Commentary Magazine


Will the World Buy Israel's New 'Brand'?

When Israel’s consulate in New York City sponsored a party to celebrate a photo spread depicting female members of the Israel Defense Forces in the R-rated men’s magazine Maxim in June 2007, more than a few friends of the country wondered what on earth the officials responsible for this event could have been thinking. At the reception, middle-aged consular officials gleefully posed for pictures next to Gal Gadot, the “Miss Israel” of 2004 whose résumé included a stint in the Israel Defense Forces as a fitness instructor.

While the photographers clicked away, Ms. Gadot responded to potential critics of the event—a group that would include liberal feminist editor Susan Weidman Schneider of Lilith magazine, as well as numerous Orthodox rabbis—as if anyone who questioned its propriety was a hopeless square. David Saranga, Israel’s consul for media and public affairs in the media capital of the world, told reporters that Maxim was a “serious magazine” and that the pictures he had peddled to it were just part of doing his job “to promote Israel as a normal country, particularly among the magazine’s young male readership.”

The event provoked skepticism and derision as well as prominent coverage in tabloids that included a picture of Gal Gadot stripped down to a bikini and high heels demonstrating her own particularly appealing brand of fitness on the cover of the New York Post.

Rather than a case of diplomats out of the reach of the bureaucrats back home going comically native, the Maxim reception was one of the first actions in what would become a concerted effort by Israel’s foreign ministry to alter the image of the country. Armed with marketing studies, advertising consultants, and an intense desire to change the nature of the international conversation about Israel, some of its representatives are no longer concentrating on trying to argue with their Arab and Islamic opponents about the justice of their nation’s cause or to combat unfair press coverage with complaints and arguments relating to the clash in the Middle East. Instead they are seeking to do something almost as ambitious as the initial Zionist project itself: to change the state of Israel’s image from one rooted in the ongoing conflict over its existence to one that has more to do with high-tech industry, sexy women, gay rights, Tel Aviv’s beaches, and the romance of life in a lively and passionate Mediterranean country.

Anything, that is, except the rights and wrongs of a century-old conflict.

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Those involved with the effort see their objective as a simple business proposition. Israel’s image is linked with distasteful concepts such as war and terrorism. What they hope to do is to “rebrand” the nation through a combination of clever marketing strategies and information campaigns. The result they hope to achieve is that, in the future, the word Israel will no longer necessarily be synonymous with a faith, a history, or the state that won its independence amid war in 1948 and that continues to defend itself against assaults on its legitimacy. Though no one is so foolish as to think all that can be simply eliminated, the hope of the rebranders is that the word Israel will also conjure up an image of Mediterranean fun or innovative technology much in the same way that Paris means romance and Las Vegas means sin. The project’s backers point to research about Israel’s image problems, as well as to what a branding process has accomplished for other countries.

They also claim that a new brand will make it easier to make Israel’s arguments understood, since they believe that a person with what they consider a positive image of the nation will be more likely to grasp its security needs than one whose head is not filled with pictures of attractive Israeli women or sold on the notion that it is a place overflowing with geniuses inventing new cell-phone applications when they’re not curing cancer. And even if those inculcated with the concept of a fun and creative Israel still think its policies are wrongheaded and the ideology at its core is racist, the new brand might mean they would still be more likely to visit the country or at least buy its products.

Their optimism notwithstanding, the questions raised by a decision to emphasize Israel’s brand identity rather than other approaches that seek to tackle the myths that the country’s enemies have propagated in the media are not easily answered by the concept’s champions. Israel may need a new image, but the idea that it can be marketed in much the same manner as a consumer product or a pure tourism attraction is, to say the least, a peculiar proposition. It also has the drawback that any putative panacea poses, in that it can divert the country’s defenders from more traditional modes of advocacy.

Indeed, the idea that friends of Israel can change the subject from the conflict to a more breezy discussion of technology or entertainment value flies in the face of the fact that, globally, the country is being subjected to an increasing amount of anti-Semitic invective thinly disguised as anti-Zionism. At a time when attacks on the legitimacy of the country itself have become commonplace among European elites and even on American college campuses, a decision to “accentuate the positive” rather than to invest more effort in speaking up for Israel’s side of the story—a position that some Israelis may no longer feel comfortable with—may have grave implications for the information war that is being waged in the West.

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The Brand Israel project is a relatively new concept, but the problem it seeks to -address is not. Though Israel benefited in its early years from an image that was based on either its victim status as the place of refuge for Holocaust survivors or as an embattled and outnumbered Jewish state in the midst of a relentlessly hostile Arab world, the country’s string of military victories inevitably led to the loss of its underdog status. The June 1967 Six-Day War began after a period of waiting, during which the annihilation of the state and its Jewish population was considered a distinct possibility, but ended with Israel proclaimed as the region’s superpower.

