OpinionIsrael at War

Why Israel is losing the battle for public opinion

The fundamental problem is the lack of a coherent and well-resourced strategy to combat antisemitism and improve Israel’s global image.

A caricature of a group of photojournalists. Source: DeepAI.
A caricature of a group of photojournalists. Source: DeepAI.
David Ben Hooren
David Ben Hooren is the publisher of the Jewish Voice.

The war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza that began on Oct. 7 has been marked not only by physical conflict but also by a significant battle for public opinion. Unfortunately, Israel’s efforts in this sphere have been notably ineffective, revealing a deeper, longstanding inadequacy in its strategic communications and public diplomacy. This failure is not a recent phenomenon but rather a continuation of historical missteps, particularly in addressing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has sought to isolate Israel on multiple fronts.

To understand the root of these failures, one must look to the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, established in 1999 under the leadership of Rabbi Michael Melchior. With a modest budget of approximately $2 million, the ministry aimed to foster better relations between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, combat antisemitism and create educational and experiential programs about Israel.

This initiative was a recognition of the need to engage and mobilize the global Jewish community in Israel’s defense on the international stage. However, to say that this kind of paltry budget could ever possibly serve to accomplish the lofty objectives set for it is beyond ridiculous.

Despite its noble goals, the ministry was temporarily closed in 2007 and its responsibilities transferred to the Prime Minister’s Office. This closure was indicative of a broader issue: The lack of a consistent and coherent strategy to address the challenges Israel faced globally. The intermittent nature of the ministry’s existence and its limited budget undermined its ability to make a substantial impact.

Moreover, a problem that has existed for decades is the selection of Israel’s diplomatic corps—those people chosen to represent Israel around the world at consulates and embassies. Chief among the serious issues surrounding these foreign service personnel is that a great many of them are not fluent in English and are totally incapable of establishing effective contacts with the media. Be it in New York City, Washington or any city in the world, creating an efficacious media apparatus must be Israel’s main priority.     

It is also noteworthy that many Israeli foreign service personnel, particularly in New York City, have been selected not because of their stellar credentials or serious work ethic, but because of highly suspect reasons. In other words, the consulate and embassy personnel are those that Israel desires to place abroad as they are considered malcontents, troublemakers and those with an agenda that roils the Israeli establishment.

As such, the personnel, once stationed in New York or elsewhere, do not take their jobs seriously; as was evidenced on previous occasions when diplomatic personnel hit the New York City nightlife scene with frequent appearances at the trendiest clubs and discos. Some had brushes with law enforcement, which reflected quite negatively on Israel’s image.  

The BDS movement has aimed to exert economic, cultural and academic pressure on Israel to achieve various political goals. Despite its significant impact, the Israeli government’s response has often been reactive rather than proactive. Instead of crafting a comprehensive and positive narrative that highlights Israel’s contributions to the world and its legitimate security concerns, the response has often been defensive, focused on debunking BDS claims without offering a compelling counter-narrative.

This failure to effectively counter the BDS movement’s narrative has allowed the movement to gain traction, particularly in academic and cultural institutions. The movement’s success lies in its ability to frame the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in simplistic terms of oppressor and oppressed, a narrative that resonates strongly with audiences unfamiliar with the complexities of the situation. Israel’s inability to present a nuanced and positive image of itself has led to increasing isolation and criticism.

Over a decade ago, the current Israeli U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan headed up the Diaspora Affairs Ministry. At that juncture, the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, which was tasked with promulgating an effective public relations campaign, had a $24 million budget to ensure its success. Unfortunately, no such campaign was undertaken due to infighting within the government and Erdan’s involvement in it. 

During the current conflict with Hamas, the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs has attempted to step up its efforts by organizing delegations of security personnel from the Baltic states, Brazil and Belgium to help combat antisemitic attacks. Additionally, in response to the global rise in antisemitism, the ministry allocated $2.2 million for protecting Jewish institutions and programs in Jewish schools.

While these efforts are commendable, they are reactive and limited in scope. The failure to communicate a positive and cohesive narrative during the conflict has resulted in widespread criticism and a lack of support from the international community. The ministry’s initiatives, though well-intentioned, have not addressed the root issue: The need for a strategic and positive communications campaign that can shift public opinion in Israel’s favor.

In January 2024, a report by the Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University called for the dismantling of the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. The report criticized the ministry as being politically motivated, lacking vision and promoting few initiatives. It recommended that the ministry’s responsibilities be transferred to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office, echoing sentiments from Israeli diplomats who believed the ministry was ineffective.

