An air-raid siren that sounded in Jerusalem this week startled not only the city’s residents, but also a group of Hispanic journalists from the United States, which was touring the country at the invitation of the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry. The journalists, who work with highly influential media in the U.S. (as proven by the election results, in which the Hispanic vote had a decisive effect), were at the Western Wall when the sirens went off.
Fear, terror and helplessness washed over the group. But some good came of the incident, at least from the Israeli perspective. The foreign journalists got a taste of the war situation in Israel and felt the rocket threat firsthand. Back at the hotel that evening, they translated their experience into articles, radio broadcasts and blog posts that were seen and heard all over the world.
The Hispanic journalists’ visit, which had been planned well before Operation Pillar of Defense and took place on schedule, is one of the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein’s many projects. At the same time, a group of Chinese bloggers visiting Israel and seeing its tourist attractions also got a taste of last week’s terror. The ministry’s strategy is to try to reach large, new and influential audiences such as Chinese and Hispanic — who, until recently, few had tried to reach, at least as far as the Middle East conflict goes. Several years ago, people posted updates on social networks about what was being said on television. Today, television broadcasters report what is posted on social networks.
“The best public relations for the State of Israel is a look at life in Israel as it is,” says Edelstein. “In times like these, since there is not much awareness of Israel beyond the conflict and what is shown in the world media, we are making an effort to bring media people to Israel — bloggers and public-opinion leaders who will see the situation with their own eyes. We hope to reach their myriads of listeners, viewers and readers, whether they’re millions of followers in China or hundreds of thousands of Americans of Latino extraction who listen to local television and radio every day.”
“When the siren sounded, people started crying and their children asked them why,” said Maria Antonieta Collins, a Mexican-born journalist who lives in Miami and writes for the Spanish-language media outlet Univision. Collins says she quickly realized that “the situation in Israel is absurd and the people here are suffering. After the one-time experience that we had at the Western Wall, I can’t imagine how it’s possible to live in a city that gets hit by thousands of rockets. I can’t imagine what it would be like if it happened on the border between Tijuana and San Diego. Now I admire the people of Israel, who keep on living and coping with this situation.”
Among other activities, Collins writes a column for the Spanish-language edition of the Miami Herald and presents a radio program that is broadcast to 25 large cities throughout the U.S. She covers every major media event in the world, deals with border conflicts and travels throughout the world 250 days of the year “to cover stories,” she says.
This is her first visit to Israel. After only two days here, she says, “You have a lot of fortitude. Despite everything, you go on, running a progressive country that is culturally and technologically developed. Maybe it’s part of Jewish tradition and culture — to survive under any circumstances. I met a young Chilean girl who moved here from Santiago. She could have lived a quiet, safe life with her parents in Chile, but she decided that her country and her people were here.”
Another journalist from the group is Fernando Espuelas, the host of a popular political radio program for Spanish-speakers in the U.S. His program is broadcast to New York, Chicago, Dallas and Miami, among other cities, and on the Internet. During the visit, Espuelas puts up many notes on his Facebook page, which has more than 10,000 followers.
Espuelas uploaded three videos to YouTube during the week in an attempt to convey his experiences here. “Alongside the fear of terrorism, it’s a fascinating trip and a profound experience,” he says. “I’ve been following what goes on in Israel through the media and I had general knowledge. But this visit gave me the chance to have deep talks with many people, including at the top levels of the administration — influential people — and also with the general public. I learned that the situation was much more complex than I’d thought.” What about hearing the air-raid siren go off at the Western Wall? “I got a taste of what it’s like to live in a situation of uncertainty and fear. Because of that, I have a lot more appreciation, respect and understanding for the residents of Israel’s south. I got a chance to share that experience, and the feelings that went with it, with a lot of people in the U.S.”