The following decades would see the narrative of the conflict change, with the Israelis being portrayed as an aggressor, a Jewish Goliath menacing an Arab David. By the time of the 1982 Lebanon War and the start of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987, the negative press coverage directed at Israel had become a major handicap for the nation’s efforts to justify its policies. Throughout this period, calls began to be heard from both Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora for a concerted effort to answer the slanders that had created a distorted image of the Jewish state in the media as a swaggering bully oppressing helpless Arabs.

Though the need for a dedicated effort to improve its information policy (called hasbara in Hebrew) was apparent, resistance within the Israeli Foreign Ministry as well as the political culture of the nation was fierce. As far back as 1977, when Menachem Begin was elected prime minister of Israel, he promised a new ministry that would address the nation’s information policy. Shmuel Katz, Begin’s old colleague in the pre-state Irgun Zvai Leumi underground, was slated to be the hasbara czar, but this plan was soon torpedoed in a political turf war won by the Foreign Ministry.

Katz’s belief that the nation needed to take seriously the way its image was being altered by the changing nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict was a minority view among his countrymen. Indeed, most of the pressure in the post–Lebanon War era for a more serious approach to selling its policies abroad came from frustrated Diaspora Jews who were dismayed at Jerusalem’s seeming lack of interest in the way the Jewish state was portrayed abroad.

For supporters of Israel in the 1980s and 1990s, the question of how to present Israel to the world was not spoken of so much as a matter of national imagery but as a question of who might speak for it. In an earlier era, when an embattled Israel tended to be viewed sympathetically in the West anyway, its most prominent voice was Abba Eban, who simultaneously served as ambassador to the United Nations and to Washington in the 1950s and then as foreign minister from 1966 to 1974. Eban was a native of South Africa who spoke with an impeccable English accent that reflected his Cambridge University education. An orator of prodigious talent and a man who spoke the King’s English better than most Englishmen, Eban was a representative of Israel who was respected by the media. Even more to the point, he made American Jews proud to be associated in some way with Israel.

However, most of Eban’s successors, either as spokespersons for the Jewish state in America or at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, were not so fortunate in their English-language skills. That was a point that would inevitably be raised when the question of the effectiveness of the nation’s information policy was mooted even as issues about public-relations strategies were largely ignored. The rare exception was Benjamin Netanyahu, who served first as a lower-level official at Israel’s Washington embassy in the early 1980s and then as its UN ambassador. Though a native Israeli, the future prime minister had been largely raised and educated in the United States and spoke fluent American-accented English. Even more to the point, he understood the dynamics of television and the talking-heads news shows on which Israel’s policies were debated. Netanyahu’s ability to speak in short, coherent sound bites made for both effective television and advocacy.

The problem was that the country’s leaders at the time viewed all this as beside the point. For Yitzhak Shamir, the grizzled veteran of both the pre-state Lehi underground movement and the Mossad spy agency after independence who served two separate terms as a Likud prime minister, the notion of the importance of public relations was itself irrelevant. He was a politician who at times seemed as if he were applying the rigid rules of spycraft to his government leadership role. Shamir appeared to view the idea that Israel ought to work harder to explain itself to the world as a snare for the foolish. Reflecting a classical Zionist mentality that believed that what Jews did was more important than what non-Jews said about them, Shamir epitomized Israel’s contempt for international PR as being not only unnecessary but also beneath the country’s dignity.

Equally apathetic to the notion of revolutionizing hasbara was Shimon Peres, Shamir’s opposite number on the Left. While as articulate and accessible to the international press as Shamir was close-mouthed, the longtime Labor-party leader and perennial candidate for high office had a similar disinclination to worry about information policy. While Shamir viewed unfavorable foreign views of Israel as either the product of willful ignorance or incorrigible anti-Semitism, Peres had a different theory about his nation’s image problems. He thought the problem wasn’t a matter of presentation but of wrong policies. All the Jewish state needed to do to regain the popularity it had enjoyed during the time when he served as an aide to its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was to reject the notion that there was any alternative to negotiations and territorial compromise with the Palestinians.

Once peace was made with the country’s Arab foes and an era of economic, social, and political cooperation was inaugurated in the region—the utopian vision that inspired Peres’s fanciful 1994 book The New Middle East—what need would Israel have of information policies or even good spokespersons? The best hasbara, he was fond of telling American Jewish audiences, consisted of policies that brought about peace.

