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June 20, 2013

Hacking through the hasbara, to the best of Tel Aviv

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/hacking_through_the_hasbara_to_the_best_of_tel_aviv/

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Let's get this out of the way: I'm not Jewish. It doesn’t come up often. But it makes me part of a pretty slim minority in Tel Aviv: I can count on one hand the number of other non-Arab, non-refugee non-Jews who I've met working and living in this city. For me, Israel's favorite icebreaker — "Have you made aliyah yet?" — only ends in more awkwardness. My Hebrew skills are one bat mitzvah behind the rest of the arriving Americans. Whatever.
 
This is not to say that goys like myself are shunned here. On the contrary, I often feel V.I.P. — everyone seems tickled that an outsider would choose to make her life in Tel Aviv, further cementing the city's status as an international hotspot. There is a common tendency, then, to try to prove this place to me, to make sure I know that the Israel-Palestine conflict is not Israel's fault and to demonstrate that Israel can party as hard, eat as classy, invent as many gadgets, and live in as much comfort as any country in the Western world. (Which is about as effective as a dorky car salesman trying to convince me the Chevy Malibu he wants me to buy is uber-hip right now.)
 
Anyway, what impresses me about the free West, and what makes it worth defending, is not a sushi bar and tech startup on every block. It's independence of thought, and the high standard to which we hold the society we love.
 
I understand the urge around here to self-promote. The amount of veiled (and sometimes very not veiled) anti-Semitism radiating from the countries around Israel, and from Europe, has come as a bit of a shock to me. But that's not going to blow over the more Israel endorses itself. In fact, the tendency abroad to see Israel as a conniving group-thinking entity, and to lump its population in with its government, is given fuel every time an Israeli spokesperson refuses to differentiate the country's triumphs from its failures.
 
The backfiring of the Israeli government's "hasbara," or national PR campaign, has been showcased quite messily in the media. An attempt in 2010 to promote Tel Aviv as "one of the most intriguing and exciting new gay capitals of the world" was harshly criticized by a New York Times columnist as "pinkwashing" (a.k.a. covering up human-rights abuses against racial minorities by instead embracing the rights of the gay minority), and liberal Israeli magazine +972 recently ridiculed the country's overzealous "startup nation" campaign as a similar brand of "techwashing."
 
Living here, too, this desperation for approval has a strong stench. 
 
During Israel's most recent conflict with Gaza in November, the government staffers and college students behind the "Israel Under Fire" Facebook page poured vast energies into identifying bogus photos of Palestinian casualties that had appeared in the mainstream media. But by not simultaneously mourning the hundreds of their neighbors who were in fact dying and injured under Israeli bomb strikes, their efforts to improve Israel's image in the eyes of the world were undermined by an "us versus them" platform and what looked to be a total lack of empathy.
 
Left-wing Israeli daily Ha'aretz (and columnist Gideon Levy) were among the first local institutions that really impressed me, upon my arrival to Israel, in regard to the national consciousness — not because I agreed with every word, but because of the paper's apparent self-awareness and will to hold Israel to a higher standard. Surprisingly, however, many Israeli peers and colleagues later expressed to me that they felt Ha'aretz, which reports a readership of over 2 million foreigners per month, was damaging the international perception of Israel.
 
I couldn't disagree more. The solution to Israel's PR problem, from where this shiksa is standing, is not through self-love or self-hate, but through self-evaluation. In my blog for the Jewish Journal, I hope to reflect the complex reality of Israel, and especially Tel Aviv — complex as any city of its size and influence, and beautiful for it. The one-eyed cats, the sweaty Haredis, the angry car horns, the playgrounds turned refugee camps — it all makes for a fascinating fabric.
 
Similarly, some of what drew me closest to Los Angeles in my years as a reporter there was the most depraved. Appreciating one's homeland in a present and relevant way means digging for its truths and poking at its flaws.
 
Over seven months of exploring Israel, I've come to believe that the most beneficial step my new country of residence can take for itself and its international stature, is to drop the constant defensiveness and engage in some honest observation and introspection. Not just from the apologetic Jewish left in America, but from within. For everything Israel has given me, this is how I hope to return the favor.

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