twisted the issue of gender to speak about Palestinian victimhood.

For us, the Israeli students, it was a very painful experience. Many of us had never personally encountered such criticism; we felt our personal identity being attacked. We were panicked about how our classmates would see us and considered 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 with this exact title: 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 fellowship 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 correct in a way that was completely counterproductive for my fellow Israelis.

On that day I understood that I must challenge everything I had previously heard about improving public opinion about Israel. I realized that most people I considered experts on the issue were as clueless as myself. 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 between Israel and Palestinians. This created a zero-sum choice where those surveyed had to choose one side to support, in other words they based their judgment on the favorability of Israel by comparing Israel with the Palestinians as if it was an either/or choice. As if it’s impossible to be both a supporter of Israel and the Palestinians.

The data 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. The challenge was rather to get people to feel that Israel was a worthwhile ally in terms of the combination of values and interests, and an attractive place to visit and to invest.

How to address the real challenge

My first conclusion was therefore that our challenge was not to win the debate against our adversaries, but rather to win the hearts and minds. This paradigm is quite different from the traditional Hasbara method, which employs the blame game method in order to win.

The data I gathered about 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, which we expected not only to support us, but also to visit, tour, do business and invest in Israel. But more important than everything else was to encourage our American friends to take part in improving Israel rather than to ignore its flaws.

While I was at Harvard, one of the pro-Israel organizations brought to Boston the actual bus that was bombed by Palestinian terrorists. They did this to show that Israel was the victim in the conflict and to engender sympathy for the Israeli people. I failed to 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 visit Israel. 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 so in the way we communicated with the public. The Hasbara paradigm is based on an arrogant assumption, that simply explaining that we are right would be convincing enough proof, as if it was an argument about math or physics. We made the wrong assumption that people didn’t get it right because they didn’t know the facts. It is based on the hypothesis that if we just explained it to them, they would then understand.

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. 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 continue using my fellow students as data sources, and to learn from my interactions with them about reaching out to 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; it’s not about the facts of history, as I was taught in the Foreign Ministry. It was not about what happened in 1947 and the fact that the Palestinians didn’t accept the United Nations General Assembly resolution about the partition of Palestine.

It was about identifying with the views of certain protagonists in the conflict and discovering where their values were close to mine. Then I could connect with them emotionally, and my rationale followed.

When I tried to understand which were the values we needed to connect, I realized they were 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 Conservatives tend to see us on the good side for religious reasons (the Judeo-Christian civilization). 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 further challenging because they have a tendency to support the “underdog”. Since the 1967 war, we have been perceived as the Goliath, after having been the David since 1948. I was myself a progressive, but as a diplomat I believed and still believe in a “big tent” where I try to connect with everybody, progressives, conservatives and everything in between.

How to connect with Progressives

Learning how to connect with the values of Progressives was therefore key to improving not just the image of Israel, but the essence of Israel. Of course, the best way to achieve that would by actually demonstrating progressive policies, yet as a diplomat I had to work with what we have. That led me to crystalize some insights about how to speak to Progressive audiences. I was also one of them at heart, but back then couldn’t reveal my true colors. These insights were proven highly effective in my following years as an Israeli diplomat.

The first insight was that Progressives tended 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 in 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 score points by putting 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 title 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.

EEmpathy

Progressives want to know and feel that we care about the humanity of the other side, that we see them as real people who have similar hopes and dreams for themselves and their children, 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.

LListening

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 that they can listen to other opinions, Progressives see them as ones of their own.

In one of the negotiations workshops I took at Harvard Law School, a Lebanese Shiite student told us about an incident between Lebanon and Israel that happened the previous night. She described it from her point of view, which was quite 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 thought that I could 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 that 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 that there was no inherent contradiction between empathy and advocacy, and that we could be much more effective in advocating a message when we demonstrated empathy.

PProactiveness (or: 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 truly desire peace. They expect us to be constructive and proactive, especially because we are widely perceived as the stronger side thus 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 acknowledge mistakes and are reflective about their actions. They know that democracies are better because they have the mechanisms to correct themselves by learning 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 repeating 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 Israel’s Consul General to New England (2006-2010). I had a great opportunity to apply the insights I had learned from my year at the Kennedy School.

