Israel is always present at Limmud FSU events. In accordance with Limmud’s policy, local organizing committees select all the topics of lectures at every conference or festival. That is what makes the project so successful.
Among the lecturers at the recent Limmud FSU Festival in St. Petersburg was Gideon Meir, Deputy Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and one of its veteran diplomats. During his 43 year-long career he has served as Director-General for Media and Public Affairs during the years of the intifada, as Head of Information and Public Diplomacy at the Israeli Embassy in London, and as Ambassador to Italy.
His participation in Limmud FSU in St. Petersburg can be seen as an official Israeli presence. No participants had to be persuaded to listen to his lecture on the image of Israel and the lecture hall was packed.
Meir started his lecture with an explanation of the keywords: “Diaspora,” “Hasbara” and “Diplomacy” and the Jewish Diaspora and Israel issue, and said that Israel is tantamount to an insurance policy for every Jew in the world, and as does every insurance company, it demands a fee. Those who live in Israel pay a double price: taxes and national service, and those who live in the Diaspora pay the fee by means of hasbara – public diplomacy, thus protecting the image of Israel and its citizens.
Who is responsible for Israeli hasbara: the State of Israel or the Jews in the Diaspora?
“The connection with the Jewish communities of the world is one of the most important tasks set before Israel’s representatives abroad. The situation is simple for any other country – an ambassador simply submits his credentials to the Head of State, but an Israeli ambassador has an additional commitment – that to the local Jewish community. The ambassador provides a bridge for the State of Israel, its government and its people with the world’s Jewish communities. When I first arrived in Italy as Israeli ambassador, the first thing I had to do was to meet with the two chief rabbis. We need to make clear to the local Jews that they are very important to us.”
What is the nature of the dialogue between the ambassador and the Jewish community?
“We determine the dialogue and its intensity: it has to be wide-ranging, but with distinct boundaries, since Israeli citizens reside in Israel. This does not imply that the Jews of the Diaspora have no say in this dialogue. When Amos Oz visited Canada, he said: ‘The Jews of the Diaspora can criticize their relationship with Israel, but when it comes to criticism of Israeli government policies, one must live in Israel to criticize it. If a Diaspora Jew wants to criticize Israel’s policies, his criticism should be published in the Israeli media first and only then be cited by the New York Times.’ The dialogue between the Jews of Diaspora and Israel is crucial, since the Jewish state does not belong to Israelis only.”
The ambassador also addressed the issue of hasbara (Israeli public information). “In Russia they call it ‘propaganda.’ Our job is to present facts and that is not always an easy task. I know from personal experience when I was responsible for Israeli public information that my position had a dual role: to persuade the government that hasbara is a matter of national security, as well as dealing with public relations proper.”
What is the struggle about and how is it implemented?
“The main goal of the struggle is to win over world opinion. During the last six years, the campaign has been quite successful. There was a reform in the Foreign Ministry, which resulted in three new managerial positions whose responsibilities are bilateral, multilateral and public diplomacy. I am responsible for public diplomacy. My department consists of a communications unit, a unit for cultural and scientific relations, a unit for public affairs and a unit which deals with Diaspora affairs and religions, including the Vatican.”
How do we face a changing world?
“The world has changed drastically over the last years, especially in the sphere of high-tech, and many new players have joined the game. There are companies that support Israel on the world arena. The traditional media is not as strong as it once was and social networks play an increasingly important role and nowadays it is not only about Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).”
How is it that Israel’s global image is so negative?
“In order to answer that question we need to study the map of influences. Influences on public opinion can be divided as follows: one per cent – the opinions of diplomats; nine per cent – political activists involved in public diplomacy; 15 per cent – politically active citizens around the world; and 75 per cent – the general public. Most foreign journalists who cover Israel, in fact cover the Israeli-Arab conflict so that their public does not actually know what Israel really is, does not know about the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, does not know about the democracy and the political parties and movements in Israel. The world general public knows little about Israel among the nations, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, Israel as a start-up nation. It has virtually no idea about its culture and society, about its Nobel Prize winners, its products, international relations, values and heritage. When someone hears the word ‘Israel,’ what associations do you think come to his or her mind? Unfortunately it is the Middle-East conflict, the government’s policy with regard to the conflict, and the Iranian nuclear threat.”
What can be done?
“The Americans know more about Israel than any other nation in the world. They know that Israel is the start up nation; they know there is coexistence between some Arab states and Israel, and if I compare the USA and Russia, I will find that Israel’s global image in Russia is practically similar to its image in the USA. According to a survey held among 30,650 Americans by an American company on behalf of the Israel Foreign Ministry, the Americans know more about Israel than Europeans, who know only about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the conflict with Iran. My responsibility is to provide more information about Israel to both Europeans and Americans.”
What is the image of Israel in the Russian media?
“Overall, the Russian media is more balanced than the European and it is more pro-Israeli than pro-Palestinian.”
Does this mean that the hasbara problem is more complex in Europe?
“Yes. The Europeans view Israel through two filters: the filter of the Holocaust with the Jews being the victims, contrasted to that of the present when the Israelis are shown as Nazis. I’m sure you saw the caricatures of Israeli soldiers depicted as Nazis. The second filter is that of so-called colonial domination. These filters, together with the rise of Islam in Europe, raises the level of hatred towards Israel. The situation in Europe is simply appalling: the Muslim population is trying to turn it into a repeat of the countries from which they escaped as refugees.”
What about anti-Semitism?
“We have changed our strategy on this issue and decided to concentrate more on the image of Israel. We have initiated a type of Taglit program for non-Jews so as to bring foreign leaders in culture and society to Israel, so they can get to know our country and our culture and society better. This project will cost $12 million a year and will be funded by the state and by private donors, both Jewish and non-Jewish.”
What is the opinion of Avigdor Lieberman, the Foreign Minister, on hasbara?
“The Foreign Minister knows that hasbara is an integral part of national security. For the first time in my career I have a boss who realizes that.”
Taking into consideration everything we have discussed, how would you describe the new approach of the Foreign Ministry to hasbara?
“The new approach of the Foreign Ministry consists of three E’s: Education, Experience, Engagement, which parallel the three D’s of Nathan Sharansky in his book about democracy: Demonization, Double Standard, Delegitimization. We believe that education, experience and engagement will slowly but surely lead to an improvement of Israel’s global image. There is another side, which determines the relationship between Israel and the world, and that is the economic relationship. The stronger the economic relationship between countries, the better will be the general relationship.
Every ambassador and diplomat plays a crucial role in increasing the use of “soft power,” that is, to attract and co-opt, rather than coerce and use force or money as a means of persuasion. As I have said, hasbara and public diplomacy is part and parcel of the national security of the State of Israel.
The writer participated in the Limmud FSU Festival in St. Petersburg