New Tacks In Battling Israel’s Image Problem


In the midst of a data-driven presentation on why Israel is losing the social media war, the head of a major Jewish organization, on hearing that the perception of Israel as a “start-up nation” has little traction with many Americans, questioned the findings being presented.

“What about the success” of Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s 2009 book, “Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle,” the veteran of the Israeli and American Jewish establishment asked. “It was a best-seller.”

True, came the reply. But the Jewish leader was informed that while “the conversation around Israel is huge” on the Internet, statistics monitoring Twitter, blogs, posts and forums indicate that the country is “very polarizing.” In fact, 45 percent of the conversation is negative — only 14 percent is positive — and a measly 0.4 percent of all Israel-related conversations over the past year mentioned innovation.

The recent evening’s tough-love presentation was followed by a report on the success of an out-of-the-box social media effort that floods the market with soft-sell news tidbits promoting Israel primarily to young non-Jews as cool.

The one-two punch came from two highly seasoned ad men who are deeply committed to Israel, dedicating their expertise pro bono in efforts to improve Israel’s image primarily by avoiding the Arab-Israel conflict. But their message that Israel is irrelevant — at best — to growing numbers of young Americans, and that the most effective approach is through paid content online, is counterintuitive to many pro-Israel advocates.

Part one of the recent meeting offered the bad news, based on data showing that Americans view Israel as “alienating” — and perceive it as “distant” and “no-nonsense.” It was a hard message to absorb for many in the group of about 50 men and women — mostly successful young Jewish businesspeople. But they didn’t question the numbers or the positive intentions of the presenter, David Sable, whose professional and pro-Israel credentials are stellar. The kipa-wearing global CEO of Y&R, one of the largest ad agencies in the world, has served in the Israel Defense Forces and on the boards of numerous Jewish organizations, including UJA-Federation of New York (and currently, The Jewish Week). Perhaps most effective in his behind-the-scenes efforts, he has made similar power-point presentations to a number of Israeli diplomats and politicians, including those at the highest levels.

“What I am sharing with you is not my opinion, it’s pure data,” Sable explained at the outset of the recent local meeting. “And the most important takeaway from my presentation is that the biggest problem in the Jewish world” when it comes to discussing Israel’s image, is that “we continue to talk to ourselves.”

The statistics Sable has compiled are part of the Brand Israel strategy he helped create shortly after 9/11. It measures emotional response, based on sophisticated research compiled by including Israel in the annual mix of hundreds of brands (including countries) studied by Y&R’s Brand Asset Evaluator, the world’s largest brand data analyzer.

The data shows that Israel is a powerful brand in the U.S., but is associated more with “tanks and banks [referring to the military and economy]” than more desirable categories like entrepreneurship, quality of life or citizenship.

Working closely with Ido Aharoni, the former consul general of Israel to New York, Sable has sought to create a shift in perceptions of Israel so that it is seen as democratic, progressive, creative and innovative rather than a place of endless conflict. Over the years the campaign on social media has had much success in promoting Israel as a hip, caring and open society. But not as much as most American Jews believe.

Sympathy for Israel is “dropping dramatically” among American millennials, whose empathy for the Palestinians has tripled in the last decade, from 9 percent to 27 percent, Sable said, citing data from the Pew Research Center. “This is the most pro-Palestinian generation” to date, he noted.

But he cautions Israel advocates not to assume an “us vs. them” attitude, asserting that not everyone who criticizes Israel is anti-Israel or an anti-Semite and that “not every Jew who supports BDS [the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel] is a self-hating, ignorant Jew.”

He criticized the approach of some Israeli spokesmen who describe their country in superlatives like “the most democratic country” and “the most like the U.S.,” when political policies, particularly in their treatment of Arabs, undermine those claims.

“How do you think the parents of American soldiers fighting overseas feel,” Sable asked, “when they hear Israeli diplomats insist Israel has the most moral army in the world?”

