Text size

Having just enjoyed the presentation of six new projects to improve Israel's image abroad, the 150 Israeli students who convened on Wednesday at the Begin Center in Jerusalem seemed to be in a particularly self-congratulatory mood. They didn't realize Alon Pinkas, Israel's former consul general in the U.S., was about to provide them with a reality-check.

"All of these projects are nothing new," he told the crowd of students from all six major local universities and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. "The Foreign Ministry has been involving itself with such projects for the past 40 years. Everything here has been thought of already, and it all failed."

Pinkas was referring to pitches (see box) by graduates of a program by StandWithUs - a Los Angeles-based Israel advocacy nonprofit, which in 2006 started the Israel fellowship program to train students to "redefine the way Israel is perceived" in the media and on campuses abroad.

The graduates, whom the organization hand-picks for the one-year program, are expected to present an innovative project by the end of that year.

Hasbara is a Jewish state of mind

But the six teams which make up the StandWithUs class of 2007-2008 failed to impress Pinkas, who started off by saying he would deliberately put things in blunt terms to put the students in a different mind frame. Hasbarah, the Hebrew word for Israel-advocacy, Pinkas said, "is not a policy, but a Jewish state of mind."

Presenting Israel as the victim of Arab aggression is impossible, according to Pinkas. "In a sense we're telling the world we're a modern, industrialized country - with 120 firms traded on Nasdaq and GDP levels to rival the European Union, while trying to convince everyone that the Palestinians are a threat to us," he said. "Even if that's true there's no way this is going to fly." Israel's advocates, he said, cannot "have their cake and eat it too."

Amos Hermon, a member of the Jewish Agency Executive and chair of its anti-Semitism task force, sang a different tune, telling the students it warmed his heart to see a group of committed young men and women "who don't sit around and complain [in front of the television] on Friday nights, but get up take action."

Responding to this defense, Pinkas said that there was "nothing wrong" with complaining on Friday nights. "It's fine, it's a lifestyle choice. It's what we do. Stop thinking you'll convince the whole world in the righteousness of our ways," he said.

Noting that Japan, Sweden and "even Belgium which is a made up state" do not feel the need to defend their right to exist. Pinkas advised the students - who seemed to be shocked into silence by his words - instead to take it easy. "The whole preoccupation is apologetic by definition," he added, "Yes to public diplomacy, no to apologetics. Let the Canadians defend their right to exist, not us," he concluded.