Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Beacon No. 40: Who Wants the Israel Account?


Gideon Meir, deputy director-general for media and public affairs at Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, recently wrote a Jerusalem Post piece about hasbara, a word he says defies direct translation but loosely means "public diplomacy." Israel needs more of it, Meir writes, and so Israel's foreign ministry will initiate a new campaign called "Israel Beyond the Headlines."

Unfortunately, this doesn't involve changing unappealing policies, but rather explaining Israel better. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and company seem to think the media, not Israeli policies, are the problem. In a PR Week article, Gideon Meir singled out the European press for allegedly lopsided portrayals of the Jewish state:

Meir plans to stress the country’s medical and technological achievements, thriving business community and ‘diverse’ culture.

"That is the real Israel, not the Israel that is distortedly represented by the European media," he said.

"Those media have an agenda, some [media outlets] even of de-legitimizing the Jewish state."

The PR Week article continues by saying that Israel has begun shopping for a new ad agency to take its case to Europe's citizens.

But everyone—European or otherwise—already knows and agrees that Israel's medical and high-tech businesses are superb, its businesses thriving and productive, and its culture diverse, from Ethiopians to Russians to Brooklynites. It's also well-known that Israel's democracy is rambunctious, its living standards high, its Arab citizens freer than Arabs anywhere else in the Middle East, et cetera.

The U.S. has been down the same road as the Israelis. After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. went into overdrive to answer the question, "Why do Muslims hate us?" The official answer was that Muslims didn't understand the U.S.: that it's a democracy, that freedom of worship is guaranteed, that its diverse culture welcomes immigrants, that the sky here is the limit.

An expensive ad campaign was mounted to spread this answer around the Middle East. But most Muslims were asking a different question, which might be phrased, "Why are you helping the guy whose boot is on my neck?" The U.S. ad campaign sank like a stone, and I would expect a similarly shallow Israeli campaign to tank as well.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has begun a process that is orders of magnitude more expensive: trying to actually support democratic elements abroad and, however clumsily and bloodily, toppling two strategically important dictatorships and replacing them with infant democracies. It's a story that no ad agency could tell in a TV commercial—unless the ad was decades long.

[Thanks to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial Jerusalem Post post.—PK]

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