‘Hasbara’ Goes Prime Time


No doubt there are times that many supporters of Israel, here and in the Jewish state, have fantasized about approaching officials who defend Jerusalem in the media and saying, “You’re fired.”

Indeed, one of the few issues Jews seem to agree on is that Israel does a poor job of hasbara, or advocacy.

Now a new prime-time TV program on Israel’s Channel Two has taken the format of NBC’s highly popular reality show “The Apprentice” — most famous for Donald Trump’s in-your-face trademark of disapproval — and given it a timely and edgy theme.

On “The Ambassador,” which had a Nov. 24 premiere, 14 Israelis aged 25 to 30 are competing to make the best case for Israel in a largely hostile world. One contestant is fired at the end of each show.

The winner will receive a one-year post in New York as a communications expert for Israel At Heart, an advocacy group launched two years ago by local businessman and philanthropist Joey Low.

The big-budget Israel broadcast, which will take the contestants to England, France, the United States and other locations for nearly three months as they compete to prove themselves the most effective defender and advocate of the Jewish state, is bringing renewed attention to that perennial topic of analysis and debate: How can Israel do a better job of stating its case?

It also gives rise to questions about whether Israel is really the underdog it perceives itself to be, whether a big-budget or high-concept hasbara program could make a discernible difference with critics, and whether the obsession with hasbara might not be a kind of Jewish Holy Grail: the endless search for a goal that can never be attained.

Certainly Israel takes its image seriously. An internal Foreign Ministry report, leaked recently in the media, warned that Israel’s standing could deteriorate in the next decade to the level of South Africa during the apartheid era. The report called particular attention to Israel’s relationship with Europe, which has worsened in recent years. Some European intellectuals openly question Israel’s right to exist, and Israeli officials are worried their country will be viewed as a pariah by most of the world, and that support in America, a consistent and strong ally, may slip.

Experts disagree over whether the key issue is Israel’s attempt to explain its policies or the policies themselves, which are seen by critics as harsh and oppressive in regard to the Palestinians. Most Israelis, though, see themselves as the clear underdogs, 5 million Jews facing 100 million hostile Arabs and an uncaring world clouded by a combination of oil interests, Arab pressure and anti-Semitism.

Already Controversial “The Ambassador,” whose publicity material claims that hasbara is “perhaps the biggest challenge facing Israel,” opened with strong ratings. About a million Israelis watched the first episode, which took place at Cambridge University in England, where a men’s and women’s team of Israelis addressed an auditorium filled with less than supportive students. The audience heckled Ofra Bin Nun of the women’s team for her statement that “Israel has not taken anything from anyone.”

She was the first contestant to be fired by the panel of distinguished Israeli judges on the show: Nachman Shai, a former spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces who now heads the United Jewish Communities’ Israel office; Rina Matzliah, a top television journalist; and Yaakov Peri, former director of the Shabak Secret Service.

This week’s episode has the contestants in Paris trying to convince French citizens to buy air tickets to Israel, and next week the young Israelis will be asked to create a one-minute video about Israel to be aired on MTV around the world. Future segments will include visits to Washington, where the contestants will meet key legislators on Capitol Hill, and New York, where they will be given a media assignment.

Even before the show aired it was the subject of controversy when Low, 53, in a promo for the program, criticized Israeli professionals for the job they are doing in hasbara. A Foreign Ministry spokesman told the Israeli press such charges were outrageous.

Low told The Jewish Week that after an initial wariness about becoming involved in the Israeli TV program, he agreed after meeting with the producers this summer and becoming convinced they were serious in their intentions. His cooperation includes hiring the winning contestant for a year. (The show’s initial plan was to have the top competitor hired by the Foreign Ministry, but red tape prevented it.)

Low came to believe that “the show will be not just about ratings but substance,” and that “it’s good for Israelis to think about how they are perceived.”

His view that Israel was doing a poor job of hasbara led him to create Israel At Heart two years ago, he said. Since then his effort to improve Israel’s image has focused on bringing groups of young, articulate and attractive post-army men and women from Israel to speak to college students across the U.S. as well as in Europe and South America.

Low has sponsored the visits of some 200 young people since 2002 and spent about $1 million on the venture. He says the program has been a great success.

“What works for us is that these are young people delivering an honest message that comes from the heart,” Low said. “They are proud to speak up and to have the chance to defend their country.”

