Text size

Thirty years ago, Tal Brody, the U.S.-born Israeli basketball star, became one of the first two athletes to receive the prestigious Israel Prize. This summer, he became the first Israeli citizen to be named a goodwill ambassador for the state of Israel.

Indeed, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman created this unpaid position for the 67-year-old New Jersey native. In this new capacity, Brody - one of the country's most well known Anglos - addresses various audiences abroad trying to help Israel in its ongoing effort to improve its standing in the world.

"Hasbara [public diplomacy] has not really been neglected, but it's not very high on Israel's list of priorities, either," Brody told Anglo File this week in his first interview since returning from his maiden trip as goodwill ambassador.

"People in the U.S. know what Hamas is, they know what Hezbollah is, they know we have a lot of rabbis and a good army in Israel. My position has me go out there and talk about our culture, sports and successes - our daily lives. I lived here for 45 years, I went through five wars and two intifadas, so I know exactly our culture and I know exactly what the complaints are against Israel."

During his recent 20-day trip, coordinated by the Foreign Ministry and Israel's U.S. embassy, Brody traveled to Boston, Washington and Miami and appeared at dozens of events. Among other things, he spoke at Jewish and non-Jewish community centers, schools and universities and participated in fundraising events for American Friends of Magen David Adom and a group assisting lone soldiers in Israel.

"The people that are for us, you have to support and encourage them - don't take them for granted," Brody said about his strategy. The main focus, however, should be on those who are on the fence about Israel's policies or have never thought much about it, he added.

"[Harvard law professor and political commentator] Alan Dershowitz told me: 'Tal, you don't worry about the people who are all against you. It's a waste of time. You worry about the people that are in the middle, who could go either way, and that's the majority of the people.' He's right, even those liberal left-wing kids I met, I didn't feel that they hated Israel."

Brody, a father of two and grandfather of five, said he spoke to liberal-minded and politically left-leaning college students yet was welcomed everywhere with open arms and respect.

"I don't know what they felt inside, but they listened to me. No one walked out or got angry," he told Anglo File over coffee in Ramat Gan. "Perhaps that's because they see me as a sportsman and not as a politician who comes to sell them on Israel."

Critical questions did come up, such as why Israel restricts the Palestinians' free movement in the West Bank. "I said: Look, you're right, there should be freedom of movement, but since the 2000 intifada 1,100 Israelis were killed and we have over 7,800 people that were injured and are running around with ball bearings and nails in their bodies," the Netanya resident said.

"How can you demand and expect of us to live without security fence? You're right, it's blocking freedom of movement but we need freedom to live." According to the Shin Bet security service, 1,178 Israelis fell victim to Palestinian terror in the last ten years. There are no government statistics on how many Palestinians were killed by Israelis during that period but according to B'Tselem the number is over 6,300.

A group of college students brought up the question whether Israel is an apartheid state, says Brody. "I explained to them that Israel is the farthest thing you can have from apartheid," Brody said. To illustrate his point, he told the students he recalls seeing real racial segregations in the U.S. of the 1960s. Israeli Arabs, he said, always enjoyed equal rights and are represented in the Knesset.

"When they ask me about political things, I'm answering according to what I feel as a citizen of Israel. I'm not working for the government, I'm an independent person," says Brody. The Foreign Ministry covers the expenses for his trips, but he does not receive a salary.

Having immigrated to Israel in the 1966, Brody rose to national fame as team captain for Maccabi Tel Aviv, winning the 1977 European Cup. "We are on the map, and we are staying on the map, not only in sports, but in everything," he famously said after beating Moscow in the semifinal, a phrase that has since become a figure of speech expressing national pride.

A third career

After his active career, the shooting guard owned a sporting goods business and later sold insurance. He also became involved in several philanthropic endeavors, most notably as chairman of Spirit of Israel, a nonprofit which helps underprivileged Israeli children.

"It's something I'm doing because it's at the right time of my life," Brody, who two years ago ran in the Likud primaries for the national elections but failed to make the list, said about his work as goodwill ambassador, which will take him to America's South in early 2011. "In the third stage of my life that's what I want to do: service the state of Israel."

But not everyone seems happy with Brody's ambassadorship. A recent front page article in the Maariv newspaper quoted anonymous Foreign Ministry sources complaining that the money spent for his trips - according to the paper tens of thousands of dollars - is wasted as Brody is "not able to convince the liberal community that is critical of Israeli."

Brody, who said he doesn't know how much his tours cost the ministry, rejected the article as "garbage," adding that Lieberman and several other high-ranking ministers called him immediately after it appeared to say they value and support his work. "Brody brings another dimension to our hasbara efforts," a ministry source told Anglo File this week, "and we keep on getting more requests and good feedback."

Brody said budgeting concerns about his trips are legitimate, but Israel needs to invest more in hasbara. "Now after the flotilla incident the government realized hasbara is a little bit more important and should be treated accordingly more than it has been up until now," he says "I don't believe that anybody who's been involved in what I've been doing could ever say that it's not important or that they can't see the results."