Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Beacon No. 10: Ambassadors Without Portfolio


Recent stories by the Associated Press, Washington Post and New York Times covered the debut of Israel's Ambassador (or Hashagrir in Hebrew), a reality TV show that seems loosely based on The Apprentice. In it, 14 twentysomething contestants (seven male, seven female) vie to be chosen as an informal Israeli public-diplomacy ambassador under the auspices of a New York-based organization, Israel at Heart, which promotes Israel and its policies in the U.S., Canada, South America and Europe.

The newspapers' stories all describe the contestants' first outing, when they field questions at Cambridge University Union in England, a notoriously difficult environment that's home to one of the world's most storied debating societies. Mistakes are made by at least one contestant, whose clumsy answer to a Cambridge student's question ("Let me make it clear that Israel has not taken anything from anyone") quickly eliminates her.

(Incidentally, the show got a withering review in Ha'aretz.)

Ambassador generates a high irony quotient. It parries worldwide stereotypes of reality TV as populated only by the greedy and gullible, since its contestants compete fiercely for a thankless job.

But three things make it entertainment rather than public diplomacy. First, the show assumes that the key to public diplomacy is having the "right" messenger, which de-emphasizes consideration of having the "right" policy, whatever that may be.

Second, Ambassador's judges are all Israelis. Granted, it is an Israeli show, and it's enough that the contestants have to run a gamut of hostile crowds—pity the contestants, France is next. But if the show's producers really wanted to help Israel, they'd supplement their three judges—a political reporter and, remarkably, an ex-army spokesman and a former Shin Bet security chief—with some prominent Israeli Arabs (the only Arabs who could safely appear on such a show). That way, Israelis could learn more about how its would-be defenders can best carry the country's message. As it stands, the show's judge panel indirectly says, "Arab opinion doesn't count."

Third, the candidates are vying to become "ambassadors" not for a nation but for Israel at Heart, an NGO that already exports 21- to 27-year-old Israelis as living billboards for Israel's cause. But just as the show has no Arab judges, Israel at Heart's site provides "About Us" pages in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Hebrew and Italian—but none in the one language an observer might think crucial to public diplomacy: Arabic.

1 comment:

Drew Tulchin said...

Life imitating Art.

It is ironic when true life imitates art. However, given the disgraceful conditions of that region, ripping off a tv show would appear to have at least as much chance, if not more so, of improving diplomacy. We didn't know we had so much to learn from Donald Trump in an environment better known for Jimmy Carter.

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