Richard Goldstone has learned a lesson or two in the past year. Ever since Goldstone, a self-proclaimed Jewish Zionist South African judge, authored a UN report charging Israel (and Hamas) with war crimes, he has been subjected to a well-orchestrated delegitimization campaign. Two weeks ago, new “revealing information” was disseminated to the press, accusing Goldstone of sending 28 black South Africans to their deaths for criminal offences while serving as a judge during the apartheid years. “The judge who sentenced black people to death …” Israeli Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin proclaimed, “should not be allowed to lecture a democratic state defending itself against terrorists.”
This is just the latest episode in an ongoing character assassination campaign. While many commentators have noted that the attempt to kill the messenger is being deployed in order to evade the truth, it should also be stressed that the hatchet job against Goldstone is just one small piece of Israel’s state branding machine. It is therefore vital to look at the larger picture.
In 2004, the Israeli Foreign Ministry hired international PR firms to plan and coordinate a campaign to improve Israel’s global reputation, which was rapidly deteriorating. They hired Ido Aharoni to head of the ministry’s brand management team, who carried out, in turn, several studies on the issue. This is what he found:
Every place has a brand…every place has a DNA like a human being, a personality. Brazil is about fun, Paris is about romance and Las Vegas is about sin… What is Israel about?… Universally, Israel’s DNA is about the conflict, and the context in which Israel is perceived is all about bad news, whether you agree with Israel or not.
In order to counter this image, the Foreign Ministry decided to draw attention away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by emphasizing Israeli stem-cell research and young computer experts who have given the world instant messaging. Aharoni, as part of this effort, has maintained that Israel needs to repackage itself as a great product in terms of life style and leisure, the environment, hi-tech and science, art and culture, the people and heritage, and he points to Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s book Start-Up Nation as a paradigmatic example of how Israel can be celebrated. The sole problem, in Aharoni’s view, is that “when we are given a chance to talk about Israel the only story we tell is about the conflict and it is a turnoff even among our biggest supporters.” Aharoni is convinced that by changing the story Israel tells about itself, it can change its international image.
Martin Kace, founder and president of the business consultancy firm Empax, disagrees with this approach. At the annual Herzliya Conference on National Security, he asserted:
It’s true that the country has astoundingly high amounts of technological innovation; Israel is number one in the world in agricultural productivity, files more biomedical patents every year than any other country, is consistently top 10 in life expectancy, has a very active cultural and academic life, lots of Nobel laureates, great beaches, beautiful and scantily-clad people, a very active gay community and on and on.
“This,” he continues, “is what the Israeli Foreign Ministry proposes as a platform for Brand Israel. It will fail miserably… because it asks people to completely re-contextualize Israel as they know it.” Branding, Kace thinks, must emanate from truth, and a large part of Israel’s truth is that it has been locked in conflict with its neighbors for decades. It is consequently impossible to brand the country in a way that focuses only on progress, fun and modernity, and ask the world to ignore the conflict.
Kace does not propose that Israel end the conflict, but rather suggests that the conflict be incorporated into the Israeli brand, maintaining that Israel cannot deliver a credible brand message without acknowledging the on-going strife. The idea, so it seems, is to present Israel as The Land of Security Know-How.
While such debates have been going on, others players in Israel have already concluded that the Foreign Ministry’s decision to ignore the conflict while accentuating hi-tech, medical and green innovations will not save the country’s reputation. However, these players’ strategy is very different from the one Kace is currently advocating. Unlike other state branding campaigns, which aim to link a country to a series of positive associations through the production and emphasis of certain images, these architects of the Israeli branding machine decided to go on the offensive, striving, as it were, to question and undermine the reputation of anyone who dares to highlight Israel’s human rights record.
The idea informing this offensive is to obstruct the flow of information emerging from the ground; information which is gathered, organized, and distributed by rights groups and then circulated by the international media.
The distribution of labour within the state branding machine is now fairly apparent. Right-wing NGOs and social movements such as Gerald Steinberg’s NGO Monitor and Im Tirzu are doing much of the McCarthyist dirty work. Their black list includes not only individual critics of Israeli rights abusive policies, like Goldstone, but also local and international human rights NGOs and their donors, particularly the European Union, Ford Foundation and the New Israel Fund. Recently, former Knesset Member Naomi Chazan, who now sits at the helm of the New Israel Fund, was featured on gigantic billboards with a horn emerging from her head because her organization funded human rights NGOs that passed information on to Judge Goldstone.
These McCarthyist organizations are, it turns out, working hand-in-hand with right wing legislators. On April 28, 2010, 19 Knesset Member introduced a bill that aims to close down any existing NGO if “there are reasonable grounds to conclude that the association is providing information to foreign entities or is involved in legal proceedings abroad against senior Israeli government officials or IDF officers for war crimes.” If adopted, Israeli rights NGOs will be unable to share their findings with the UN and EU, for example, which amounts to the suppression of information regarding human rights violations and war crimes.
Right wing think tanks, like Reut Institute, have also joined the bandwagon, offering policy recommendations to decision makers. In Building a Political Firewall Against Israel’s Delegitimization, Reut defined anyone who is critical of Israel as being part of a “delegitimization network” and therefore an “existential threat.” According to Reut, this network is comprised of “organizations and individuals in the West – mostly elements of the radical European left, Arab and Islamic groups, and so-called post- or anti-Zionist Jews and Israelis – [who] negate Israel’s right to exist based on a variety of political and philosophical arguments.” In its conclusions, the think tank adopts Huntington’s clash of civilization paradigm, claiming that the “delegitimization stems from a rejection of Israel’s existence, and therefore cannot be made to disappear by PR or policy.” It accordingly argues that “branding the other side” (i.e. Israel’s critics) is a vital component in the struggle over Israel’s reputation, and indeed, existence.
This negative branding is actually part of an international effort, and not only carried out by Israelis. Among the major actors is, of course, Alan Dershowitz, but other less known actors are also playing a part. Dr Mitchell Bard, the executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, and historian Gil Troy of McGill University, recently published a position paper summarizing the discussions of the Working Group on Delegitimization at the 2009 Global Forum against Anti-Semitism. The two authors suggest that it is crucial to “rename and reframe” the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS). “We need to point out how BDS crosses the line from legitimate criticism to historically-laden, anti-Semitic messaging.” The report goes on to present the struggle against BDS as a war, using phrases like “enemy”, “command centre,” “war room,” “fight,” “battle” and “battlefield” to outline the strategy they suggest needs to be deployed against the BDS movement’s proponents.
But the branding campaign does not stop with human rights NGOs, their donors, individual critics or supporters of BDS. International humanitarian and human rights law—the very laws that emerged following the horrors of the Holocaust—are particularly and ironically also under attack. This, at least, was one of the messages emerging from a conference organized by the Lawfare Project. The logic is clear: international human rights law is being deployed as a tool to criticize Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories and is consequently responsible for damaging Israel’s reputation; it therefore must be curbed.
By threatening international human rights law, one of the major pillars upon which post-World War II societies were founded, the brand Israel campaign may end up having an effect that far exceeds the Israel-Palestinian conflict. And this is an extremely frightening thought.
NEVE GORDON is an Israeli activist and the author of and author of Israel’s Occupation (University of California Press, 2008).