I arrived at 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 college 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 I could witness how Israel became less attractive as the new government came to power. It was rightly 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 — CJP) 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 that we should go on the offensive in the U.S. against the adversaries of Israel. This assumption was common wisdom in many American Jewish communities. I suggested conducting a public opinion research 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 Israeli innovations make to the life of Americans and to focus on cooperation and synergy between Massachusetts and Israel.

As a result, CJP decided to fund research into 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 my effort to 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 stories, which they dismiss as tech wash, or portray Tel Aviv as the gay-friendliest 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 news and information, from broadcasting to narrowcasting which enabled us to reach specific audiences according to their interests.

A good example to this insight was when we arranged a visit of the Israeli Minister of Finance to speak at Harvard Business School (HBS). Before the event, the minister asked me how he should speak about the Goldstone Report, which had just been published by the UN Human Rights Council. The Goldstone Report 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, then the students would want to talk only about the report and issues connected with the Israeli — Palestinian conflict. It was clear for me that he wasn’t the right speaker for the Kennedy School.

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 either more nuanced, or 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 anti-Zionist professors. At the same time, research showed that most of the decision-makers in America were business and law schools graduates, whom we had been ignoring.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and anti-Semitism

The above insights were very useful for me when the challenge of BDS came up. I witnessed the expected knee jerk reaction of Israeli officials and the Jewish organizations, and grew frustrated by how counterproductive their reactions proved. The typical alarmism put BDS next to Iran and Hezbollah as existential threats to Israel, and the messaging was also typical — attack the BDS activists and associate 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 that helped the BDS movement to become much larger than it actually deserved. We helped the BDS activists by pushing those who were legitimately critical or confused, away from Israel. We treated the people as racists, while in reality they 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 Jewish, 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. By connecting the two different phenomena, the wrong diagnosis led to the wrong prognosis. We sounded as if we were incapable of dealing 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.

Additionally, by encouraging state legislatures to pass legislation against BDS, Progressives saw Israel and its supporters as curbing free speech, which is a bedrock Progressive value. 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 associate BDS with anti-Semitism we defeat 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 marginalized and oppressed minorities. Instead, we usually claim that it is only about us, while ignoring other forms of racism such as Islamophobia.

Conclusions:

I now believe that self-improvement will not only make Israel a better country but will also improve our image abroad far more effectively than any diplomatic marketing efforts. When Israel acts proactively to promote peace and social justice, it improves its public image as well. But even if that was not the case, I would prefer that my country would be moral rather than only being perceived as such.

After devoting many years of my life’s work to improving the image of Israel, I have now reached a point where I would prefer to focus on improving the essence of Israel. My work today focuses more on elevating my beloved country by promoting the liberal societal values in which I believe.

I do so with the help of like-minded Jewish Americans, who support both Israel and peace and work to influence American foreign policy accordingly, in my role as the executive director of J Street in Israel.

I am doing it with like-minded Israelis — both Jewish and Arab — in my role at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, where we are working tirelessly to promote peace from the bottom up, facilitating the development of people-to-people connections between Jewish and Arab Israelis, and between Israelis and Palestinians, through innovative projects that advance solutions to shared challenges and promote peace and prosperity in Israel and across the region.

In my experience, the best way to support Israel is not through blind patriotism, but rather by working to improve it. My understanding of the concept the chosen people is not a descriptive title we should brag about, but rather an imperative, a duty, a mission statement to become chosen by being a model of morality. And becoming so requires hard and ongoing work to continually strive for Tikun Olam, making the world a better place by first making our selves better.

About the Author
Nadav Tamir is the executive director of J Street Israel, a member of the board of the Mitvim think-tank, adviser for international affairs at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, and member of the steering committee of the Geneva Initiative. He was an adviser of President Shimon Peres and served in the Israel embassy in Washington and as consul general to New England.
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