"Israel Beyond the Conflict" was the tagline of a pro-Israel group that I worked for more than a decade ago, contributing to their effort to “rebrand” Israel and improve its image abroad.
Branding nations was a relatively new concept at the time. It had quickly taken off and was enthusiastically embraced by both the Israeli government and Diaspora Jews. Instead of improving Israel’s image by arguing the Jewish side of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the idea was to show the world how much the Jewish state had to offer, and demonstrate that it is a nation made of so much more than religion, strife and bloodshed, and defined by more than the occupation, what people see on CNN and New York Times headlines.
There was plenty for me to write about: Israel’s high-tech scene had exploded and was penetrating the global consciousness. There were medical innovations saving lives, agricultural innovations, cultural achievements in the arts, humanitarian efforts around the world and Tel Aviv’s growing reputation as a fun-filled Miami-on-the-Mediterranean. We promoted it as the cool Israel, the fun Israel, the Israel that had so much to offer the world, the country that anybody who wants to be a mover and a shaker in business should get to know.
Taylor Force was exactly the audience we were targeting, and the one Israel still aspires to reach today. Clearly, he had received the message. Otherwise, why else would he and 28 of his classmates from a global entrepreneurship course at a top-tier business school be exploring Tel Aviv last Tuesday?
Force was the kind of visitor Israel works hard to attract - one who comes not out of personal connection to the religious history, but out of curiosity for its technological future. He was here not for the Western Wall, but for the gleaming office buildings of Haifa, Herzliya, and north Tel Aviv; not to study ancient laws, but to learn some of the keys to the success of Israeli innovation.
Force wasn’t the first American visitor to lose his life in Israel, not even the first in this latest wave of terrifying violent attacks. But the others have been, for the most part, involved in some aspect of a much more familiar narrative, meeting their fate in the West Bank or Jerusalem. They were Jews who, even if they didn’t make their homes here, had some kind of personal ideological investment in the idea of a Jewish state, often Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox, sometimes ideologically committed to the concept of a Greater Israel, sometimes not. Even though they were American, their deaths felt like part and parcel of the conflict, and not simply because they were killed by terrorists.
But Taylor Force was supposed to be spending his time in that other Israel: the non-ideological Israel that is not about ancient religion and bitter political rivalries, but about business and fun and the vibrant Jaffa beachfront. His visit was supposed to reflect Israel at its best.
This isn’t simply an Israel we create for better public relations or to sell the country as a tourist destination. It’s an Israel that we locals fool ourselves into believing really exists and truly represents us, somehow separate and different from the depressing, sad and frightening version of the life we know surrounds us. We compartmentalize the two Israels because it keeps us sane and gets us through the day, and most of the time, we manage to avoid confronting it head-on. Until we can't.
And attacks like the horrific stabbing of Taylor Force on Tuesday aren't supposed to happen to American tourists that are here to appreciate the Start-Up Nation and enjoy the beachside nightlife. Until they do.
As we send our condolences to Taylor Force’s friends and family across the world, let his death serve as a reminder that there is no such thing as an "Israel Beyond the Conflict" anymore, if indeed, there ever was.
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