November 29, 2004
Israeli TV Tackles War for Hearts and Minds
By GREG MYRE
ERUSALEM, Nov. 28 - For many Israelis, it is received wisdom that their country is misunderstood by the world, and that its official representatives compound the problem through inept diplomacy.
True or false, this notion has spawned the country's newest reality television show, "The Ambassador," which features 14 young Israelis competing in the United States, Europe and at home to win a job spreading a pro-Israel message around the globe.
The first episode of the highly publicized show was seen Wednesday night on Israel's Channel Two and it directly addressed the country's preoccupation with "hasbara," a Hebrew word best translated as "advocacy."
Many Israelis passionately believe that if the country could better make its case in the court of international opinion, then much of the world would side with, or at least be more understanding toward, Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. It is a battle that many Israelis say they have been losing during the last four years of violence.
For their first assignment, the contestants were divided into two teams, men and women, with each side delivering a speech and answering questions from skeptical students at Cambridge University in Britain.
"The only aim is to make them more sympathetic to Israel, to modify their opinions if just by a millimeter," said Nachman Shai, one of the show's three judges and a former military spokesman regarded as a skilled practitioner of hasbara.
At Cambridge, the speaker for the men's team was Tzvika Deutsch, who asked audience members how they would feel if a British soccer match was canceled because of the threat of a rocket attack. Such dangers are an everyday concern in Sedorot, he said, a town in southern Israel near Gaza that comes under frequent Palestinian rocket attack.
"I have a simple dream," he said. "I want to wake up every morning to a boring life. To just turn on the telly and watch a match between Arsenal and Manchester United."
The women's team presented a more formal recitation of recent Middle East events, including the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations when the Palestinian uprising began four years ago.
Responding to a student's question, Ofra Bin Nun of the women's team said, "Let me make it clear that Israel has not taken anything from anyone." That drew snickers and derisive laughter from the audience, which later expressed a preference for the men's presentation by a 3-to-1 margin.
While the men's team celebrated with Champagne, the women were flown back to Israel and debriefed by the judges. Ms. Bin Nun was the first contestant dismissed.
"Hasbara means knowing you are speaking to a hostile audience and knowing how to win their hearts," said Rina Matzliah, a judge who is a prominent television journalist.
On the episode to be broadcast this Wednesday, the remaining 13 contestants travel to France, a country highly critical of Israel, in an attempt to persuade French people to visit Israel.
The show will play out over 11 episodes, with the winner receiving a job in New York with Israel at Heart, an advocacy group established two years ago by Joey Low, 53, a New York businessman.
"I was very upset with the way Israel was being perceived," Mr. Low said in a telephone interview from New York. "I felt Israel was not delivering its message in the best way."
Mr. Low's group recruits Israelis in their early 20's who have just completed mandatory military service and sends them to universities in United States, Europe and Latin America to speak on behalf of Israel.
When approached by "The Ambassador," Mr. Low said, he had reservations but decided it could serve a useful purpose, "because Israelis don't always know how they are being perceived abroad."
Israeli television has been cranking out reality shows inspired by American ones, and "The Ambassador" has been compared to "The Apprentice."
Keshet Broadcasting, which produces the show, whittled down a large pool of potential contestants and selected well-educated, multilingual, photogenic Israelis in their 20's and early 30's. Contestants gather in a dimly lit conference room to receive marching orders at the beginning of each episode, and return at the end to find out who has been dismissed.
"We didn't want a show that was just about finding a winner," said Avi Nir, the general manager of Keshet. "We wanted something that deals with the problems facing Israel. We wanted a show that brought together current affairs and reality TV."
Gideon Meir, a senior Foreign Ministry official, said he welcomed the show because it would demonstrate to Israelis the challenges in advancing Israel's case abroad. He said he was not troubled by the show's underlying premise that amateur diplomats could perhaps be more effective than the professionals.
"Israelis feel if we could only do a better job explaining, the world would understand us," Mr. Meir said. "But it's much more complicated than that. I hope this will show that public diplomacy is not easy, and is something that has to be taken in a serious way."
Mr. Shai was a military spokesman during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, offering assurance that everything was under control even as the country came under repeated missile attacks from Iraq. He said Israel's representatives had a greater challenge today. In 1991, as well as in the 1967 and in 1973 wars, Israel faced actual or imminent attack. But now the country is often portrayed as the aggressor in the fighting with the Palestinians, particularly in the European news media.
"The David and Goliath roles have been reversed, and it's more difficult to explain what we're doing today," Mr. Shai said in an interview. "I meet often with American Jews, and there's a strong feeling that Israel is right, but the world doesn't understand we are right.
"I think we're doing a pretty good job, but we're always critical of ourselves. I think it's fair to say that we are obsessed with hasbara."