Thursday, August 27, 2009

Branding Israel

Richard Branson, the business guru who has created Virgin records, and then the airline, and the cellphone company, is in Israel. Today, Haaretz published a fascinating interview (link) with him. This bit caught my eye:

"One thing in which Branson famously excels, aside from business, is public relations. He's a master. And in his expert opinion, on a PR basis, the endless Israeli-Palestinian feud has not been good - "zero out of 10," as he delicately puts it. He notes a story from last week, of Palestinian families evicted from their homes. He doesn't know the details of the story "at all," Branson says - but he does think he read that the families were in the middle of their dinner. "Can you think of a worse PR story for Israel?" he asks.

"The best way of sorting out getting good PR is by action. Virgin as a company, as a brand - we're only as strong as what we do. If we don't behave in an ethical way, if we don't behave in a way that we can sleep at night, then the brand will be damaged, and our PR will be damaged," he explains.

... Public relations is all about branding. What does brand Israel stand for, in the eyes of the world? That has changed over time, Branson explains. "I think it's something similar to what happened after 9/11. You know after 9/11 the world had enormous sympathy for America, and you know that sympathy was somehow lost. And obviously after the Second World War, the world had enormous sympathy for the Jewish people. Over a number of decades, that sympathy has been lost .... You've got a great country, but you've just got to hold the hands of your neighbors, and then you'll get back on top again."

Indeed, we need to find a way to re-brand Israel. I grew up in an age of recalling the glory of the Six Day War, the ethical edge of Tzahal, the heroism of Entebbe, the nostalgic return to Biblical places, the Peace Treaty with Egypt. Today's generation recall 25 years of lebanon war, intifada, suicide bombings, Gaza, seperation fences, and now in the Obama era, Settlements are obstacles, and Yehuda VeShomron is occupation.

We do need to re-brand.

But what should our new brand be? If good PR is action, then what actions may exemplify a moral and upstanding Israel? Is it only on the Palestinian issue , or could we improve by rebooting, re-educating Israeli society as a society of ethics and honesty, care and tolerance, non-agression, industrious and hard-working, environmental conscious, educationally aware and oriented, nationally motivated and Jewishly knowledgable and proud. If all that was what Israeli society stood for, then we would have fewer international and image problems.

Oh! and on that note... Branson calls to break the cartel of the cellphone companies and to start some real competition in the marketplace rather than the current price-fixing. I couldn't agree more.

Friday, August 14, 2009

From Qumeran to the Shrine of the Book

Children love detective stories, hidden vaults, and discovery. At first glance, the world of archeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls could be as dead as the people who wrote them. Why should a child be interested in some old scrolls of Isaiah!?

But last week, I took my kids on tiyul to Ein Gedi. On on the way, the kids began reading the road signs, that the municipality was called "Megillot" i.e. "scrolls.' This already had them asking question about the strange name. As we passed the Qumeran site, I told them, in my best adventure story style, about the way in which these scrolls were discovered. We spoke about the Essenes who wanted to live out of the corruption of Jerusalem in a pure environment. We continued talking about mythical battles between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Dark, and Star Wars (Darth Vader in Black) and it was all alive; the kids were really "into it!"

And then this week, we visited the Israel Museum and saw the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Shrine of the Book. I must have done something right because even my 4-year-old was fascinated by the artifacts: combs, cups and scythes of the ancient Essenes, and the clay jugs in which the scrolls were discovered. When we entered the main hall with the scrolls, they all enjoyed trying to decipher the text, and the architecture is also inspiring.

It is just fabulous to be able to do this detective journey here in Israel. This is the type of education I love, whether for my own kids or for the tours I lead, this is the stuff that makes the boring things become fascinating.

One thing that I was unable to transmit was the ecitement people felt by the validation, that the same scrolls which existed in pre-Exilic Judea, were still part of the Holy Books of the Jewish nation. The boost that it gave Zionism, and the feeling of return was a palpable exhilaration which animated the entire project of these ancient textual fragments. Kids aren't so good with a 2000 year Historical perspective, but the adults who were with us enjoyed that bit!

