On Wednesday evening, May 9, Ido Aharoni, the Israeli consul general in New York, spoke at Ansche Chesed, a Conservative synagogue on New York's Upper West Side to which our family belongs. I attended with two aims: to see how members of our quite liberal but strongly Zionist congregation responded to the talk, and secondarily to ask a question or make a comment if the audience turned out to be too willing to swallow what I was sure would be a large dose of Israeli hasbara. I was pleasantly surprised on several counts.
First, attendance was miniscule, with only 29 or 30 people in attendance out of a congregation of two to three hundred families. When I was growing up in Connecticut in the nineteen fifties and sixties, a talk by the Israeli consul would have packed the auditorium at my Conservative shul. Although there were no doubt other factors, including the fact that the talk was on a week night and not in the middle of one of Israel's many wars, it had been announced in the synagogue's newsletter and placed on the events calendar, and the rabbi followed up with an email on the morning of the talk. I interpret the scant turnout as a clear sign that large numbers of liberal, congregationally affiliated Jews are no longer interested in listening to what they probably peg as official Israeli propaganda.
By way of contrast I also note that a couple of years ago our rabbi, Jeremy Kalmanofsky, to his great credit scheduled a talk by Rabbi Arik Ascherman, Israeli-American co-founder of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel. The talk, on the subject of Israeli house demolitions and anti-Arab violence by settlers in the Occupied Territories, was held in the same room as Wednesday's gathering, but drew twice as many people.
Second, I expected the audience, which was heavily skewed in an elderly direction, would be very supportive of the Israeli consul, but I was wrong. The consul's talk was entirely about the "Brand Israel" marketing campaign as the wave of the future in Zionist PR. Aharoni spoke frankly as if we were close allies, which I guess was his expectation. Instead, many in the overwhelmingly Zionist audience were quite dissatisfied with, and even hostile to, the hollow hasbara discourse and marketing plan which the consul described.
Although the talk had been billed as a discussion of the "successes and challenges of Israeli diplomacy,” the consul began by asking Rabbi Kalmanofsky what subject he should focus on. The rabbi specified the“delegitimization” of Israel and what could be done about it.
Aharoni then proposed to the audience a psychological experiment. How would we rate a Mr. Smith, a well-dressed, apparently prosperous man in his early sixties -- “he's actually sixty-four” -- who appeared before us if we knew nothing about him? He answered this question by stating that “psychological research” has shown that, knowing nothing about him, we would rate him a five on a scale of one to ten.
Aharoni told us that a Mr. Jones, younger and not well-dressed, apparently poor, would appear next, and tell us that Mr. Smith was his next door neighbor, had built a fence between them that stole part of Mr. Jones's land, and was settling some of his relatives on the stolen land. Now how would we rate Mr. Smith? Again he answered the question by stating that “research has shown” that we would lower our rating of Smith to a three.
Finally, Mr. Smith re-appears and denies Mr. Jones's claims, stating that the supposedly stolen land has actually been in his family for three thousand years, and he has a document -- the bible -- to prove it. According to Aharoni our rating of Smith would now return to a five.
The point of this story is that Mr. Smith (Israel) can never get above a five in this context, that being what Aharoni referred to as the “geopolitical” aspects of the situation. According to Aharoni about seventy percent of Americans support Israel, but actually neither know nor care much about it. This is a result of that seventy percent being bombarded by an endless stream of news about the Arab-Israel conflict, which causes them to turn away from the whole subject.
Aharoni's solution to the problem -- Israel being stuck at a neutral five rating, large segments of the public not really caring about or identifying with Israel -- is to completely change the conversation from a broadly targeted campaign selling Israel's side of the conflict story, to a narrowly targeted campaign that totally ignores the conflict and instead promotes Israel's positive aspects to specific niche markets. Ths campaign is “Brand Israel”, and unless I misheard him, Aharoni claimed that he had been an originator of the concept. The target markets he mentioned included:
- Gays -- the infamous pinkwashing with Tel Aviv's gay scene as the lure
- Runners -- Israel has three marathons and one Ironman triathlon each year, as well as a number of half marathons
- Investors -- (see Start-up Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer)
- Birding -- many inter-continental bird migration routes meet over Israel, making Israel a birder's paradise every spring and fall, as hundreds of avian species cross the region
- Environmentalists (e.g., Green Zionist Alliance)
- Art, music, film, fashion (e.g. AbbaNibi.com)
Aharoni claimed that “Brand Israel” is having its intended effect, that tourism in Israel is up substantially since the campaign began. Almost as an afterthought, as if to say “we're getting our money's worth”, he added that the Israeli government has spent a lot of money on market research to design the “Brand Israel” campaign, including hiring the big four accounting and consulting firm Ernst and Young to do a detailed study. The study included a comparison of Israel's marketing problem with that of New York City following the city's fiscal and crime crises in the nineteen seventies.
But when he went on to compare “Brand Israel” to New York City's “Big Apple” marketing campaign, asserting that the campaign turned the city's image around and led to a huge increase in tourism, a woman in the back spoke out: “But crime really did decline.” This opened the floodgates. A minute or two later Rabbi Kalmanofsky commented that the woman's point was a good one, that the consul (and presumably Israel) was not addressing the substantive issues (i.e., human rights) that concern most liberal Zionists.
A man who appeared to be in his late forties or early fifties brought up the issue of Israel's treatment of J Street. After apologizing profusely for what he was about to say, he complained that the Israeli government did not respect J Street or engage in genuine dialogue with them. Aharoni responded that J Street is a special case because they lobby on behalf of Israel's opposition parties, activity which he claimed disrespected Israeli democracy and was beyond the pale.
There's chutzpah and then there's chutzpah, but this was really too much. I interrupted Aharoni to point out that the behavior he was (I believe falsely) imputing to J Street was in fact what Israeli governments, politicians and AIPAC (de facto agency of the current Israeli government) do in the United States as a matter of routine.
One of the older women present, probably in her eighties, sounding very agitated, accused Aharoni of ignoring the substance of the problem. Others made similar comments. There were a few supportive comments as well, but even a fortyish self-professed AIPAC supporter seemed miffed that what Aharoni was describing was not specific enough -- he wanted proof that this plan was working.
At the end of the question period, as people rose and began to leave the room, an acquaintance who has many Israeli relatives turned to me and said in a tone of semi-disgust, “he didn't say anything about the real issues.” I think that about summed up the night.
While I would not draw any exaggerated conclusions about the declining power of hasbara from this event, I do think that the evening clearly demonstrated the slowly but steadily fading allure of the Zionist project for liberal Jews . And the open and detailed description of the Israeli marketing campaign, “straight from the horse's mouth,” while not surprising in its gist, was a fascinating glimpse into the official Israeli mentality.