Ministry translates Israel advocacy site, reigniting critique of its strategy
'If they're still doing the cherry tomato - that's bananas,' says marketer
The Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Ministry this week launched an English-language version of its "Masbirim Israel" advocacy campaign, prompting some praise but mostly damning criticism. Observers of Israel's public diplomacy called it "ridiculous," "ineffective" and "a waste of time and money." The campaign's approach to Israel advocacy - or hasbara - is too superficial, one critic charged, while another said PR is useless if it is not accompanied by political changes.
Launched simultaneously in English and Russian, the new version of Masbirim Israel (Explaining Israel ), is identical in content with the six-month old Hebrew campaign. "English and Russian speakers around the world are an important audience for Israeli hasbara," Pubilc Diplomacy and Diaspora Minister Yuli Edelstein said.
"Aside from Israelis who speak these languages, there lies great potential in English and Russian speaking communities who are not necessarily Jewish, but who support the state of Israel and can find helpful tools on our website for presenting the country to others."
Masbirim aims to teach Israelis going abroad how to respond to criticism of their country and conduct conversations to paint a positive picture of Israel. The campaign consists of an informational website and brochures providing basic facts about Israel that are being handed out at Ben Gurion Airport. The ministry will also provide advocacy seminars in English, which will be "tailored to the character and language of the group being coached," according to a ministry spokesman.
When the Hebrew site came out, some local and international newspapers mocked the campaign, in part for asking citizens to talk about seemingly trivial facts, for example, that "an Israeli invention for an electric hair removal device makes women happy all over the world."
Jonathan Gabay, a leading London-based marketing and branding professional, maintains the campaign is counterproductive. "People are laughing at you," he said when Masbirim was launched in Hebrew, referring to the site's mentioning of rather trivial "achievements" Israelis should highlight when abroad. The campaign's concept is "too fluffy" and not distinctive enough, he argued.
Edelstein told Anglo File this week that his office received "hundreds of complaints" from native English speakers about the site being only available in Hebrew. "There is a lot of appetite for this kind of site in this community."
Besides a section juxtaposing "myths" and "facts" about Israel and the Middle East conflict, the site - masbirim.gov.il - contains information about "Israel's most prominent achievements," including Nobel laureates and the tidbit that Israelis "developed a strain of cherry tomato that has gained international success." The site also gives tips on how to conduct a fruitful discussions. "Novice public diplomats" should, for instance, make eye contact and occasionally change the tone of their voice to make the conversations more "flowing."
Aryeh Green, who directs MediaCentral, a nonprofit encouraging foreign journalists to see Israel's point of view, praised Edelstein for having Masbirim translated. "English speaking Israelis have a very special role to play [in pro-Israel advocacy], not only because they can be articulate spokespeople for Israel abroad but because they are aware of the nuances and the cultural subtleties of the kind of arguments made and language used when talking about Israel abroad."
Green, who was born in Washington, D.C., also lauded Masbirim for not trying to convince people that Israel is always right but rather attempting to present "an accurate picture" of the country. "The more people know about reality in Israel, the better we look. Masbirim adopted that approach - showing Israel for what it really is - to a certain extent as opposed to efforts by some other groups, who try and push Israel with a much stronger activist advocacy approach."
A number of left-wing activists, however, argue that Masbirim's section on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict advances right-wing views. Edelstein downplayed this criticism, saying the site represents an Israeli consensus on political issues.
Others are highly critical of Masbirim's hasbara strategy. "The same old, ineffective method of regurgitating the facts," commented Josh Ben-David, an Anglo from Jerusalem involved in several Israel advocacy initiatives. "Can't we evolve a little?"
Gabay the marketer quips, "Now people who speak English also get the joke." After his initial criticism, Gabay says he met with Edelstein and his staff and proposed an alterative campaign. "I showed them a different way of doing it, and they agreed it was a better way of doing it, and now I learn that they're still doing it the old way," he said. "If they're still doing the cherry tomato - that's bananas."
Stuart Palmer, the chairman of the Council of Hasbara Volunteers - an umbrella organization of over 100 international advocacy groups - said he welcomes any initiative to disseminate information about Israel but doubts Masbirim's effectiveness. "It's not built on a sound foundation," the Newcastle-born Haifa resident told Anglo File. "The people that Yuli Edelstein is trying to catch [to speak out] on behalf of Israel are being left to their own devices, they're not being [trained] how to speak and how to write and how to use the information... It's a very superficial way of training people."
According to Professor Gadi Wolfsfeld, who teaches at Hebrew University's political science and communications departments, Israel's problem is not that it doesn't have the right recipe for good PR - there is none. "A lot of hasbara in any case is a waste of time and money," said Wolfsfeld, who was born in Philadelphia and immigrated to Israel 35 years ago. "In general, Israel's problems are political and can't be solved by gimmicks or jingles."
Wolfsfeld said that in the Arab-Israeli conflict, hard news focuses on events like violent episodes between Israelis and Palestinians or peace talks "It's nice every once in a while to be in the soft news section, to see something about Israeli technology or cherry tomatoes,” says the scholar who specializes in the role of media in conflicts.
“But it really has no impact on Israel’s overall international standing. The chances that Israelis traveling abroad are going to have a major impact on the international elites who are then deciding what to do about Israel are close to zero.”
But the team behind Masbirim, which costs Israeli taxpayers about NIS 3.5 million, maintains the project is worthwhile and enjoys wide public support. A ministry spokesman said a recently conducted poll showed that 83 percent of respondents feel that the material and tools offered by Masbirim “do assist in improving Israel’s image abroad.”
Edelstein added that he received much positive feedback from international experts in the field, including White House officials. “There are different faces to hasbara, you can’t say this is wrong and this is right,” he told Anglo File. “Our enemies won’t be impressed” by the campaign, he admitted, “but it can make it more difficult for these people to spread their lies.”