Foreign media workshop: ‘Don’t call it a settlement, when it’s a community’

Residents from Judea & Samaria met to receive tips on dealing with the hostile int’l press, which often depicts them as usurpers of land & religious fanatics

By Sigal Arbitman

 

 

 

The famous Chinese philosopher Confucius once said, “Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Let me do and I understand.” This quote served as the core of the message that was imparted to participants of a “foreign media workshop” held two weeks ago at the main visiting hall of the Binyamin regional council.

A community in Judea and Samaria. [Illustrative] – Photo: Yehoshua Yosef

On a cold, rainy night, 30 residents from all over Judea and Samaria, gathered in an auditorium for a three-hour learning session, during which they received tips on dealing with a hostile international press that is covering the daily events unfolding in their own backyards.

There are 1,500 foreign reporters based in Israel. They are here to cover the daily lives of the people who live on this fascinating swath of land. They are also here to monitor events whenever there are emergencies, like the minutes following a terrorist attack or any other major security-related incident.

As citizens who live in a country that in some areas is still fighting for political and legal status, namely “beyond the Green Line,” residents of Judea and Samaria find themselves helpless in the face of an international press corps that has nothing positive to say about them and which analyzes the daily reality of their lives through an unfair prism, or, as they put it, “compliments the Arabs but not us.”

Israel’s image and its ability to adequately explain itself (“hasbara”) to the international community are critical for a country whose diplomatic and security policies arouse widespread anger around the globe. They are also important for the residents of Judea and Samaria, since they are the ones who are depicted by CNN and the BBC as usurpers of land, as well as religious fanatics. Most of them have had enough of foreign reporters who ambush them with hostile questions after hiding in bushes outside their homes.

“Everybody knows that Israel suffers from a very negative image in the eyes of the media,” said Gal Ilan, a spokesperson for the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry whose main responsibility is to coach Judea and Samaria residents on dealing with the foreign press. Ilan is undertaking the initiative in conjunction with the Binyamin regional council.

“Naturally, Israel is perceived as the stronger party while the Palestinians are the weak nation, so the image in the eyes of the press is problematic,” he said. “But we view this problem as an opportunity to portray the residents of Judea and Samaria who live this conflict as they really are. We want to train the residents of Judea and Samaria, as well as all residents who live near a region of conflict, to better explain themselves and their daily lives and to create a more positive image of the Israeli. The goal isn’t to give them the ‘what,’ since everyone is entitled to their opinion, but to give them the ‘how.’”

The towns of Judea and Samaria are sorely lacking a well-oiled, efficient public relations apparatus that offers a unified message and works for the benefit of all the residents. The dearth of eloquent spokespersons who can effectively communicate their message in a foreign language while presenting themselves admirably in front of a television camera creates a problem for the residents who are unable to properly explain what is happening on the ground from an Israeli point of view.

“When security incidents take place, the international media needs to interview local people,” Ilan says. “Often times there just isn’t anyone available among the residents of these towns. The foreign journalists can’t get to good sources who can provide good news copy, so they broadcast whatever footage they have, and most of the time Israel doesn’t come out looking good.”

“We are also harmed by this,” Ilan said. “Nobody knows how to explain us properly. So what ends up happening is that the Israeli angle, the point of view that explains the daily suffering of people that live here, is not brought to the attention of the media, and that is a pity.”

Miri Maoz Ovadia, who works as the chief foreign media liaison for the Binyamin regional council and the Yesha Council, concurs with Ilan. “For years the world has been preoccupied with the story of the West Bank and the settlers,” she said. “During that time, some not so positive associations have been created by the very fact that the right people who know how to tell the story of our daily lives here have not been exposed.”

Q: What kind of damage has been caused as a result?

“The damage has been image-related. People have a very natural aversion to the news media. When a camera is shoved in your face, you don’t really know how to express what you want to say, and today there is a greater awareness of this. We want to tell our story and to reveal the stories of the people who live here, to show that there are good people here who contribute, people who live here with their families in harmony and quiet. We didn’t come here to invent a new positive image, since it already exists.”

Q: How does one go about their normal routine when they are accosted by reporters who hide out in the bushes and ambush them with questions?

“It doesn’t happen all the time. It’s common mainly after some major security incident. After the terrorist attack in Itamar two years ago, foreign reporters went door-to-door in the town looking for anyone who was willing to be interviewed. The goal of this workshop is to create these interviewees so that we can dispatch them immediately after events of that sort.”

The medium is the message

The first part of the workshop consists of a lecture delivered by Mira Marcus, an expert in political marketing and public diplomacy. According to Marcus, Israel is the “product” that needs to be sold to the customer, which in this case happens to be the journalist from a foreign network. The person being interviewed should identify the reporter with whom they are speaking and the network that the journalist represents. On the basis of this information, they could then know the best way to get their message across. The BBC is very different from Fox News, since the audiences that both networks command are very different, so there is a different way in getting the required messages across.

