What does it mean to be independent? Certainly freedom from foreign rule. But in the case of Israel, independence should also mean the freedom to develop an independent self-image not based on borrowed culture.
Not everyone sees it that way. In fact, Israel's Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, is about to embark on a massive PR campaign painting Israel as a sexy modern country with beautiful beaches and a successful high-tech industry to boot. Livni believes that by embarking on this "nation branding" campaign, she can move Israel's perception away from war-torn and fanatical, to an image of the great Israeli dream -- normalcy.
No doubt Israel does have something to offer those looking for beaches, night life, and technology. But as the focus of a public relations campaign, this direction is doomed for failure.
I heard a story, attributed to the Lubavicher Rebbe, that illustrates this point:
After the Six-Day War, France, unhappy with Israel's grand victory over the Arabs, stopped their sales of the Mirage fighter jets to Israel. Israel, in need of fighter jets, turned to the United States with a request to buy American jets.
The US sent a delegation to Israel. The Israelis wanted to impress the American group and promptly took them to what the Israeli's thought the American's would be most interested in. They took them to Tel Aviv, the playhouses, the bars, to all the modernity that Israel could muster up at the time.
However, the delegation was nonplussed. They returned to America, gave a lukewarm report to Congress, and the sale did not go through. A few months went by and again the Israelis requested the sale of fighter jets. Again a delegation was formed and was flown to Israel. This time, however, the Israelis took the delegation to the Western Wall, and to the great yeshivas of Mea Shearim where the Americans saw the old study benches that were brought over from Europe.
When the Americans returned home and testified in front of Congress, they said: "We saw the Holy Land." The sale, of course, went through.
Israel's image strength is not in its limping normalcy. It's in its unparalleled link to the Bible.
The point is so obvious, yet Israel's image makers cannot seem to grasp it.
Israel's image strength is not in its limping normalcy. Nor can Israel ever compare to the US's flesh-pots, Amsterdam's night life, or the beaches of South America.
Israel's real image strength is in its unparalleled link to the Bible. Have you ever seen the ecstasy of someone who sees the Kotel for the first time? Is it a coincidence that both Jews and Gentiles cry when they arrive in Israel? Israel has emotional impact, not because of the beaches or the hi-tech, but rather because this place is the spiritual capital of the world.
How can you beat the branding effect of the most widely read book in the world? The Bible is the globe's all-time bestseller and Israel should capitalize on it. But Israel's image makers distance Israel from this kind of image. Their world view is dissonant with Jewish history and religion, and therefore they do not see, nor want to see, the public relations benefit of Israel's Biblical/spiritual PR image.
Yet it is precisely by embracing and not blunting our image as the real-life successors of the Biblical past that we will create a winning PR campaign.
Examples: Imagine marketing the festival of Sukkot as the mega-season for spiritual tourism. Or presenting Hebron, the great burial place of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, as a must-see for anyone seeking to connect with the roots of monotheism. The Old City of Jerusalem is a natural-habitat, authentic Biblical experience, and we should market it as just that.
The Biblical perspective also has hasbara advantages. In our continuing struggle with the war on terror, Israel would do well to paint its story in a Biblical context. Today's Israel and yesteryear's Israel are the same -- the same nation, the same land, and the same problems. By providing such historical perspective, we can help people reframe the conflict in the Middle East. Suddenly, Ahmadenijad's Iran is akin to Haman's Persia, and superpowers meddling in our affairs is a familiar phenomenon. Girded with Biblical perspective the world will root for Israel, just as they do when they read the Bible.
Another important aspect of a Biblical Hasbara perspective is Tikvah, hope. The Bible is full of hope for the Jewish people and for Israel. In today's dreary climate we need to broadcast that message of positivity loud and clear.
Yes, we can create a successful image of Israel abroad, but we need to start by creating the right self-image within. Israel must learn to see itself as a light unto the world, and not just as a bastion of normalcy. Israel's 'light' includes a unique blend of medicine and technology, law and spirituality. Where else in the world can you find a country that is a world leader in microchip development, in-vitro fertilization, farming innovation, Talmudic law and Kabbalah?
For the last 3000 years the Holy Land has been the pre-eminent destination for all mankind -- travelers and conquerors all sought this piece of real-estate. Today, maybe more than ever before, Israel can quench the world's thirst for authenticity, spirituality, and purpose -- but it has to rise to the occasion. Let's be truly independent and not cheapen and degrade the image of Israel by bikini-branding it. Let us market it for what it is: the most special place on the Earth -- the Holy Land.