During the four years of Labor-party rule under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin and Peres himself from 1992 to 1996, Israel’s answer to its foreign image problems was precisely that: promotion of the Oslo process and the unswerving belief in the idea that a country that pursued peace so unselfishly would have no problem either explaining itself to the world or fending off attacks on its legitimacy. The euphoria inspired by the signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn in September 1993 at first seemed to justify the theory. However, as the reluctance of the Palestinians and their leader, Yasir Arafat, to adhere to the provisions of the agreement and to cease terrorism or incitement to hatred against Jews and Israel became clear, Peres was left with the same dilemma as his less optimistic predecessors. Since the Arabs and their cheerleaders in the West were still succeeding in portraying the Rabin- and Peres-led Israel as the heartless Goliath of the Middle East, the Peres notion that the peace process would solve the hasbara problem was exposed as a fantasy.

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Yet when a renewed campaign of Palestinian terrorism led to Peres’s defeat in the 1996 elections and brought Netanyahu to power, the notion that having a prime minister who could speak American English on American television would transform the battle over Western public opinion was also revealed as naive. Netanyahu’s opposition to Oslo, though reflective of the opinion of what turned out to be a majority of Israelis at that time, was viewed by Israel’s Left and by the international media as a hidebound position partly responsible for Rabin’s assassination. His identification with a resurgent Republican party in the 1990s also played poorly with many American Jews who despised Christian conservatives who were ardent supporters of Israel. The demonization of half of Israel’s electorate that had begun years earlier with left-wing attacks on Menachem Begin would lead to Netanyahu and then Ariel Sharon being effectively, if unjustly, labeled abroad as extremists who were the moral equivalent of rejectionist Palestinians.

Ironically, the failure of Netanyahu’s successor, Ehud Barak, at Camp David in July 2000 to bring an end to the conflict with an even more generous peace offer than the one promised by Oslo would set the stage for a decade during which the Jewish state’s image would be even further besmirched.

When Arafat declined Ehud Barak’s offer of a Palestinian state in almost all the West Bank, Gaza, and even part of Jerusalem, Israel’s Labor-led government assumed that the Peres hasbara formula would inoculate the country against Palestinian propaganda. Barak’s foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, told reporters that Camp David and the subsequent decision of Arafat to launch a terrorist war of attrition in the fall of that year, known as the second intifada, ensured that never again would Israel be labeled an obstacle to peace or an aggressor in the conflict. He could not have been more wrong. During the years that followed, every defensive measure intended to halt the Palestinian campaign of suicide bombings and shootings that took the lives of more than 1,000 Israelis was subjected to criticism of growing intensity abroad. Rather than Israel’s critics being silenced by the Palestinians’ decision to prefer war to a two-state solution, the volume of vituperation against Zionism coming from Europe and the American academy increased to levels greater than at any time in Israel’s short history.

Nor was Ariel Sharon’s decision to strip Gaza of every soldier and settlement in August 2005 rewarded with much of a public-relations boost. When, more than three years later, in December 2008, Israel responded to years of Gaza’s being used as a launching pad for missile fire against its southern towns and villages with a counteroffensive to halt the attacks, the country’s treatment in the international media was not influenced much by the fact that it was being attacked from territory it had surrendered to advance peace. After 16 years of peace efforts, not only were hopes for a resolution of the conflict at their lowest ebb in decades, but the idea that the pursuit of an accord would transform the country’s image was similarly dashed as well. The more Israel had striven to be reasonable, to compromise, and to recognize the rights and needs of its antagonists, the more intransigent the Palestinians had become, and the country’s efforts to fend off the resulting terrorism was treated as even more indefensible by an increasingly unsympathetic world.

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In the wake of the disastrous international response to Israel during the second intifada, many Israelis and their foreign friends came to accept that the crisis must be addressed in some fashion. This, in turn, produced two competing schools of thought. One still focused on addressing the myths and misconceptions about Israel that its foes had propagated, seeking to answer them with the truth. The other argued that the preoccupation with the politics of the conflict itself assisted the Jewish state’s enemies in defining it in a negative fashion.

The latter was embodied in a new group called Israel21c: A Focus Beyond the Conflict, founded by a team of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in 2000 as a “new paradigm for pro-Israel communications.” Self-consciously avoiding any discussion of the rights or wrongs of the conflict, Israel21c sought instead to merely promote positive images of Israel. Believing that the popular identification of the country with that of war was itself an evil, it set out to educate the world about all the nice things about the place. Acting very much as a new-age international chamber of commerce for the country, the group busied itself by producing stories about Israeli science, business, and art.

