Forget BDS and the Startup Nation, Turns Out Israel Is a Big Unknown for Young People Abroad

A recent survey finds that most young people abroad don’t associate Israel with anything, not even the Palestinian conflict

FILE Photo: Israelis sit outside a coffee shop on Rothschild Boulevard.
Dudu Bachar

What do the world’s young people associate Israel with? If you think it’s the conflict with the Palestinians, or that the BDS movement is widely recognized, you’d be wrong.

On the other hand, it’s not as if Israel’s reputation as Startup Nation has gotten it much traction among younger people worldwide either. Israel’s culinary achievements were relatively well recognized, but among people aged 14 to 38 around the world – and well as the generation of their mothers, who are regarded as having greatest influence over the household – Israel is a big unknown.

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That’s the conclusion of a survey commissioned by the nonprofit organization Vive Israel, which is seeking to change the world’s perception of the Jewish state.

The survey, which polled 3,950 people in Brazil, Australia, Canada, the United States, Britain and Spain among others, found that “don’t know” was the most frequent answer to the question “what does Israel do best.”

Among the Generation Z group, which covers ages 14 to 21 (for the purposes of the survey), 43% responded don’t know. Among Generation Yers, the millennials aged 22-38, the rate was 30% and among mothers up to age 52 the rate was 35%.

Joanna Landau, Vibe Israel’s founder and CEO, said she was actually encouraged by the survey’s findings.

“If we had found that the majority thought that the army or war is the main thing that Israel is good at, we would first have to educate the global public that Israel is not just about violence and war, and then explain what it is,” she said. “In fact, the situation now is that Israel is a blank canvas that can be painted, which is much easier than it seems.”

Building Israel’s brand among Gens Y and Z is important. While the youngest of the two groups is still in high school and college, within a decade the two groups will represents 75% of the world’s workforce and will be the age ranges that is leading business, politics and cultural affairs.

If the Palestinian conflict is at the center of the young generation’s association with Israel, the survey didn’t offer very much good news about Israel’s image. For those who did have an association, Israel was seen as a place of extreme religiousness, violence and fighting.

Thus, even if Israel could extricate itself from its association with the conflict, it still wouldn’t be regarded by many as an attractive place.

“When they say it’s dangerous here, all that we need to do is show them that that’s not true. We don’t need to enter into the discussion of whether we’re right or not [vis a vis the Palestinians]. To show that is not dangerous is easy. To explain why we’re right – that isn’t so easy,” she said.

As much as Israelis and American Jews take pride in the idea of Israel as the Jewish state, the message most of the world hears is something else, namely that Israel is a religious state.

“The problem is in the eyes of many people, especially the young, religion – not just the Jewish religion – is seen as dogmatic and rigid, not as progressive and liberal,” explained Landau. “In general, there’s been a distancing from religion. So most young people don’t see Israel as an attractive or relevant country for them. This is not connected to the conflict.”

BDS has made little headway with the young and doesn’t affect their views about Israel. Among Gen Z respondents, only 10% said they even knew what the term meant. The rate among Gen Y respondents was higher, but still just 21% and among mothers 18%.

What can Israel do to improve its branding? One small solution to address the image of violence is to see how Belgium responded after the March 2016 airport attack in Brussels. The tourism authority quickly launched a #CallBrussels campaign that encouraged potential travelers to the country to call a number at a public phone located in central Brussels where ordinary Belgians would answer and offer assurance that all was safe.

Some 12,700 people called from 154 countries in five days, attracting global media attention and 9 million internet searches.

Another tactic is to use Hollywood to show another side of Israel. Landau pointed out that the government of Greece helped cover costs for the movie “Mamma Mia,” which is set on a Greek island. Dubai helped finance “Sex and the City 2” and Singapore “Crazy Rich Asians.”

“We have a lot of successful [TV] formats sold abroad, such as the series 'Fauda,' but when you see how they make Israel look in the world, you understand that this is not all for the good. We look terrible. For example, if there was a comedy about an American who relocates to Israel to open a startup and can’t cope with the cultural differences, the world would see Israel differently.”

More than that, Bloom Consulting says Israel has to work to build a positive emotional connection to the country. Investing in public relations explaining Israel’s case to the world (hasbara) alone won’t do that, especially among younger people.