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A “PR” Problem or an Identity Crisis?

If Israel does not resolve key questions, it will continue to broadcast contradictory messages
©Dimi B Photography/
©Dimi B Photography/
Dr. Tal Becker is a Senior Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he leads educational initiatives on Israel and the Jewish world. In this capacity, he is a leading member of the Institute’s iEngage research seminar which produces the premier educational program on Israel engagement in North America, working to strengthen and re-imagine the relationship between Israel and World Jewry. Dr. Becker also serves as the Legal Adviser

For all the debate and disagreement in Jewish world over Israel, there seems to be one area in which Jewish leaders and Jewish communities regularly agree: Israel has a public relations problem. For many, Israel’s spokespeople are not eloquent enough, its responses not rapid enough, and its messages and PR techniques not edgy and effective enough. When Israel is accused of excessive force, or when ugly stories surface about some of the failings of Israeli society, there is dismay and sometimes embarrassment in the Jewish world. How do we explain this? Israel’s friends ask, “Why is Israel not explaining itself properly?”

Israel certainly owes its citizens and supporters a public relations strategy that effectively defends its policies, combats bias and unfair criticism, and recruits understanding for its cause. In fact, recent years have witnessed some real improvements by official Israel in this field, even if there is much work still to do. But the assumption that this is, at heart, about Israel’s public relations rather than about Israel’s predicament, is misplaced. The real issue is not that we have failed to explain ourselves well enough. It is not as if given the opportunity, and equipped with the expertise, we can fashion an overpowering and coherent message that will persuade the world that Israel is beyond reproach. Before Israel has a PR challenge, it has an identity challenge.

At one level, projecting a consistently positive image of Israel in the West is difficult, because the reality of the Middle East compels us to assume multiple identities. We want the wider world to see and sympathize with our vulnerability, but we want our citizens and those who threaten us to see our strength and vitality. We want our friends to see Israel as a society aspiring to moral excellence. We want them to know, for example, that the IDF is a moral army, that our soldiers struggle with the dilemmas of how to ethically engage terrorists who use civilians as human shields. But this is not something we necessarily want our enemies to know about us. We do not want people like Nasrallah of Hezbollah and Khamenei of Iran to think we are morally conflicted about when to pull the trigger. We probably need them to think that we will do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to protect ourselves and deny them the ability to achieve their objectives.

This is an in-built tension in Israel’s public relations, because what we need to portray to our enemies is at odds with what we wish to portray to our friends. The challenge is made all the more difficult, because we cannot quarantine one audience from the messages we want to send to the other audience. We cannot let Hezbollah think that provoking us would be a mistake of devastating proportions without risking our image in European capitals. We cannot show our moral sensibilities and hesitation in resorting to force without risking appearing soft and inviting our enemies to test our resolve. And in prioritizing these messages, it is not always clear that the Israel we are and want to be in the eyes of Jewish communities and Western countries should precede the Israel we need to be seen to be in the eyes of our enemies.

As long as there are extremist forces in the Middle East more affected (and deterred) by our power than by our morality, this situation presents an inescapable dilemma. We must manage the tension between Israel’s competing images, rather than expect to resolve it. But there are other aspects to Israel’s identity crisis that are not about the complexity of the region we live in, but about our inability to decide who we want to be.

We have not yet made some big decisions about who we are as a society. We have not settled on a core consensus of what a Jewish and democratic society means. We have not reached basic agreement over the role of religion in Israel, on a social justice agenda, or on the essential features of Israel’s social contract that could be enshrined in a constitution. And we have not yet decided, as a people, whether and under what conditions we are willing to part with key portions of our ancestral homeland.

To some extent, the muddle of messages which Israel sends out about itself is unavoidable. It is part of managing a society in which different groups compete for power and with which coalition governments must barter and compromise. But this is best not conceived as a problem of PR. If Israel does not resolve the key questions about its vision and values as a society, it will continue to broadcast multiple and contradictory messages about itself. This is not something we can hide from the eyes of the world. At some basic level, we cannot disconnect the confusion others have about us from the confusion we have about ourselves.

Effective public relations are an essential tool of national policy. But it is not a substitute for it. For all the complexity of Israel, there are decisions we will need to take as a society if we want our message to resonate more effectively around the world. The first step in a successful PR strategy may not be found in better explaining Israel to others, but in better explaining it to ourselves.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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