The BBC’s viewership is comprised primarily of Israel-hating British snobs, while those who tune in to Fox News are usually middle-class Caucasians who are pro-Israel, Christian, and very patriotic. Five years ago, when Dan Gillerman, the former ambassador to the U.N., went on television to be interviewed about the terrorist attack at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva, he was dressed in a suit and tie, looking very American. He made sure to stress family values and to draw a connection between the terrorist attack at Mercaz Harav and al-Qaida’s destruction of the World Trade Center. It was obvious that he was appearing on Fox News.

The usage of terms like “family,” “values,” and “attacking women and children,” and the manner in which he dressed for this interview, were all very calculated, and they were done with the goal of creating empathy for Israel. According to Marcus, Gillerman would have spoken differently and placed an emphasis on a different message had appeared on the BBC.

Drawing on the well-known saying “the medium is the message,” Marcus instructed the participants of the workshop to identify the medium in order to gauge how to get their message across most effectively. The means to do this is through personal stories, “which any one of us can identify with, anywhere in the world,” according to Marcus.

“People around the world who watch the news after a long day at work don’t want us to speak to them in slogans and clichés,” she said. “They want to be moved, and they want to empathize. The story about a woman from Ashkelon who wears high heels to work but who takes a pair of sneakers with her so that she can change into them quickly in the event of a siren [warning of an imminent rocket attack] and run into a shelter is one example.”

The second part of the workshop is practical. This is when the participants are asked to stand before huge video screens and express their opinions about a number of political subjects and how they relate to their daily lives in the settlements. Then they sit down in front of a camera, where they are instructed to apply what they learned in the first part of the workshop. Marcus played the role of a foreign reporter, and she did so with such conviction that one could be forgiven for thinking that she was the real thing.

The first to be “interviewed” was Hanah from Mevo Horon, a 40-year-old mother of five children. In perfect English, Marcus went “guns ablazing,” asking her how she could raise her children while fully conscious of the fact that she was living on land that didn’t belong to her. Visibly unnerved, Hanah answered in broken English, explaining that this was land that belonged to the Jewish people, land which they dreamed of redeeming for thousands of years and on which they had the right to settle. Mira was still not satisfied.

“But the Palestinians also claim that these lands are theirs and that they too dreamed of redeeming them for thousands of years,” she said. “Who are you to determine that the right of the Jewish people is more just?”

To Hanah’s credit, she did not lose her cool. Despite the pointed questions, she answered the mock interviewer with aplomb. “The Jewish residents wish to live in peace with their Arab neighbors, but the latter have staged violent acts that do not allow both sides to live harmoniously,” Hannah said.

Mira was still not satisfied. Then, Hannah suddenly burst into a monologue. She recalled driving back to her home while she was pregnant. Her midwife, who was also pregnant at the time, was also in the car with her. All of a sudden, they were attacked by an Arab mob hurling stones. “Two pregnant women traveling quietly on the road, and all of a sudden they were attacking us,” Hanah recalled. “We didn’t do anything to them. And that’s just one of many examples.” Mission accomplished! Mira came away satisfied.

The next to be interviewed was Benny from Tel Zion. Armed with an ear-to-ear grin, he took his seat in front of the interviewer and calmly folded his hands. Just as she did with Hanah, Mira tried to shake his confidence with hard questions, but Benny maintained his smile throughout the exchange. He demonstrated a firm grasp of what was taught to him during the workshop, going into his personal story about working in a factory alongside his Palestinian colleagues, the lunches and coffee breaks that they share together, the encounters with them at the local grocery store, and the mutual invitations to family events and other joyous occasions.

“Nice job,” Mira said. “You got your message across in a calm, measured fashion, and you even smiled. The smile is a critically important element in an interview, since it immediately fosters empathy on the part of the viewer.”

Throughout all of the “auditions,” Mira emphasized the importance of choosing the proper terminology with which to communicate the message. Instead of using the term “settlement,” it is preferable to opt for “community” when talking about a residential area. “Security fence” is a better term than “wall” in describing the obstacle that runs along the perimeter of the town.

“Words create images,” Mira said. “It’s preferable that these images be as positive as possible.”

Sometimes, conflicts are a matter of semantics.

“Have them take tours”

With all due respect to the foreign press corps, it seems that most of the workshop’s participants were just as concerned with how they are (in their minds, incorrectly) perceived by the Israeli press. “There is no doubt that the training was also designed to help us explain ourselves to the local media,” said Maoz Ovadia. “The goal is to open up the towns of the Binyamin regional council to the Israeli audience, and not just to the international audience. I would very much like to see Israelis coming here for guided tours so that the Binyamin regional council could be a part of the consensus of all of the Jewish people, so that they know this is a nice place to visit instead of a place to oppose or be afraid of because it’s located beyond the Green Line.”