Though its work was relatively unsophisticated and often poorly handled, Israel21c was able to pitch news organizations with ideas for features that would highlight the country’s burgeoning and creative high-tech industries as well as its advanced scientific-research institutions. Those reading or watching such stories would, Israel21c assured its supporters, necessarily have a greater affinity for Israel than before because they would understand the value of the inventions and medicines produced by clever Israelis. And they would also see the country as a real place in which normal persons lived everyday lives.

The other school of thought was represented by another new organization that took its place in the lengthy list of pro-Israel groups during the second intifada: The Israel Project (TIP). Rather than merely another advocacy group or media-bias watchdog, TIP took on the mission of serving as the community’s liaison with the media. It sought to educate a press corps that was itself often ignorant about the history of the conflict by bringing journalists to Israel on trips during which they would learn about the realities of the place and, by assisting the press already stationed there, understand the context of the situations in which they found themselves. Above all, TIP saw its goal as debunking the notion that Israel sought war but was instead consistently seeking peace.
While Israel21c saw the country’s salvation in marketing, TIP had its own media guru, the pollster Frank Luntz, who produced a study in which he analyzed the anti-Israel attitudes of young American elites. In a booklet released by the group that presented his findings, Luntz fired a shot across the bow of Israel21c when he observed: “You can’t get beyond the conflict until you get beyond the conflict. A strategy of focusing on all the contributions to 21st-century life will go unheard unless and until your audience hears and believes that Israel is a proponent of peace, an advocate for justice, and a force for compromise.”

Luntz’s interviews with graduate students at top American universities revealed that these young people apparently thought ill not only of Israel but also of institutions of American Jewish life such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which were seen as the source of pro-Zionist political manipulation. They had come to believe that to support Israel was to be “narrow-minded and one-sided,” while support for the Palestinians was “progressive and thoughtful.” His answer to the problem was to advise the pro-Israel community to “start from scratch” and make Israel’s case to the country anew. The resulting primer produced by TIP focused on language and the right things to say when speaking on behalf of Israel.

Yet that approach has encountered growing resistance from those who believe that attempting to inform Americans about the facts of the conflict comes across as patronizing cant. They insist that a “beyond the conflict” approach is the smarter path for Israel. It is in that context that Brand Israel, the latest iteration of this idea, has been embraced.

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The branding project was born in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks, with the second intifada raging in Israel. Alon Pinkas, then Israel’s consul general in New York, convened a meeting of leading advertising executives and public-relations and political consultants who were tasked with pondering the Jewish state’s problems. This group, which at various times included such luminaries of the field as Ken Sunshine, David Garth, Howard Rubenstein, and Hank Sheinkopf, eventually morphed into another committee known as the Brand Israel Group.

This gathering convinced the Israelis that the proper model for their image issues was a study conducted by Young & Rubicam for France. Its research centered on American attitudes toward the French during the time its government was highly critical of the Bush administration and opposed to the war in Iraq. The study revealed that even though most Americans were angry at France’s refusal to stand behind the U.S. war effort and what were then hugely popular Bush policies, they had no interest in boycotting the nation’s goods or refusing to travel there. The French brand was so strong that it survived the public’s political mood swings. That was what Israel needed—a brand identity more powerful than any individual political controversy.

A Young & Rubicam 2004 Brand Asset Evaluator, as well as a survey sponsored by the Brand Israel Group in 2005, revealed that despite strong political support for Israel by most Americans—in surveys, between 60 and 75 percent of Americans express positive feelings for the country—its image was linked almost exclusively to conflict. Few had any real concept of life in the country. The branders were particularly intrigued by the fact that young males, the demographic that is generally considered the prime target for those selling consumer products, was the weakest group in terms of knowledge of Israel. It was, no doubt, from that particular piece of intelligence that the decision to promote cheesecake pictures in Maxim clearly evolved.

But there was more to the branding effort than just racy photos. A pilot project undertaken in Toronto in 2008 called Touching Lives took the concept of selling Israel to a broader audience, with billboards, bus-shelter ads, radio commercials, Internet material, as well as more traditional outreach methods, exposing Canadians to the full spectrum of pro-Israel boosterism. One particularly effective spot dealt with heart stents created by Israelis that saved the life of a member of the Indian community.

