About Face

Who best explains the case for Israel: an expert on the separation fence, or a rap group? A Foreign Ministry plan that aims to change the country's advocacy efforts is proving controversial.

Yuval Ben-Ami
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Yuval Ben-Ami

Israeli cultural icons S.Y. Agnon and Natan Alterman may soon join the ranks of Dante, Velasquez and Goethe. Not that anyone is planning just yet to establish a world institute for the dissemination of Israeli culture named after either man, but things are about to change. Starting in January 2006, the Foreign Ministry is planning a new means of presenting Israel to the world. A budgetary reform being formulated by the ministry will make its public relations activities dramatically more flexible, and significantly augment worldwide exposure of Israeli culture.

The reform will primarily affect the budgets of the two ministry departments responsible for shaping the image of the state. One is the hasbara department (a Hebrew word that is part "government efforts to explain policy" and part "propaganda"), which mainly engages in explaining Israel's case in the political sphere; the second is the department for cultural and scientific affairs (CSA). The hasbara department's annual budget in the past few years has been approximately NIS 40 million and CSA's is about NIS 18 million.

Starting next year, over 60 percent of these sums are to be awarded to the ministry's regional departments, which are responsible for dealing with the different continents.

In other words, heads of the regional departments and Israeli representatives abroad will be given optimal authority to decide when and how often the State of Israel will represent itself through a booklet explaining the need for the separation fence, and when and how often it will do so through, say, a play. This change is expected to put the power in the hands of those who promote culture as a means of explaining Israel. This step was initiated only a few months ago, but now appears to be an unequivocal fact of life. The discussions only turn on the dimensions of the change, and its ramifications.

In any event, the plan is sparking debate. It has many fans within the ministry, including skeptics who simply hope to see it realized in the best manner possible. But it also has real opponents, who consider it a short-sighted act that will prove irreparably disastrous. The issue is so complex and sensitive that many ministry officials who gave interviews for this article asked to remain unnamed.

Flawed image

And what are the two aforementioned departments doing now, in the current set-up? Gideon Meir, the deputy director general for information and media, and the man responsible for the hasbara department, did not provide details of the department activities, but Foreign Ministry sources report that in the past year the department focused its attention on university campuses, in the understanding that Israel suffers from a flawed image in student communities.

The department dispatched Israeli lecturers and printed material to universities worldwide. Additionally, it developed a program called "Israel beyond the conflict," in the framework of which Israeli artists received financial support for concerts for college students abroad. The acts included the Idan Raichel ensemble, and two other rock bands, Hadag Nahash and Shotei Hanevua (Fools of Prophecy). The financial support given these concerts is evidence of the department's awareness of the importance of culture as a public relations device.

The CSA department's activity in the past year has touched on every area of Israeli culture, from literature to graphic design. The division contributed to the organizing of 100 events related to Israeli cinema around the world, including an Israeli Film Festival in several cities in China. The department is also responsible for the scholarships awarded to about 100 scholars from around the world who now reside in Israel, where they are completing degrees.

Among the CSA's other accomplishments is the department's contribution to the Israeli design exhibition, "Promised Design," which constituted part of the Milan Design Week and is now touring Europe following the huge interest it sparked. In addition, it organized concerts abroad, including tours by Ahinoam Nini in Italy, Hanan Yovel in Macedonia and Einat Sarouf in Angola. The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, in collaboration with the CSA, distributes translated works of Israeli authors around the world, from Amos Oz to Etgar Keret, and assists them in appearances abroad. Events at which international audiences are "exposed" to dance and theater, which the department arranges, have succeeded in bringing to Israel dozens of festival directors and artistic directors of cultural institutions from around the world, even during the difficult times of the intifada.

Hosting these individuals in Israel costs money, of course, and each time an invited guest is taken by a performance he or she saw, a new cost pops up. At a recent international dance showcase, culture representatives from Japan and Korea discovered the Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak ensemble. The ensemble's Far East tour will require an input of $35,000 from the CSA department budget. In this specific case, the Education Ministry's Culture Authority offered to provide financial support, but in general, the export of Israeli culture to the big wide world is not in its jurisdiction. Clearly, in order for such extensive activity to take place on a consistent basis, the budgetary deployment should be revised.

What, then, has sparked the opposition to the changes? "One reason," explains a ministry official, "is the fear [of proponents of political hasbara - Y.B.] it will turn out there is little demand for hasbara and that there is much more demand for culture. The budget of the hasbara department is currently double that of CSA. Why? Because people are always coming to the Foreign Ministry claiming hasbara isn't working, but no one ever complains there isn't enough culture." The common wisdom is that Israeli embassies now prefer to invest in culture more than in traditional - political, mainly - hasbara, and once they are given greater freedom to do so, they will concentrate their efforts on exporting culture.