This is exactly the goal that Avital Beles of Neveh Zuf, a Hebrew University student, wishes to attain. “One of the things that always bothered me was that it was the Israelis, of all people, the intellectuals, the intelligent Israelis, the cosmopolitan Israelis, the liberal and open-minded, many of whom are my friends, who are adamantly opposed to the place in which I live without getting to know it,” she said.

“They’re not really willing to listen,” she said. “It sometimes comes to a point when I say to them, sometimes kiddingly, that I plan on having my wedding in Neveh Zuf,” she said. “People then say to me that they won’t come.”

Q: Are you saying that there is no difference between Israelis who live here and people living abroad?

“Not exactly, since I do think that the average Israeli on the street can certainly empathize with me. I’m talking specifically about those who are studying the same thing that I am at university, where there is a distinct ideological tilt in one direction, and it is led by a group of people who are homogenous in their ideology. I’ve had other students tell me, ‘I’ve never been there, I’ll never be there, and don’t ever talk to me about it.’”

“Here’s the difference between a foreign audience and an Israeli audience. The story of the settlements has an impact on the entire country, so the opinions of Israelis are completely different than those of foreigners. Whoever doesn’t live here on a daily basis can’t really connect with what is happening here and can’t understand the conflict. The Israelis who are in denial over the settlements still need to live with the consequences of the settlements.”

Despite the complexity of the problem, Beles said she fully intends to apply the lessons she has learned in the workshop to impact public opinion closer to home. “The people with whom I study will one day advance in academia, the business world, in international business,” she said. “They will take up important jobs and they’ll occupy important centers of power and influence. It’s important for them to formulate an opinion regarding what is happening in the settlements, but one that stems from understanding and acknowledgement. Whatever they think, the most important thing is for them to know what they’re talking about.”

“Not doing enough”

Aside from the need for adequate public relations in the face of a hostile local press, some of the participants accuse the State of Israel of abandoning the Yesha settlements in their war of ideas on both the domestic and international fronts. In their view, the state is not doing enough to protect them, and that is one reason they felt that they needed to take the initiative into their own hands.

“There’s a certain contradiction in the fact that almost all Israeli governments either supported or encouraged the establishment of the settlements and the fact that they have not really provided us with public relations assistance,” said Yisrael Meidad, a resident of Shiloh, a moshav in the West Bank.

Public advocacy and political involvement are not foreign to Meidad, who served as a parliamentary assistant for a number of ministers and Knesset members over the course of more than a decade. Meidad even made two appearances on “Hard Talk,” the BBC gabfest that is known for its tendency to mercilessly grill Israeli guests while propagating a staunchly anti-Israel line.

“The public relations on behalf of the settlements is poor,” he said. “The information doesn’t go through the appropriate channels the way it should. There is still no working mechanism within the Binyamin council that is capable of disseminating the message regarding everything that is going on here, so people just don’t know. There’s the absorption of immigrants, schools, agriculture, cultural activities, communal activities, cultural activities. All of these need to be streamlined into one place so that the word can go forth, both to the local press and to the international media.”

Q: Do you think this is due to the fact that the state has been derelict in adequately advocating on behalf of the settlements?

“This is a difficult question, but in practice there is no doubt that not enough has been done to present our side. We’ve on more than one occasion heard the media use the term ‘apartheid’ in the context of the settlements. I contacted a number of government officials, and I pitched to them a number of proposals that made it possible to easily prove that there is no similarity between what is happening here and apartheid, but I never received any response.”

According to Meidad, the problem is also reflected in the terminology that has become second-nature in the Israeli lexicon. “What would happen if a few ministers began to make statements in the media regarding ‘Arab settlements’ in Israel, and not just Jewish settlement?” he wonders. “The problem is that there just isn’t enough audacity on the part of the senior leadership, probably because the moment you have a top government job you’re more limited as to what you can say. If there is no effective public relations apparatus, then there is no cooperation between those who have official job titles and those who work on the ground.”

“If the state doesn’t want us, why is it subsidizing us?” he said. “After all, the government is paying a huge diplomatic and monetary price for supporting us, so why not devote more attention to us? By the way, not only do foreign journalists come here whenever there are terror attacks. We also have foreign diplomats, church officials, and international figures visit us regularly. They, too, are shapers of public opinion in their countries, and it’s important to know how to work with them as well.”

Q: Do you think you could take the matter of hasbara into your own hands by virtue of this workshop?

“The workshop is just one side of the training. Without government help on this issue, there’s a limit as to what we can do on our own.”

View original Israel Hayom publication at: http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=7505

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