Seven million followers on Twitter
The group of Chinese bloggers, an impressive crowd of public-opinion makers from the country with the world’s largest population, landed here last Friday, right in the middle of the wave of violence. The idea behind their visit, which took place in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry and the Israeli Embassy in Beijing, was to change Chinese public opinion about Israel. As more and more Chinese people are exposed to the new media, they tune in less to traditional media. The bloggers from China, like the Hispanic journalists from the U.S., reach hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. They have as much influence on international public opinion as well-known journalists do. One of the nine bloggers who came with the group, for example, has 7 million followers on social networks. Others have fewer — 5 million or 3.5 million followers. Every update they post makes a big impression and gets tens of thousands of comments.
One of the blogs belongs to journalist Tang Shizeng of Beijing, who writes for the news agencies in China. Here is an excerpt from a post of his from this past week: “Hamas rockets continue to attack Israeli civilians, resulting in casualties. In response, the Israeli government has mobilized 75,000 army reservists, the largest call-up since the Gulf War." Shizeng, 51, a highly experienced senior journalist in China, gave explanations about the Israeli army and reserve duty. He also shared photographs of Israel Defense Forces soldiers, including the well-known photograph by David Rubinger of paratroopers at the Western Wall in June 1967, toward the end of the Six-Day War.
Facebook and Twitter do not exist in China because the regime prohibits them, but there are attractive local alternatives. The most popular social network in China is Weibo, a kind of cross between Facebook and Twitter. “The Chinese are very interested in Israel, but not from the perspective of the Israel-Arab conflict. They’re interested in everything Israel represents beyond that,” says Gal Ilan, a spokesman for the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry. “They have a lot of respect for Jewish civilization and culture. The Chinese see Israel as a superpower of wisdom and technology. Research we’ve done shows that the average Chinese person thinks that Israel is 300 percent larger than it actually is in terms of its population, and that it’s extremely well-developed in terms of inventions, development and science.”
Josh Hantman, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, says, “The government spokespeople are well aware of the importance of the new media. People tweet everything they say and think, or post it on Facebook so it has a double effect.” He adds, “An interview in the traditional media — on CNN, for example — is uploaded to Facebook afterward. Throughout the year, I brief bloggers just like I brief reporters, and I’m in contact with some bloggers on a daily basis. To me, they’re just like regular reporters, and quite a few of them have more readers than senior journalists do.”
Don’t hide the bad parts
A look at the calendars of the media people touring Israel is surprising. They are not given “heavy” tours that focus exclusively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather, the tours include visits to major sites in Israel such as historical, scientific and cultural institutions, and a Segway tour of Tel Aviv. Beside meetings with Minister Edelstein, former Ambassador to the U.N. Dore Gold and adviser to the prime minister Ron Dermer, they meet cultural figures such as Cameri Theatre manager Noam Semel, singers David D’Or and Pablo Rosenberg, writer Etgar Keret and actor Aki Avni.
Of course, the calendar is adapted to the target audience’s requirements and interests. If the Chinese bloggers are more interested in high-tech and science, they will be given tours, meetings and lectures in the fields that are relevant to them. The rationale at the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry is fairly simple: Israel is a lovely and fascinating country. All that is necessary is to give journalists freedom and readily accessible information.
Still, there is a professional disagreement among the government ministries that deal with public relations. Foreign Ministry officials feel that only the good things about Israel should be emphasized, while officials of the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry feel that the country is more complex than that. They believe that Israel’s officials should respond to opposing statements, present the whole picture and let the individual judge. When right is on your side, they say over there, you don’t need to hide anything or be evasive.
Shay Attias, a public-diplomacy expert who established and ran the Public Diplomacy Department at the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry in 2009, agrees that Operation Pillar of Defense and the reserved attitude of many people on the social networks lead one to conclude that “the ones who are changing the way people see Israel are the people who live here. So we try to have the guest journalists and bloggers meet with as many faces of Israel as possible — discharged soldiers, celebrities who are always glad to help out, politics and ordinary citizens as well.”