Yariv Nornberg, 30, who has participated in two of Low’s groups, said he was surprised by the level of ignorance and misinformation about Israel he encountered even among well-educated students. Some thought Israel’s security fence was “a giant ghetto,” and others had no idea that non-Jewish minorities in Israel have democratic rights.

Nornberg said the “secret ingredient” of the advocacy group is “the human level — we were able to connect with open-minded people in a real dialogue.” Nornberg said he gives Israel “a failing grade” on hasbara and would like to see more open discussion with and among Israelis.

“We’re not tolerant with each other,” he said.
Israeli officials who deal with hasbara on a regular basis, in the Foreign Ministry and in various consulates, tend to be dismissive of the growing list of grassroots efforts, from Israel At Heart to various media watchdogs to “The Ambassador,” which one official described as “a game” and nothing more.
One official, who asked not to be named, said “there’s a big difference between hasbara on TV and in real life.”

“Our work is not glamorous. It’s about the day-in, day-out work. What’s good for Israel is to pacify the field, not agitate it,” he said, adding that “this whole obsession with hasbara is not good for Israel.”
‘State Of Mind’
Alon Pinkas, the former Israeli consul general in New York, appears to agree. He told the Jerusalem Post this week that “this obsession that people have with hasbara is more a state of mind than a substantive understanding.” American Jews believe if the Israelis could only find spokespeople who are “telegenic” and “talk like an American,” Pinkas said, then “the world would understand us.”

“We had that in Bibi Netanyahu,” he told the Post, “but it changed nobody’s mind.”

Israel cannot be both militarily strong and viewed as the underdog, Pinkas said, and the government is willing to pay the price of not having world empathy. He added that American Jews could be helpful to Israel if they did a better job of Jewish education with their children and left international diplomacy on issues like anti-Semitism to Jerusalem.

Mitchell Bard, author of 17 books about the Mideast, including the popular compendium “Myths and Facts About Israel,” said hasbara has its place, but education is far more useful. He also questioned the money spent on media watchdog efforts.

“They should take an educational rather than a confrontational approach,” he said. “We can’t change the media’s coverage of the Mideast by attacking it.”

Bard questioned the assumption some make that Israel has lost support in America over the past three decades as a result of its dealings with the Palestinians. He noted that Gallup polls over the decades on who Americans favor — Israel or the Arabs — have remained consistent, with 56 percent supporting Israel after the Six-Day War of 1967, presumably a high point of Israeli popularity, and 55 percent earlier this year, when Israel has been under diplomatic siege.

“The perception that Americans loved Israel was never true,” he said. “They sort of liked Israel.”

(What appears clearer, though no one likes to talk about it publicly, is that Americans have negative views of Arabs. Current figures of 10 to 12 percent support for Palestinians is about as high as the number has been.)
Bard believes that “policy is more important than public opinion,” noting that the White House and Congress are strongly supportive of Israel because Jerusalem’s positions are consistent with Washington’s, and because of the efforts of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. As an example, Bard noted that even when Israel was “being pilloried” by the media during the Jenin offensive two years ago, Congress voted to give Israel an additional $200 million and place greater restrictions on funds for the Palestinians.
“Objectively then, the relationship hasn’t suffered,” he said.

But Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who heads the fast-growing Washington-based advocacy group The Israel Project, warns “never take something critically important for granted.” She pointed out that while the Gallup poll figures Bard cited are accurate, 61 to 64 percent of Americans say the U.S. should not side with either the Palestinians or the Israelis, and only choose Israel “when forced to pick.”

Mizrahi had high praise for Israeli hasbara officials, but said they are understaffed and need help. Israel’s budget for worldwide hasbara is only about $9 million a year; by contrast, AIPAC’s budget for political outreach and lobbying is $40 million.
Israeli Prime Minister Sharon has made some missteps the last several years, like talking about a cabinet-approved policy to kill Yasir Arafat (either do it or not, but don’t talk about it). But overall Sharon has mastered the art of understanding President Bush and winning his support. And the prime minister’s remarks this week about a new willingness to talk to the post-Arafat Palestinian leaders have been right on message.
Complaints about Israeli hasbara won’t stop, though, until Israel is embraced by the world as a brave democracy struggling against heavy odds, appreciated for its remarkable achievements rather than attacked for its military steadfastness.

Maybe that will be the task for the Israeli participants in season two of “The Ambassador.”