Friday, 20 July 2007

Harry Potter and the Holy Machloikes

At midnight tonight, all will be revealed when the final Harry Potter book is released. The suspense will finally come to an end.

Children and adults across the world will be queuing up to get their hands on a copy. This is, of course, everyone except for Israelis. Why? Because the launch is on Shabbat and Trade and Industry Minister, Eli Yishai, has threatened to fine anyone who opens to sell the book. So we’ll have to wait a few hours longer...unless we go to Steimatzky in the old port of Tel Aviv, where they are proudly advertising a midnight Harry Potter celebration.

But in case you’re concerned that this gross violation of the holy Sabbath will turn into a celebration of everything secular and anti-religious in Israel, do not fear.

No doubt passing most readers by, the advert makes a subtle reference to the holiest of holies in Judaism – the Unetanneh Tokef prayer, composed by the medieval sage Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. “Who will live? Who will die?”

The legend goes that Rabbi Amnon, after refusing the local bishop’s demand to convert to Catholicism, had his hands and legs amputated. At each amputation, Rabbi Amnon was again given the opportunity to convert, which he refused. As he lay dying, Rabbi Amnon asked to be carried to shul for the Rosh Hashana service, where he recited Unetanneh Tokef with his last breath.

When I first made aliya, I was always aware that in this country, state and church often find themselves getting mixed up. But one thing I’m sure of is that two bearded men - Rabbi Amnon and Prof. Albus Dumbledore – never expected it to get mixed up quite like this!

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Wednesday, 11 July 2007

How to beat the boycotts

The UK is getting a new Ambassador… and believe it or not, he actually speaks English. Not only that, but one of Israel’s most important diplomatic positions is being filled by someone with an impressive diplomatic record. Ron Prosor is a career diplomat. Fluent in English and German, he has represented Israel in Washington, London and other cities, as well as serving as the Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The last three Israeli Ambassadors to the UK were all political appointments, and more often than not, totally inappropriate for the job. The current ambassador, Zvi Heifetz is a successful Russian-Israeli businessman, with a couple of years of experience as a Russian language advisor for the Ministry of Defense. In July 2004, Ariel Sharon appointed him to the post – apparently something to do with Heifetz’s close friendship with Sharon’s son Omri.

Heifetz was previously the chairman of an Israeli music production company, which at least served him well when making small talk with another pop music producer, British Mid East envoy Lord Levy.

Prosor might be good but he’s got an almighty challenge ahead of him. When asked at a recent event what his strategy would be to counter the union boycotts, Prosor proved that he was true Israeli Ambassador material – he replied, “a winning one”. Genius. This is precisely what the Israeli mission, as well as the community leaders have lacked for too long.

If Mr. Prosor starts employing this creative new strategy to other issues like promoting trade and tourism, he might even catch the eye of the locals. Within the next year, there’s bound to be a job opening at the English football team…

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Thursday, 5 July 2007

The Perfect Watermelon

Picking the right watermelon is quite an art. Go down the fruit and veg aisle of any Israeli supermarket and you’ll see a crowd of people surrounding the watermelons, placing their ears against the fruit and vehemently tapping away. The theory goes that if it sounds hollow, you’ve got a good’en. If you’re like me, you’ll find that they all sound hollow so you’ll tap, listen and then pick any of them. After taking a couple of rotten ones home, it was put to me that I should ask the supermarket assistant to cut a big one in half, have a taster, and if it’s good, take the half home (apparently this is perfectly acceptable supermarket etiquette).

Whilst waiting in line for my watermelon to be cut, I chuckled at the thought that this was the only place in the whole country where Israelis were happily queuing up for an Arab with an extremely long knife! Who says we don’t trust each other?!

Branding Israel

It’s a question that we’ve been asking ourselves for 40 years: Why is it that we're so bad at PR? I might be a little biased, but even when I try really hard to be objective, I'm still convinced that Israel has a pretty good case. But when it comes to the media, foreign governments and hearts & minds in general, the Palestinians have done a far better job at making themselves heard.

Everything seems to be a PR disaster for us. So much so that we resort to getting some Israeli girls to strip down and model for lads’ mags as “sexy Israeli soldiers”. This might be a bit of harmless fun, but quite embarrassing to have come from an Israeli diplomat, as an official Israeli hasbara initiative. Why is it that no one considers even West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and that the BBC even felt the need to apologise when a sports presenter referred to it as such? Why is it that Israel has to defend its “right to exist”, a phrase never used for any other country?

I was driving through a predominantly Arab neighbourhood of Lod on the way to work when I spotted a house at the side of the road. It was a pretty large house, probably owned by one of the town’s more well to do residents, or perhaps simply home to a very large extended family. In the brickwork there was a plaque marking the year it was built (1990) and with an illustration of the Dome of the Rock. The Palestinians love imagery. Every Palestinian official sits in an office with a picture of Jerusalem fixed to the wall. And what have they talked about non-stop for the past forty years? Three things. Jerusalem, the Occupation and refugees. They go on and on about them and find a way of attaching everything that happens to one (or two or three) of them. As far as marketing is concerned, continuously reiterating your key messages is the secret to building up a brand. Ask anyone about the Palestinians and they will know that they stand for these three things.

What about Israel? What are our key messages? Hmmm. We want peace… or at least no war or perhaps separation. We love Jerusalem even though most of us don’t talk about it or even visit it very often. We’re good at science and technology. But our most important message – the one we always like to focus on – is that we want to be accepted by the world. That’s all, just accepted.

So put your feet in the shoes of a neutral and ask yourself, ‘Whose message would convince you?’