In contrast to traditional public diplomacy (hasbara), which endeavours to explain Israel’s policies in order to garner the political support of world leaders and decision makers, the Foreign Ministry’s new initiative, Branding, aims to attract ordinary individuals to Israel in order to gain “economic dividends”. This is achieved by “pushing people to action” and is measured by increased tourism and the consumption of Israeli products and artifacts, such as Israeli food, technology, literature and music.
Do the Write Thing participants, Yair Amsel (left), Keseah Silverman (centre) and Merav Fima (right), with President Shimon Peres.
For the first time in 60 years, Israel is taking an active role in defining its own brand, instead of passively allowing others to determine it, explained Zehavi Appelbaum, project coordinator at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She spoke to a group of 30 young Jewish journalists participating in Do the Write Thing, a program co-sponsored by the World Zionist Organization-Hagshama, the Prime Minister’s Office and the American Jewish Press Association.
While the notion of a bunker inhabited by armed, bearded men, as depicted by the news media, remains at the core of Israel’s image, it no longer stands on its own. A successful, multifaceted brand also evokes Israel’s variegated landscapes, aromatic wines, medicinal-technological inventions, avant-garde artworks and creative choreography. Thus, while acknowledging the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel shifts the spotlight to its rich culture and diverse traditions; to the very things that make Israel attractive and special.
Last month’s United Jewish Communities General Assembly (GA), a gathering of North American federation leaders, professionals and volunteers held at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, was a perfect opportunity to implement this new strategy. Although the conference dealt primarily with fundraising methods given the current economic crisis, as well as with Israel’s delicate socio-political situation, each of the plenary sessions featured live musical performances by talented Israeli youths from all over the country. Judging by the audience’s swaying, waving of Israeli flags and singing along, these interludes deeply moved and inspired them. Consequently, they may have been even more influential than the standard panels and lectures.
Throughout the four-day event, particular emphasis was placed on the cultural contributions of the diverse ethnic communities integral to Israeli society. During the opening gala, two young violinists of Russian origin performed a concerto by Vivaldi, while a group of girls from Natanya demonstrated a traditional Ethiopian dance. They appeared as a project of the Moran Choir, established to foster greater compassion and unity among the Jewish people. In addition, one session was devoted to the screening of Zrubavel, the first Israeli film by an all-Ethiopian cast and crew, winner of the Best Drama prize at the 2008 Haifa International Film Festival. By highlighting the achievements and different artistic styles of each of these groups, the GA displayed Israel’s diversity and the elements that make its culture so unique.
GA participants were also subjected to branding in between formal sessions, as the convention centre’s corridor walls were covered in David Gerstein’s vivid artworks, while the music of local bands was heard throughout the hallways. “A Taste of Israel” offered attendees the opportunity to experience the delights and distinct aromas of Israeli cuisine, appealing primarily to their palates. Participants enjoyed Carmel wines, Roy’s chocolates and Lin’s Farm’s spreads and jams, among other treats. These temptations stimulated all five of the participants’ senses, increasing their likelihood to patronize Israeli products.
On the day prior to the closing of the conference, a series of daytrips culminated in the Tel-Aviv Café at the Sarona Gardens. Several stages were erected to host local musicians, singers and actors, while beret-clad young artists drew quick caricatures of brave sitters, near a gallery of Nahum Gutman’s paintings, juxtaposed with old photographs of the city. According to MK Isaac Herzog, the event was held in celebration of Tel-Aviv’s 100th anniversary and of its status as Israel’s cultural capital, an assertion challenged by Jerusalem’s new mayor, Nir Barkat.
In his plenary address the previous day, Barkat pledged to reinstate Jerusalem as a vibrant cultural centre, by supporting local artists through such initiatives as the Start-Up Troupe, which partook in the Jerusalem Dance Festival that week, giving an exclusive performance to GA participants. Such projects, establishing a contemporary Israeli narrative by artistic means, undoubtedly contribute to Israel’s branding.
Although an important aspect of branding consists of recognizing one’s liabilities, specifically Palestinian terrorism and the legacy of the Holocaust, Israelis have demonstrated that even these can be presented more sensitively through artistic intervention. One of the GA’s breakout sessions, “The Drama of Holocaust Survivors in Israel”, began with the Testimony Theatre’s performance of To Tell in Order to Live, directed by Irit and Ezra Dagan. A collaboration of Holocaust survivors and third-generation Israeli high school students re-enacting the survivors’ stories, this production moved the audience to tears. “It is unbelievably moving,” said Aviva Movshovitz. According to Dr. David Silberklang, editor-in-chief of Yad Vashem Publications and one of the session’s three panelists, “artistic interpretation reaches far more people than any other medium”. Therefore, international awareness of the Holocaust and empathy for Israeli suffering are raised by exporting such productions abroad.
Though most attendees of the GA already admire Israel and constantly reward it with their monetary gifts, it is a good model for them to take back to their home communities and attempt to implement there, in order to enhance Israel’s image. As asserted by President Shimon Peres in his plenary speech on November 17, 2008, “perfection is contrary to existence. If we want to exist, we have to understand that imperfection is occasionally a condition to a lengthy life.” These words capture the very essence of branding: striving to portray Israel in a positive light, by highlighting its cultural and technological accomplishments, without concealing its imperfections.
Montrealer Merav Fima recently participated in Do the Write Thing, a program for young Jewish journalists at the UJC GA.