Acknowledging that Israel's image in the world these days is perhaps not at its apex, the Israeli government is asking its citizens to be more proactive in shaping the image of the Jewish state around the globe.
The government is launching a media campaign to get Israelis to "change the picture" of how they are portrayed through the global media, and dozens of workshops on how to conduct one-on-one discussions with people they meet when they travel abroad.
Depending on one's perspective, the timing could be seen as either ideal or poor. Last week, it was revealed that at least six of the 11 assassins responsible for killing a Hamas operative in Dubai in January traveled on fake passports in the name of Israelis who'd immigrated from European countries. On Monday, a block of European Union foreign minister blasted the fact that "those involved in this action used fraudulent EU member-states’ passports and credit cards acquired through the theft of EU citizens’ identities." And, the controversy over the 2009 Gaza war – and the ongoing debate over the UN-sponsored Goldstone report – has put Israel on the defensive in many quarters.
"In this climate, anti-Semitism is flourishing. Israeli speakers can't appear on university campuses without being heckled and booed. And some outlets will spread terrible lies, such as Israel going to Haiti to do organ harvesting, when we're busy saving lives," says Yuli Edelstein, the Benjamin Netanyahu's Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, who is in charge of the program.
You ride camels, don't you?
The project, called "Masbirim Yisrael" – Explaining Israel – began this past week with a series of prime-time television commercials here that show an almost comical, exaggerated version of how Israel is portrayed in the media.
One of these includes a mock-up of a British reporter – looking and sounding not unlike like the average BBC correspondent – walking through the desert with camels and stereotypical Middle East music.
"The camel is a typical Israeli animal used by the Israelis to travel from place to place in the desert where they live," the actor intones in the Queen's English. "It is the means of transport for water, merchandise and ammunition. It is even used by the Israeli cavalry."
Then comes of the voiceover in Hebrew: "Are you fed up with how they portray us in the world? You can change the picture."
Other videos featured on the new website, www.masbirim.co.il, include a French-language clip of an announcer describing an Israel in which bombs are exploding in the streets of every city. In another clip, a Spanish-speaking reporter makes Israel sound like a primitive, if inviting place to eat: Israelis, he notes, like to barbecue outside because they don't have kitchens.
"My call upon Israelis is not to become world experts on United Nations resolutions, or to explain the policy of the Netanyahu government. What really worries me is the distorted image of Israel that an average person gets," says Mr. Edelstein in a phone interview from London. The program was launched after six months of research in which, he says, the ministry discovered that Israelis are unhappy about their image abroad, and that 85 percent of respondents said they'd like to work to change it.
In January, Israel's diplomatic image also wound up with egg on its face when its deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, invited Turkey's ambassador in for a talking-to. Mr Ayalon sat the Turkish envoy in a lower chair than his, left the Turkish flag off the table, and didn't shake hands for the camera – and pointed all of this out to Israeli television cameraman who filmed the incident. Ayalon ruffled feathers again, this time in the American Jewish community, when he refused to meet last week with J-Street, a progressive new Israel-oriented lobby which has positioned itself as more pro-peace than its hawkish big brother AIPAC, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, which has been around since the 1950s.
Edelstein says that while the launch of the program is not directly tied to such events, it isn't disconnected from the big picture, either.
Workshops on how not to argue
The program has a budget of about $1.5 million, includes a focus of helping Israelis explain and present a "normal" picture of Israel when they go abroad. This will include training for delegations of average people who are not diplomats – such those headed for sports meets, student conferences, municipal symposia, or business gatherings.
"We already have 70 workshops scheduled in which we will address the issue of how to deliver the message, how to avoid shouting and arguing," Edelstein explains. "This is very important. Israelis sometimes have this image of being, you know, loud and arrogant."
Indeed, the website for the program gives tips on how to communicate, with advice like "Listen first, then speak," and suggests citizens should rein in body language that in Israel might seem expressive, but elsewhere, appears excitable or unstable.
This is not the first PR effort of this kind. In 2008, Israel's foreign ministry got involved in trying to "brand" Israel with a more upbeat international image. The hope: when people think of Israel, friendly faces and fun beaches will come to mind before barbed wire and advancing tanks. Several studies paid for by the foreign ministry found that for the average Westerner, the predominant image was clearly the latter. And if not that, they picture an undeveloped biblical landscape, not a technology tiger.
Unlike that rebranding campaign which included YouTube videos, this campaign is focusing on empowering a domestic audience.
"We're not trying to launch an international campaign. We just want to give people the tools they need to make a difference and be good-will ambassadors," says Anat Weinstein-Berkovits, the spokeswoman for Edelstein's ministry. "I once had a German reporter call me to ask how we were coping during the war, and when I described sending the children to school, she asked if were traveling by camel. At first I thought it was a joke, and then I understood that she's serious."
Peace Now, an Israeli organization with supports a two-state solution to the conflict and an immediate cessation of settlement building, complained on Sunday that the website for the new project has a right-wing bias. Peace Now Secretary-general Yariv Openheimer sent a letter to Mr. Netanyahu on Sunday, saying that website encourages extreme right positions such as staying in the occupied West Bank, and did not advocate a two-state solution.