And is that how it is? Aviv Shiron, the Israeli ambassador to Switzerland and the former director of hasbara at the Foreign Ministry expresses (from his office in Berne) much respect for the use of culture in hasbara. "Without a doubt, it promotes Israel's image and status, not only in these areas," he says. At the same time, Shiron is cautious not to prognosticate on how foreign delegations will make use of the budgets.

"A very important principle in the operation of diplomatic delegations in every sphere is adaptation to local conditions," he explains. "If someone in China tried to work like they do in San Francisco or someone in Dar es Salaam tried to work like they do in Berne, the outcome would be unsuccessful." That is one reason he is in favor of the reform: it will allow each delegation to develop a strategy of its own, in accordance with its needs.

To date, the hasbara and CSA departments have dictated the nature of the activity. This is what enabled the hasbara department to develop and implement the policy of focusing on university campuses. Those favoring such an approach view the strategy as the greatest strength of the hasbara effort, and therefore object to the reforms. "There is something here that goes against what the State of Israel is trying to achieve: a coordinated, uniform and effective hasbara policy - what the Palestinians excel at," explains one official in the department.

The most passionate opponents to the change are, then, mainly the employees of the hasbara department, who fear the refutation of the professional philosophy they dictated over the years, as well as the harm to their authority. Conversely, the step is supported not only by CSA officials, but a diverse range of ministry officials. They anticipate that it will thin out the bureaucracy and permit critical freedom of action for heads of foreign delegations. Only a few expressly cite the emphasis placed on culture as the major motivation for the reform, but it was hinted that this is the case.

At the beginning of the summer, Rafi Shutz, who until recently was head of the CSA, was appointed deputy director general for coordination. Both opponents and proponents of reform claim his current close proximity to the ministry director general, Ron Prosor, is a strong factor in favor of adoption of the new plan. Shutz terms the allegation "groundless speculation," and prefers to disregard the fact that ministry spokesmen have in many instances given him credit for the change.

Whether or not Shutz pushed the process ahead, he does not deny that the reform poses a threat of sorts to CSA, firstly because the regional divisions might not decide to invest in culture at the anticipated rate, and secondly because it is not only the status of hasbara officials as consultants in their field of expertise that is being weakened. "There are very few people who truly understand culture," he says, "or the correct ways to disseminate it around the world.

"Very few people understand what dance is, or what film festivals and book fairs we should take part in. Most of these people may be found in the culture department." Now, people outside of the department will be entitled to decide on important decisions. In any event, Shutz is convinced the organizational change is critical to enhancing the ministry's effectiveness.

Cautious skeptics

The cautious skeptics include the director of the arts department at CSA, Rafi Gamzu. "If the reform leads to more resources going to culture, not necessarily more than goes to hasbara, but more than the current amount, I will be the first to welcome it," says Gamzu. "My concern stems from the fact that I am not certain that the planners of the reform are aware of the mechanisms of exporting culture, as they now exist."

Gamzu explains that the selection of Israeli culture that is marketed abroad is not made directly by CSA at present. "Most cultural export from Israel is the product of non-Israeli members of the profession, many of whom come to Israel at our initiative, as our guests, for example museum curators and directors - when you are referring to the plastic arts, directors of performing arts festivals - for dance, theater, music and the like. They are exposed here to the local creative arts, and make their choices. A foreign publisher chooses which Hebrew-language book he wants to translate in his country, a foreign film festival director chooses which Israeli documentaries or feature films he will book for his festival."

Gamzu feels the current system's greatest value is the seriousness it evokes. "With a small, highly professional and dedicated team," he says, "we succeeded in crystallizing in CSA an export institute for the Israeli cultural arts, while maintaining professional credibility in professional circles both abroad and in Israel. I hope all this can be maintained, and that we do not end up with a situation in which the reform will be interpreted, inside and outside the ministry, in such a way that this credibility is hurt, and the cultural export is seen as the product of bureaucratic decisions and will be labeled as a culture sponsored by or affiliated with the state."

Nissim Ben-Sheetrit, a deputy director general, seeks to allay all such doubts. "In my opinion, there is no basis for concerns that the divisions would ostensibly fade in importance," he says. "If they do not wield the same kind of weight, then it will only be more." And what about the status of culture in the new order? "We are seeing culture as a hasbara tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between hasbara and culture," says Ben-Sheetrit.

In any event, even the most well-thought-out reform of the way hasbara and culture budgets are utilized will not change the fact that when you add them all together they are quite minuscule. "The activity budget of the Foreign Ministry is ridiculously - and sadly - limited, relative to the quantity of tasks that the delegations face," says ambassador Shiron. "Everyone is yelling, `hasbara, hasbara' but the budget remains limited and is very far from meeting the needs."

A reform of the lackluster state of the hasbara and culture budgets of the Foreign Ministry would surely satisfy many more people in the ministry, but that is already the stuff of a revolution somewhere else - in the treasury.



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