If asked to choose one word to describe the essence of Israel, what would it be?
Ambassador Ido Aharoni, Consul General of Israel in New York, has been doing his best to ensure that word is “creativity.”
Aharoni was the guest speaker at the Jewish National Fund’s annual Guardian of Israel Award Dinner at Congregation Beth Shalom on Thursday, May 8. The event honored James P. Wagner for his longtime dedication to the Pittsburgh Jewish community and his commitment to Israel, and was emceed by comedian Joel Chasnoff.
In an interview prior to the event, Aharoni spoke about the campaign to change the public’s perception of Israel as a country mired in conflict to a nation of innovators, not just in high-tech fields, but in the arts as well.
“We are broadening the conversation about Israel,” he said. “We are adding new layers.”
Ido has brand-management expertise as the former head of Israel’s Brand Management Team, in addition to his experience in various positions in the Israeli government, including senior adviser to Israel’s foreign minister and vice prime minister and policy adviser to the director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem.
“After 9/11, and because of 9/11, we decided to try to study scientifically Israel’s positioning in America, how
the American public relates to Israel as opposed to how it relates to Israeli policies,” said Aharoni.
What the group found was that when people thought of Israel, most thought of instability and conflict.
“That is not good for business,” said Aharoni. “When we asked the American people about Israel’s policies, they were overwhelmingly supportive, but most couldn’t relate to Israel as a human being. If you don’t want to do business with me, what do I care if you support my policies?”
It is Aharoni’s mission to make sure the world knows about Israel’s many cultural and scientific assets.
“My goal is not to hide the harsh geo-political realities in the Middle East,” he explained, “but to highlight Israel’s relative advantages and to show what distinguishes her from her competition.”
To that end, Aharoni sees Israel in the same league as the cultural centers of Europe.
“Our competition is not the Middle East,” he said. “Tel Aviv’s competition is Barcelona. And Jerusalem’s competition is Rome.”
The Jewish state has begun to highlight to the world its creative spirit, according to Aharoni.
“Wherever you go, you find Israeli creativity,” he said. “We put Israeli wine on the map. Israeli cuisine. Israeli fashion. Israel is now the third-largest contributor to American television, with shows like ‘Homeland’ and ‘In Treatment’ based on Israeli shows. Israel has a lot to share with the world, and for many years we voluntarily did nothing about it.”
For a long time, Aharoni said, Israel was focused on responding to “agitation” and to making the case for its existence.
“But that can’t be the only thing we do,” he continued. “The vast majority of Americans and American Jews are craving to hear a story from Israel that is relevant to their lives. It’s not about winning debates; it’s about building relationships.” Aharoni said JNF is “a perfect case study.”
“JNF is an organization that redesigned its strategy around the environment, which is important to young people,” he said. “You run into young people at JNF events all over the world, who come to discuss the environment, who are interested in water issues, who are interested in agriculture and food sustainability.”
The strategy of appealing to people’s interests, and highlighting Israel’s strengths in those areas of interests, is working, asserted Aharoni. Beginning in 2004, Aharoni’s office has focused on micromarketing, bringing influential people from other countries into Israel and exposing them to what Israel is doing in areas that are relevant to them.
Niche markets in Israel such as cycling, marathons, archaeology, opera and dance are all showcased for enthusiasts from around the globe.
“We are the matchmakers,” Aharoni said. “We expose Israel’s assets to these people, assets that were hidden for decades. And our job now is to develop new markets.”
Programs such as Birthright Israel have also gone a long way in promoting a positive image of Israel, according to Aharoni. When hundreds of Birthright participants each post hundreds of “authentic, uncensored, reliable images” of the country that are then viewed by hundreds of Facebook friends, he said, “it is a great service to the State of Israel.”
“We’re beginning to experience a historical shift between the American diaspora and the State of Israel,” he said. “For the first time since Israel’s establishment in 1948, there’s a generation of American Jews looking at Israel as a place of opportunity and not just as a place that has problems.
“For our parents and grandparents, Israel existed as a place that needed help only,” he added. “There is a whole new generation out there looking to form a whole new relationship with Israel.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)