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A Discussion about Beyond-the-Conflict Israel Messaging – Does It Work?

You may not have noticed it, but you probably will. A few weeks ago, a multi-million dollar campaign to change the way young Americans think about Israel got underway. Branded as “ReThink Israel,” the campaign focuses on Israel’s many scientific/academic/entrepreneurial achievements, progressive culture and even hotties on the beach. So why is a VP at a pro-Israel organization going after it? 

ReThink Israel doesn’t look like your typical pro-Israel site. There’s almost no blue and white to be found.Looking through the home page, you’ll see an NBA player, a LGBTQ rally photo, an adorable dog wanting a belly rub and a fit young woman in a string bikini apparently getting some emails read on a white sand beach. You won’t see an Israel flag, an IDF soldier, an Iron Dome missile intercepting a qassam rocket from Gaza.

ReThink Israel , as its name implies, wants people, particularly the youngish ones between 18-35, to change their perceptions they have about Israel, if they have any at all.

As the site itself says, it exists “Because Israel is an amazing place and Israelis, like Americans, are innovators, athletes, humanitarians and trendsetters with inspirational stories to share. And we’re here to share them.”

Alan Elsner, vice president for communications at J Street, argues in DailyBeast’s Open Zion that no amount of photos of fit young people on beaches, gay pride parades or stories of Israeli inventions  will change a fundamental problem – we can’t separate conflict from Israel.

” There’s a page on how Israel could become the first country in the world to ban the sale of fur coats (a huge sacrifice in a such a chilly Middle Eastern nation). Another proudly proclaims that Israel has pioneered a law against using ultra-skinny models. “While other countries have guidelines against undernourished models strutting the runway, Israel is the first nation to make it illegal,” the text declares. All of these nuggets may be interesting and worthy in their own way—but they don’t address the fundamental question. The simple truth is that we will never get ‘beyond the conflict’ until we end it.”

Elsner’s criticism of the site – which he points out is partially funded by casino mogul, Birthright savior and Newt Gingrich supporter Sheldon Adelson – is another take on a question that has been bugging the people-interested-in-Israel community for a long time: Is it right or proper for Israel to talk about itself and its people’s achievements without acknowledging the conflict? Can Israel be a bastion of technology, medical breakthroughs and other great things that improve the world AND still control the West Bank?

For me, the question comes down to this. Does Israel have the right to act just like any other country – or my friends on Facebook: can they be at times insufferably annoying or even at times flat-out wrong but still brag about some stuff?

Alan is the son of a Holocaust survivor and has relatives in Israel.  He is old enough to have vivid memories of the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. He remembers the fear, dread and finally elation that he and millions of others felt as Israel, faced with defeat, rose up. We spoke Tuesday night. We had a pretty good discussion. He’s a nice guy with a cool accent. It was a thought-provoking conversation.

My point: Americans can celebrate July Fourth and the release of a new iPhone (designed in California, right?) without talking about drone strikes or NSA spying, right? Or the U.K. celebrating the birth of a new monarch without referencing far-right football hooligans? Or Turkey touting its amazing architecture and food without mentioning the A or G words (those being Armenian and Genocide)?

His point: “You go overseas and there has been a constant litany ever since 9-11 and before about the use of U.S. force and the unpopularity of the United States,” Elsner said. “But people do manage to bifurcate between love of Hollywood, rap and Coca Cola and the ambivalence they have about the U.S.”

In fact, Elsner said Re-Think Israel and other sites like Israel21c that focus on beyond-the-conflict messaging might be having the opposite effect.

“If you’re all so smart in Israel, why can’t you solve the Palestinian problem? It brings attention to the huge gulf between Israelis and Palestinians. There’s Israel – high living standard, cool life, etc. I’ve seen polling that this kind of messaging helps in India and China. But in America and Europe, it only helps among the people that already love you.”

My point: But what if it does help? What if it starts to chip away at some of the most commonly held beliefs, per focus group research, suggesting that young non-Jewish (and even a number of Jewish) Americans between 18-35 see Israel as a place of conflict, different from the U.S. in religiosity, world view and morality. Re-Think Israel, I counter, is accurate. Anyone who has been to Israel can come to the same conclusion – it doesn’t feel dangerous, Israelis are a lot like us, it’s an amazing place that does extraordinary things. It it so wrong to try and change perceptions? What if, like the U.S. has its cultural ambassadors in soda and Drake records and J Brand Jeans, Israel can be known for cool beaches, a graffiti scene, interesting tattoos and progressive laws for LGBTQ citizens?

His point: Go right ahead, but it’s way more complicated than you think.

“The wars that Israel was in since 1967 and 1973, particularly 1982 in Lebanon and more recently operations in Gaza, are not wars in which Israel faced an existential threat. To the contrary. So what you see is a natural process which may be regrettable, but young people don’t see Israel facing this existential threat,” Alan said. “If Israel were threatened tomorrow, you would see mass concern.  But right now, the overwhelming issue in the world about Israel and Israelis is one people continuing to occupy another people against their will.”

My point: Is there some shortage of websites – Al-Jazeera to Zee News (India) – reporting on the usual conflict stuff? Is it OK to grab one little corner of the internet and try to show something bright, pretty and not shitty about Israel for a change?

His point: “I don’t have any problem with sites like these,” Alan said. “They don’t do any harm. They just don’t help.”

So far, Re-Think Israel is only about a month old. There appears to be some buzz growing. Articles like Alan’s probably don’t hurt. Whether this new experiment in beyond-the-conflict messaging has an impact will take a while to figure out. And we’re eager to hear from Alan again about it soon.

 - Dan Seligson

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