What do you think about when you hear the word Israel?
Chances are if you're like most Americans, when you hear Israel, you think war. Ask most Americans to free-word associate with the word "Israel" and they'd probably say: terrorists, Palestinians, danger and conflict.
At worst, oppression and ethnic cleansing.
But there are people out there who are trying to change that.
One of them is Larry Weinberg, executive vice president of Israel 21c, a California-based media advocacy group that tries to promote Israel "beyond the conflict," its Web site says. On the site (www.Israel21c.com) are articles primarily about technology, health and business -- anything but the conflict.
"Our modern brand is in trouble," Weinberg told a group of Los Angeles Jewish leaders who gathered last week to discuss branding and advocacy on Israel at the Israeli consulate.
The brand he talks about, of course, is Israel. In America, "Israel is better known than liked," Weinberg said, referring to a recent Young & Rubicam survey that measured Israel as a brand, to discover people's emotional attachment to it.
Mainstream Americans -- especially college students -- have a lot of emotions toward Israel; attachment is another story. Weinberg's point: Change the subject.
"The 'Israel-Palestine Conflict' is a no-win hasbara war," said businessman Jonathan Medved, the main speaker of the morning. "Whoever sets the terms of the debates wins. If we continue to argue only on this turf, then even the best 'ambassador' is doomed to failure."
This message wasn't exactly popular with some meeting participants, who spend much of their time on campus battling pro-Palestinian groups and engaged in the hasbara, or advocacy, wars.
But, if you accept Medved and Weinberg's logic, what is a pro-Israel advocate to do?
They do not advise putting all the advocates out of business. They do believe in changing the mix -- taking the focus off the conflict.
Medved is the founder and general partner of Israel Seed Partners, an Israel-focused venture capital fund of $262 million. In 2004, he said, $1.46 billion was invested in Israel (up 45 percent from 2003), with 55 percent of the total dollars invested from outside Israel.
Of course foreign investment is good for Israel; and it also may profit investors, as well. After all, Israel is a hotbed of technology, creating everything from computer chips to voice technology.
But can changing the subject from the conflict to technology really help?
Medved said it reaches out to core constituencies in America.
"It speaks to Jews, makes them proud and mobilizes them," he said, noting that a technology pitch also appeals to Christians, the Asian community and the business community.
The concept, of course, is to appeal to Americans' self-interest, be it business, health or technology, and have them associate Israel with those concepts.
How will this help, though, on campus, where the battle is about the conflict?
Medved has one word: Divestment. He tells a story about a meeting at Carnegie Mellon University on how to divest from Israel. One student stood up and said something to the effect of, "Wait a minute. Do you mean I have to stop using my computer? My credit card? My voice mail? Forget it!"
The point is: Americans are too invested in Israel to divest. Consider that Teva pharmaceuticals is the largest distributor of generic pills in America, or that most laptops contain a chip produced in Israel -- it wouldn't be easy to boycott Israeli products. (Although, as someone at the meeting pointed out, divestment could target specific industries, like the military. And just targeting tourism could have a devastating effect.)
It's not only about defending against divestment, Medved said. It's about encouraging investment before the subject becomes divestment.
Medved advocates hosting investment lectures at business schools, science schools. Forget the social sciences, he said.
Israel certainly is about more than the conflict. It's about great food, innovative art, cutting-edge music; it has pioneered in fields of democracy, religion and the judicial system (although it certainly has farther to go on all these fronts).
Would an American form a better opinion of Israel after learning that Israeli technology produced his computer chip or provided her affordable medicine or developed their uncle's artificial heart or manufactured my cheap Gap clothing? (OK that last one's not technology, but it's important to me.)
I don't know.
The truth is -- and I suspect Medved and Weinberg would agree -- the conflict in Israel is the elephant in the room that must be addressed. And the peace process is the best hope Israel has for improving its image.
On the other hand, people are tired of hearing about the conflict. And Israel is about so much more than the struggle. So a campus event addressing another subject -- from Israel's venture-capital opportunities to Israeli films -- might not alter perceptions, but it could inspire a second look or a deeper one. It might make someone willing to listen.
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