He says such an approach is arrogant. He prefers acknowledging the reality that “war is hell, we don’t want to be at war, and bad things happen in war.”

Sable said the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel has had success because it has a positive message, one of solidarity and self-expression in advocating equality for Palestinians, while the anti-BDS groups have an inherently negative message, opposed to a popular social movement.

BDS proponents “are driving the conversation, while we’re always behind,” Sable said, and the BDS content is more highly optimized, visually appealing and easier to share than is anti-BDS material.

Opponents of BDS would be more effective in seeking common ground with adversaries, he said. “Tell the BDS student you agree with much of what he is calling for, but that the Mideast is complicated. Engage him in conversation.”

Sable concluded by emphasizing the importance of widening the conversation, reaching out to minority communities and to young people. He then introduced Gerald Ostrov, CEO and founder of the Rethink Israel Initiative, who he said is one of the few people who understand Israel’s image problem and are addressing it creatively and successfully through social media.

The Lighter Touch

Ostrov, former CEO of the contact lens company Bausch & Lomb, explained at the outset of his talk that “90 percent of our audience is not Jewish” and that the goal of his website, From the Grapevine, which consciously does not include the word “Israel” in its name, is to “engage a mass audience and move them to better know and relate to Israel.”

Ostrov, of Long Branch, N.J., oversees a paid media effort that pumps out about 200 stories a month with an underlying pro-Israel message, but one that may take two or three clicks before identifying the Jewish state.

Among the brief stories featured this week: A robot that folds your laundry (produced by an Israeli high-tech entrepreneur), the best busking hot spots around the globe (including Tel Aviv as a favorite for street performers) and why krav maga is the perfect workout (citing the martial arts form that began in Israel).

While some critics mock such content as fluff, Ostrov explained that the focus is on being relevant to what young Americans are interested in, including food, arts, lifestyle, innovation, travel, health and nature. He says 20 million page views and 10 million visitors expected this year – about 2 million views a month — indicate that it’s working.

“Our content is not religious, political or about the conflict, and we aren’t competing with other Israel advocacy groups,” Ostrov said. “Ours is a different approach with a different audience.”

He noted the four words that people in a survey chose to define Israel: “Jewish,” “Religious,” “Conflict” and “Nothing”; not a very promising image for wide appeal. “Israel’s personality is alienating, ranked down in the ratings with Saudi Arabia, perceived as a place where crazy people in the desert are fighting every day,” Ostrov said. “But our work shows,” based on surveys and focus groups, “that attitudes do change and we can inspire with positive content,” with young people sending it on to their friends, which Ostrov says is “most impactful.”

While he notes that his approach is “less aggressive” than other Israel advocacy groups, he says Grapevine addresses “a missing element in our society, a huge audience that can be reached by engaging them, not preaching to them.”

Ostrov made a financial pitch to the assembled, asserting that “this is an engine in place, we just need more fuel,” hoping to raise an additional million dollars to help reach 50 campuses. The annual budget for the project is $3 million, mostly raised from about 50 contributors. (Las Vegas casino owner and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson helped launch Rethink Israel several years ago, but no longer contributes, presumably because it eschews an assertive style.)

Sable, noting that the Grapevine’s content is “discoverable and shareable,” endorsed the effort as “the most innovative program for Israel in the world today.”

I have long sided with the logic of more traditional pro-Israel advocates who say that however clever or well-intentioned, hasbara projects like Grapevine that avoid the Israel-Palestinian conflict are undermined whenever violence flares between the two sides. I still believe that you can’t prevail by simply changing the subject. But seeing the data presented by Sable and Ostrov, who are applying their many years of professional success in treating Israel as a brand, was a humbling experience. It made me think about the dramatic changes in how young people get information and frame their views, and to note that many of us in the Jewish world still operate in a bubble. Lord knows that hasbara has not been a strong point for Israel over the years. If reaching out to a BDS advocate instead of confronting her, or sending out stories about robots who do your ironing, can make a positive difference, count me in.

was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at