Such efforts illustrate the branding paradigm that prioritizes the creation of a long-term communications strategy, while hasbara is dismissed as mere crisis management. The Toronto project was ably executed, but it also provided an example of how the conflict has a way of intruding upon even the most assiduous effort to talk about anything but the conflict. While those behind the pilot were happy to promote the fact that in the immediate aftermath of the campaign, in the fall of 2008, the number of positive stories in the Canadian media about Israel increased, the situation changed in December of that year, when the Israel Defense Forces attacked terrorist targets in Gaza. As the consulate’s own data revealed, while the conflict raged and those seeking to suppress Hamas missiles were -often being routinely portrayed as ruthless killers in the same forums that were pitched to portray the country’s virtues, talk of Israeli designs for heart stents ceased.

For Israelis who are sick and tired of having only one element of their diverse national life portrayed abroad, the sort of public-relations work that the branding project employs is deeply satisfying. Other elements of the Brand Israel idea that have begun to be implemented, such as highlighting the freedom of the country’s gay community or an effort to give better play to the country’s beach resorts, can have obvious benefits for tourism. Similarly, there is something to be said for micro-marketing strategies that will target specific audiences such as those persons who suffer from an ailment that might be ameliorated by an -Israeli-made device or cure. Put in that context, the idea of laying the groundwork for altering its conflict-driven image is eminently sensible.

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But this does not explain the decision of some Israelis involved in the project to abandon the political arguments altogether. Part of the attraction for branding is their annoyance with what they see as a right-wing tilt of those who continue to talk about the conflict rather than marketing strategies. In particular, The Israel Project, which came into existence talking about virtually nothing else but Israel’s desire for peace, came under fire in 2009 for producing an update to its primer on language about the conflict that discussed settlements in the territories in a neutral tone rather than in the purely pejorative fashion that Israel’s Left and much of the country’s international critics have spoken of them. Indeed, it is hard to escape the conclusion that for some—though by no means all—of those involved in the project, the desire to get away from a discussion of the conflict stems as much from their own unwillingness to answer criticisms of settlement policies or the treatment of Palestinians that they may share.

Yet while some Israelis are focused on marketing, a rival branding campaign has stolen a march on them: the Israel-equals-apartheid brand. At a time when anti-Semitic themes have flooded Europe in the form of Swedish newspaper stories promoting blood libels about Israelis’ stealing the organs from murdered Arabs, and when even Jewish biblical heroes such as Samson are portrayed in European opera houses as Palestinians, while the Israelis are shown as the moral equivalent of vile Philistines (as was famously the case when an Antwerp opera company produced a version of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila), the rebranders are in no position to neglect the more immediate need not to let the libels go unanswered.

The question of the proper target for any sort of pro-Israel advocacy must also address a point that all too many Israelis tend to ignore. While they hope to reach vast audiences of non-Jews, to whom they hope to sell products and promote travel, the glaring omission in much of the branding discussion is the fact that the audience where support for the Jewish state has been most impacted by media bias is Jews themselves.

Though the branders think they can make non-Jews think about Israel in terms of innovation or even sex, the positive religious and historical brand of biblical Israel will always trump notions linked to what is happening in laboratories in Rehovot or on the beaches of Tel Aviv. By way of contrast, Jewish self-esteem is directly related to that of Israel. No matter where Jews fall on the religious or political spectrum, Israel’s triumphs make them all feel better and reinforce identification with Zionism as well as Judaism. Its defeats and, more to the point, attempts to portray Israel as a villain have a catastrophic impact on Jewish support.
Thus, a greater focus on reinforcing positive Jewish images of Israel, especially those that are experiential—such as the Birthright Israel program, which brings young Jews on their first organized trip to the Jewish state—is far more important than marketing the country to a generic population of American adolescent boys and men who could care less about the nationality of the women they ogle.

For all its many virtues and diverse scientific, business, and cultural achievements and attractions, Israel is not France. Whatever problems countries such as France, Britain, Russia, Sweden, and post-apartheid South Africa may have encountered, none of them has been subject to an international campaign whose ultimate purpose is its complete annihilation. All the advertising in the world cannot make the word Israel be thought of more in terms of beaches rather than the quest of Jews to live in freedom in the land of Zion and Jerusalem or the efforts of those who wish to destroy it. Those who think they can alter its image in this manner are asking more of clever marketing strategies than such strategies can possibly deliver. Unless Israel is viewed as being in the right in its struggle to defend its existence, the brand-evaluator ratings it gets will be pointless. While there is nothing wrong with the country’s seeking to promote an image that is more attractive, as well as to educate the world about the fact that the conflict does not define the totality of Israeli life, the Jewish state and its friends cannot ignore the necessity of devoting the lion’s share of their resources to countering the evil arguments of those who seek to delegitimize and destroy it.

About the Author

Jonathan Tobin is senior online editor of COMMENTARY.




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