Israel’s PR Sucks!

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I know I’m not part of your tribe per se. I know and am aware of my limitations. But I need to tell you, Israel’s PR sucks and unless we change that, we can’t win.

I say we because I’m on your side. I’m with you. And this is why I’m harsh. Because there are these incredible voices and organizations out there, and yet the message gets lost somewhere, or the well-crafted and well-intended content lands in front of the same people who are already with us.

But perhaps the issue really starts here: what is a pro-Israel voice?

Along with Zionism, feminism, or nationalism, being a pro-Israel voice is so perversely twisted that soon we should start apologizing for it as well. In the USA, when I say I’m pro-Israel, it awakes the automatic assumptions that I’m pro-Netanyahu, pro-settlement, often even part of the “baby-killer IDF machinery”; I’m racist, I’m against Palestinians, I’m against a two-state solution, I’m against peace.

And this is as twisted as it gets. Being pro-Israel means nothing more and nothing less than standing up for the simple fact: Jews have the right to have their own country. It’s really that easy. Stop thinking more into it. I’m pro-Israel in a global framework where Israel’s legitimate right to exist is still challenged each and every day. But taking a step further – I also believe – that if I’m pro-Israel, I am pro-Palestinian and pro-Peace with a capital P.

I’m trying to be open-minded.

You know so that people can’t accuse me of being brainwashed. I went to the event of Noam Chomsky with 700 Palestinian supporters. I interviewed people at BDS rallies. I engaged with Palestinians at the UN. And frankly, my conclusion is: if you want peace, you are pro-Israel.

But I can say this because I’m living and breathing what’s happening in this niche. I went to Israel 16 times during the last five years. I study human rights and Judaism in Manhattan as the only non-Jew in the classroom. I work with Israelis and Jews on PR and media campaigns. It’s been five years since I embarked on this often-too-painful journey and people – I need to admit justly – often think I’m simply crazy. Crazy for going the extra mile for a country that isn’t even mine. Maybe.

But here is the thing: Israel’s PR sucks!

I’ve been contemplating this for years now, but the more I see, the more I feel the urge to shout out for a wake-up call! The last few weeks were intense and each day just reassured me that if we really want to act as a pro-Israel voice, we need to do more than creating funny memes on Facebook and talking to same audience all the time.

Let’s start with AIPAC. I’ll be short and to the point. It was my first AIPAC, so it was overwhelming. But knowing that I was there for the right reasons – and that reason being to introduce Ben-Dror Yemini’s book the US audience – was rewarding. His book, Industry of Lies, is exactly why Israel’s PR needs to be re-thought. Quickly.

While I’m aware that there were many non-Jews (well out of 18,000 people one can only hope), it does not change the simple fact: most of the media-related panel discussions were from Jews to Jews. I don’t get it personally, don’t worry. But I’m worried about you. Maybe more than many of the Jews I’m meeting in NYC lately. But that’s another story.

One of the panel discussions on how to engage millennials on social media was really a great one. Since I told the panelists what I’m going to share with you here, I know they get why I’m doing it. Definitely not to undermine their work, but rather to augment it. When a panel is talking about the rising interfaith marriages and yet fails to target non-Jews on their social media campaigns, we’ve got an issue.

Yes, interfaith marriages might be on a rise, and yes, you might consider them a danger for the Jewish future, but you can’t stop the trend. But what you can and should do is to make sure that the non-Jewish parties in this equation will have the desire to raise their kids with Jewish values, make them proud of their – even partial – heritage, support and appreciate the existence of Israel, and never ever have the desire to join the mainstream groups and burn Israeli flags. But here the thing: if you only talk to Jewish people, you are missing out on a population that, eventually, will be bought by the excellent PR of BDS. Yes, BDS is nailing it and I’ve already written about why.

I am also fully aware of the challenges the Diaspora faces. How the Jewish college kids are being torn between being accepted (aka going with BDS) or having the guts and being proud of their Jewish heritage. But if you really want change, you need to talk to the masses. And again, BDS is doing just that. BDS doesn’t filter. The problem with the largest pro-Israel campaigns is that you assume that your audience is Jewish and with that, you assume that they will immediately connect emotionally to your message and content you share. You should aim higher: educate the people who are not emotionally connected to Israel.

Start from scratch. And trust me, as I was one on the ‘other side’, I know, it works: educate people about the most basic misconception that is out there: “There was a place called Palestine, and therefore, Jews is a terrible people as they took away the home of the Palestinians.” Start here, I promise you, you will start a domino effect. If I could start it with an Iranian woman, you can do it with anyone.

Then, let’s move to the UN. I’ve written about it before, but I’ll repeat it again. It is NOT okay that the UN meetings are flooded with anti-Israel propaganda maps, fliers and magazines, while there are no counter-arguments printed by Israel or anyone else. Before you say who cares, I will tell you why it matters: these UN meetings are not only for people who are actually aware of the Israeli-Palestinian situation in any way. Many of the participants are neutral or have a slight idea but nothing concrete, but at least are curious. But when they go home with only one-sided PR material in their bags, that is the only thing they will read and we are back to losing again.

Once, and I’m not going to name who, but someone from a higher position in Israel told me it’s because Israel has no money to compete with the Arab countries who sponsor these PR materials. Fair enough. But then send personnel. Send one person, who – when it’s allowed – can intervene and say: “After hearing one side of the story, now, please, hear the other side.”

Then, let’s move to the recent movie selections. During the last months, there were two overly-advertised Israeli movies in NYC. One, The Settlers, the second one, Foxtrot. I absolutely agree with Dror Eydar’s review on the latter one. What he missed is that watching Foxtrot in Israel or in the USA will trigger different points. The theater in NYC was full; mainly with senior Jewish people, and while I was waiting for my friend after the movie, I overheard exactly what I didn’t want to hear: “After seeing this movie, I’m even more proud that my grandchild is supporting BDS. These kinds of acts by the IDF must stop.” She referred to the scene from Foxtrot where IDF soldiers are shown killing innocent people by mistake and how it’s covered up by senior IDF officers. The Settlers was no less of a hurtful movie that depicted Israel’s population as fanatics who are ready to kill for the land. When these movies are viewed by Jews – most of whom have never been to Israel – and non-Jews – who only know Israel from the New York Times – your PR war is lost. Greatly!

We can neglect all these examples, but these are just a fraction of the whole issue.

So, when? When do we start showing up? When do we start targeting a larger audience? When do we start becoming pro-active instead of staying on the defense?

Today’s loudest wars are the lawfare wars, the PR wars, and social media wars.

So while the IDF soldiers risk their lives on the fields, what if we, at least, would show up doing what we can?

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Virag is a digital communications strategist and personal branding consultant, who is helping individuals and brand owners building a successful online media presence that is authentic, sustainable, and recognizable. She is also a loud pro-Israel advocate, the founder of Almost Jewish, a pro-Israel movement that aims to change the stereotypes about Israel and the Jewish people one day at a time. Currently a Judaism graduate student at Touro College in Manhattan.

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