This critique highlights a fundamental problem: The lack of a coherent and well-resourced strategy to combat antisemitism and improve Israel’s global image. The ministry’s limited budget and political motivations have hampered its ability to carry out its mission effectively.

To address these ongoing failures, Israel needs to overhaul its approach to public diplomacy. This involves not only better funding and organization but also a shift in strategy. Israel must focus on proactive and positive messaging that highlights its democratic values, technological innovations and contributions to global welfare. This includes creating compelling content that resonates with diverse audiences while effectively utilizing digital platforms to disseminate this content.

Moreover, there needs to be a concerted effort to engage with and educate the international community about the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, countering simplistic narratives that paint Israel in a negative light.

Israel’s ability to manage its image and narrative on the global stage has been consistently under scrutiny, particularly during conflicts such as the current war. A critical element missing from Israel’s public diplomacy efforts is effective engagement with Jewish media outlets worldwide, which could serve as powerful allies in shaping public perception. This failure reflects broader issues within Israel’s hasbara or public diplomacy strategy, which has long been criticized by both Israeli officials and Jewish media leaders.

Eylon Levy, a former Israeli government spokesperson, criticized the current state of Israel’s public diplomacy as “improvised,” highlighting the absence of a structured civilian communication effort. Levy emphasized the need for formalized and institutionalized communication channels that can operate effectively both in crisis and in peacetime, according to a report on the Jewish Insider website. This ad-hoc approach has hindered Israel’s ability to build and maintain productive relationships with Jewish media outlets, which are crucial for disseminating Israel’s perspective and countering negative narratives.

Jewish media outlets, both in print and electronic forms, have expressed frustration with the Israeli government’s lack of engagement. Jodi Rudoren, editor-in-chief of The Forward, pointed out that while Jewish media are often at the forefront of addressing antisemitism and providing nuanced coverage of Israel-related issues, there is a disconnect in their relationship with the Israeli government. This disconnect limits their ability to receive timely and accurate information, which is essential for breaking major news stories and effectively countering misinformation.

Israeli media have also scrutinized the government’s messaging strategy. Haaretz, a prominent left-wing Israeli newspaper, has been critical of the government’s failure to maintain a consistent and effective public relations campaign. The publication highlighted instances of misinformation and inadequate responses to negative press, which have contributed to Israel’s struggles in the information war​, according to Newstral.

A joint statement published by over 30 Jewish media outlets worldwide highlighted the rise of anti-Semitism in the wake of the current war and called for better coordination and support from Israeli authorities​, according to a report in Israel Hayom. Despite these calls, many Jewish media professionals feel that their potential as strategic partners in Israel’s public diplomacy is underutilized.

Israeli officials and media experts have acknowledged the shortcomings in the current hasbara efforts. Jonathan Conricus, a former IDF spokesperson, noted the importance of a well-structured communication strategy that includes professional, non-military spokespeople who can engage effectively with international and Jewish media. The Jewish Insider reported that Conricus advocated for the hiring of dedicated communication professionals, including social media experts and fact-checkers, to enhance Israel’s ability to manage its narrative​​.

Moreover, Matt Krieger, CEO of Gova10, a strategic communications firm and the chief communications officer for a campaign to release Israeli-American hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin from Hamas captivity, emphasized the need for a more transactional relationship with key journalists. Krieger argued that building deep, lasting relationships with media professionals is crucial for ensuring consistent and favorable coverage​, as explained in the Jewish Insider report. This sentiment is echoed by other media analysts who stress the importance of continuous engagement and information sharing, rather than sporadic interactions during crises.

To address these deficiencies, Israel must adopt a more strategic and inclusive approach to public diplomacy. This involves:

Institutionalizing Communication Efforts: Establishing a permanent, well-funded communication structure that operates effectively both during crises and in regular times.

Engaging Jewish Media: Proactively building relationships with Jewish media outlets worldwide, ensuring they have access to accurate and timely information.

Professionalizing Public Diplomacy: Hiring skilled professionals in various fields, including social media, graphic design and fact-checking, to support a comprehensive and proactive communications strategy.

Israel’s failure to effectively leverage Jewish media outlets is a significant gap in its public diplomacy efforts. By addressing these structural and strategic shortcomings, Israel can better harness the influence and networks of Jewish media to support its messaging and counteract negative narratives on the global stage.

Originally published by The Jewish Voice.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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