TORONTO — Amir Gissin wasn’t surprised at how few students came to hear him speak at York University last week – indeed, it proved to him that Israel has a problem with its public image.
Fifteen students heard Gissin, Israel’s consul general in Toronto, speak Sept. 22 about the “Brand Israel” pilot project now underway in Toronto, and its possible relevance for students.
“One reason this hall isn’t filled is that it seems we can’t win,” Gissin said. “There is a negative atmosphere here, and at other campuses. I offer you a framework of winning the [public relations] war. It might sound ambitious, but I want to share my optimism.”
The Israeli government has partnered with Jewish community organizations in Toronto to launch the “Brand Israel” program, a media and advertising campaign that aims to take the emphasis off the Middle East conflict and place it more on Israel’s accomplishments and culture.
The Israel campus advocacy group Hasbara, which organized the event, moved the talk from York’s Founders Assembly Hall to the Accolade East Building at the last minute due to what were described as security concerns.
Gissin maintained that while the public might know a lot about Israel, what it knows is heavily biased.
“It’s not that our audience is ignorant. They feel they know too much. What they get about Israel are the same words, pictures and messages. The western media narrative is the poor Palestinians, Israeli tanks and Israeli guns. We’ve been portrayed that way for years,” he said.
“The world believes that Israel’s violence is the violence typical of extremist regimes. We must present Israel as a moderate state. It is the first step to a better image.”
The branding project will try to shift the focus and associations about Israel from the conflict to what the country excels at.
“How are Israelis when we are at our best? Israel is the most creative place in the world, with entrepreneurship, ingenuity and a volcano of creativity. Your laptop even has a Jewish mind. There is likely an Israeli microchip in there.”
Some York students in attendance liked what Gissin had to say.
Jessica Abourmad, 19, a linguistics major, said she agreed that the media’s portrayal of the Jewish state should be less concerned with hostilities.
“I like the aspect that the goal is to focus more on people than what happens in the region. Automatically people think of disaster and murder when it comes to Israel,” she said. “What’s brought to the world through media are angry images that people should pay less attention to.”
Hayley Ulrich, 20, an education and sociology major, believes that it’s just as important to take the message to her peers on campus as it is to change Israel’s media image.
“The reason people don’t know about what good Israel has to offer is that the right image of Israel hasn’t been put out there. People have been ignoring their responsibility to make Israel relevant to others’ lives,” she said.
“I’m starting to tell more and more of my friends why Israel has my support. They need to be informed that Israel wants peace and that Israel activists never support hate. Our biggest asset is education, and I think we have to try more education on a personal level.”
Anna Neuman, 21 – a history and education major at York, as well as a Stand With Us Emerson Fellow and has been involved with Israel advocacy on campus for two years – said it’s also worthwhile to sell Israel as a destination for university-aged tourists.
“These are students who go on spring break and winter break and are looking for travel destinations. They have disposable income. Israel has history, archeology, natural resources. It is so imperative for students to see what Israeli culture is really about,” Neuman said.
“Seeing it for themselves is a good way to diffuse the offensive images from the media. Israel has so much to offer culturally, technically, medically, ethically and scientifically.”
Neuman added that such a selling job, and defending Israel on campus in general, is an uphill battle without major Jewish community assistance.
“I feel that the campus community has been sorely neglected in terms of Israel advocacy. As a student, I feel alienated by the Jewish community’s negligence. I know that many other students feel this way too.”
The students at York’s Hasbara are planning two major upcoming events. Shachar Zahavi, director of IsraAid, will speak at York on Oct. 2. IsraAid is an umbrella organization that brings together several Israeli humanitarian foundations.
As well, Hasbara is planning the second instalment of the annual Sing for Koby charity coffeehouse showcase in support of Camp Koby, on the evening of Oct. 19 (location to be announced).
Camp Koby is a summer experience in Israel for North American high school students to teach them, among other things, about the effects of terror on children and the skills needed to be an advocate for Israel.
Gissin lauded the students for their enthusiasm and their drive to defend Israel on campus.
“Hasbara is taking the active approach, which is good. I wish I saw more of that kind of activism on campus.”