I think that someone needs to make an action packed TV adventure series here in Israel, incorporating adventure, ancient sites, codes, and ancient Historical figures who have come alive. (Sort of - the Da Vinci Code meets Indiana Jones and National Treasure.) If done well, it could help a generation of Israelis understand just how relevant and rich there History is.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Herzl and the challenges of Israeli Society

This week, as part of the kids' summer vacation we took them to the Herzl Museum at Har Herzl. It has recently been renovated and modernised. So here are a few impressions.

The museum is built with certain assumptions in mind. There is no doubt that it is directed at the young Israeli public, and to this purpose, it has to explain certain things:

1. It has to explain what anti-semitism is. It is quite incredible that our kids who grew up here have no idea of fear of non-Jews, or any sense of discrimination. As for my growing up in England, anti-semitic remarks were always around, and there was a latent feeling that as Jews we were somewhat vulnerable to attack. Israeli kids have no concept of an environment of exclusion and Jew hatred. (For example, we were discussing Soviet Jewry the other day and talking about Jews being restricted from practising their religion. My 4-yr-old said: "But where were the chayalim? Wherer were the Jewish Chayalim?" - He cannot conceive of Jews as oppressed, powerless; as objects of discrimination.)

So that is one thing they have to teach.

2. A second thing they try to transmit is the atmosphere of culture, of nobility, dignity and even high-society that represented the way of life for the ruling European echelons. From a contemporary Israeli perspective, life is so casual, there is so little sense of ceremony and formality that they need to explain this, both in order to describe Herzl's European persona, and also the manner in which he sought to launch his Congress in the best of European formality and decorum.

3. But the prime reflection that strikes a person as they experience the museum is that clearly the assumption is that young (school age?) Israelis see Herzl as archaic and irrelevant to their lives. It represents an out-of-touch fuddy-duddy man who dreamed of an Israel that has nothing to do with the Israel that we live in.

Here, I experienced a certain frustration. For me, as a Zionist, I was looking forward to something of a pilgrimage, to take my children to a place in which the assumption is that this man envisioned the reality of a Jewish national home, and set the foundational momentum to make it happen. Israeli society clearly has little sense of its "Founding Fathers." That is certainly a bad thing.

The museum ends by raising the question as to what degree Herzl's vision has been fulfilled. Is Israel the beacon of civilisation pushing back the frontier against barbarianism in the East? Is Israel the economic and industrial power that Herzl envisioned? Does it fulfill his thinking as regards the place of religion, and did he envisage a war-torn country, fighting well beyond its sixth decade?

And yet, this discussion as to the texture of Israeli civic society, about its values, its cultural thrust, its ideals, norms and principles, are a vital discussion. Frequently, I feel we discuss these issues only in moments of despair and crisis, and even then, as rivaling camps, as combaatants rather than people who seek to live together. Two recent events: the shooting at a Gay center in Tel Aviv (link), and the question of whether to deport Foreign Workers (link) have raised vital questions about what it means to be a "Jewish" - Yes, Jewish country.

Does Judaism dictate that we look out for the stranger in our midst (link), or alternatively, that we ensure that there are fewer non-Jews living amongst us, to reduce the possibility of intermarriage and assimilation?

Does Judaism dictate respect and tolerance, or does it condemn Homosexuals because the Torah forbids it? Do we hope, plan, educate to an atmosphere, a national culture of tolerance, acceptance, mutual respect, or one of condemnation, judgmentalism, and exclusion? And if we adopt the former set of norms, then how do we work towards goals and ideals? and in what way can we furter the Jewish charachter of the country?

I have been reading Rabbi Sacks' new book, "Future Tense". He has a chapter (A New Zionism) about this point:
"The first challenge of Zionism, the creation of a Jewish state, has been achieved. The second, the creation of a Jewish society, has barely begun."
Rabbi Sacks talks about " the absence of an Israeli national narrative" and the fact that we have yet to define a national set of priorities that can gain widespread commitment and give a raison d'etre for the entire nation. This is the building of a Jewish SOCIETY rather than just the building of a STATE. Here there are vital questions, and the work of Herzl and his compatriots are far from finished. We desperately need to have this conversation; yes - a conversation, rather than a confrontation. For this reason, we cannot enter, let alone emerge, from the Herzl museum tired and cynical.
There is much work to be done, and many unanswered questions.
(I have already written on these themes here and here and here)