There is a new target in Israel's public outreach campaign. Not content with merely the hearts and minds of visitors, the Tourism Ministry is now hoping to win over their palates as well.
This summer, two groups of international food bloggers visited Israel for the first time on separate all-expense-paid trips, one of which was partially funded by the Tourism Ministry. The goal of these trips and similar ones planned for the future, organizers say, is to expose influential writers to Israel through something as seemingly apolitical as food - and to encourage them to share their impressions of Israeli cuisine and culture with their millions of followers.
"Food is a great way of showing what Israel's all about," said Joanna Landau, the British-born founder and executive director of Kinetis, a two-year-old nonprofit educational organization that sponsored a week-long culinary tour in June. "When people think of Israel abroad, they have a very narrow understanding of who the Israeli is. We're trying to show the diversity through food."
As part of its Vibe Israel initiative to present the country as a "hotbed of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship," Landau and her team raised $35,000 online from some 150 private donors and organized a unique tour sans guides, lectures or visits to Masada. "It's not your usual kind of hasbara," she said. "It's all about experiences." (Kinetis has also led trips for mommy bloggers, product designers and indie rock musicians. )
For the five bloggers who participated in the Kinetis tour, these experiences included exploring Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda Market, visiting the Strauss hummus factory, meeting with their local counterparts in the blogging world, and enjoying a home-cooked Shabbat dinner in Tel Aviv.
David Lebovitz, an American writer and pastry chef living in Paris whose food-centric personal website receives nearly 2 million unique visitors per month, wrote seven posts about the trip, all of which presented Israel (and its cuisine ) in a positive light.
For example, in a post on June 29, Lebovitz wrote: "Only 60 or so years old, Israel is young. But it's vibrant and brash; people will tell you what they think and expect the same out of you."
He added: "The uncertainty one might have about this country is tempered at the rickety linoleum tables in the back of markets where hand-pulled filo is quickly baked and drizzled with honey for you and at the juice stands which dot the streets near the beaches."
The post generated dozens of comments, including one from someone identified as Irene which would make the public diplomacy minister smile: "It was gratifying to see Israel flourishing - restaurants and streets busy, cooks producing gorgeous meals and people smiling, sharing a happy moment with your group. Thank you for giving us this much-needed look at a side of Israel rarely seen on newscasts and front pages in the U.S."
Last week, another group of food bloggers participated in a whirlwind tour of Israel's culinary hotspots, eating and drinking their way from wineries in the Galilee to a spice market in Nazareth to gourmet restaurants in Tel Aviv. It was the first trip to Israel for all of the bloggers - three Americans, two Singaporeans and one Spaniard - and included an obligatory tour of Jerusalem's Old City and dip in the Dead Sea.
The four-day trip was organized by student volunteers from the Stand With Us fellowship program, which seeks to counteract negative stereotypes about Israel. It was funded primarily by philanthropists, and the Tourism Ministry provided the bloggers with plane tickets, according to Taste of Israel director Boaz Melnik, 25, a student at the Academic College of Tel Aviv.
Most of the 20 students who led the trip study public diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, including D'vora Charness, 24, a new immigrant from Canada. Charness said she hoped the participants would encourage their followers to visit Israel. "A lot of them haven't actually even heard much about Israel," she said, "so it opens up people's minds."
On the last night of the tour, the bloggers participated in a cooking workshop with Yair Feinberg, an Israeli chef who trained at the Paul Bocuse Institute in Lyon before returning to Israel and founding his own catering business. As Feinberg demonstrated how to make "real" hummus using a state-of-the-art food processor, the bloggers took copious notes and shot photographs with their iPhones and SLR cameras, pausing occasionally to post to Instagram and Twitter.
Paco "Pakus" Becerro, who writes for a leading food blog in Spain (www.directoalpaladar.com ), said he quizzed his hosts all week about what makes Israeli cuisine unique. "They said, 'Hummus?' No, that's from Egypt. 'Falafel?' No, that's from Lebanon. 'Israeli salad?' My mother made that salad since I was young. You call it Israeli salad but I can call it Madrid salad."
"How about Israeli breakfast?" someone asked. "That's it!" Becerro said.
He added: "What you really do is take things from different cultures and make them yours, and make them better than they were before."
Carey Jones, senior managing editor of Serious Eats, which has 20 million page views per month and 8 million unique visitors, said that she appreciated how the tour "explored different facets of the eating experience" but that she would have liked more unstructured time to wander the markets and neighborhoods on her own. Others said a visit to the West Bank should have been included on the itinerary.
Dr. Leslie Tay, a doctor who runs a hugely popular food blog in Singapore (www.ieatishootipost.sg ) decided to stay two extra days to investigate how successfully Israel has imported foreign dishes like pizza and sushi.
For many, the highlight of the trip was gaining insights into Israeli culture from the students themselves and bonding with them over a meal they prepared in a poyke (cast-iron pot ) on the banks of the Sea of Galilee.
"It touched my heart," Becerro said. "I thought we were only going to go to famous restaurants, but they also showed us the normal things that friends eat when they hang out. It was a very nice surprise."