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Interesting Time to be in Israel: Liora Miller’s Reflections on her Recent Visit

Zionist Council of Victoria Honorary Secretary and Public Relations Chair, Liora Miller, addressed the Zionist Council Executive at its recent meeting.

It’s a fascinating time to be in Israel in the lead up to an election. The campaign is extraordinarily long by our standards. This election, like the last one is throwing up parties that have previously not existed and seen the virtual disappearance of parties that once held significant power.

Take for example the merger of all the Arab parties – who may potentially garner 12 seats.

The new Labor party or Zionist camp as they are calling themselves sees the joint ticket of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, the only other party that will give Likud a run for their money.

Kulanu is led by Moshe Kahlon who is hugely popular for opening up the telecommunications industry to competition – Israelis now have mobile and internet plans that we can only salivate over. It remains to be seen whether his success can be extended.

Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit HaYehudi party has attracted the unlikely candidate of Anett Haskia – an Arab Muslim whose 3 children have served in the IDF. She’s been accused by Arab members of Knesset of being a traitor. She calls herself a proud Israeli Zionist. She says she’s joined the ticket in order to further the interests of Arab Israelis from that position while the Arab parties’ sole interest is to create divisions within society. Who would have thought a right wing party would attract an Arab Muslim into its fold?

And then there’s the creation of an ultra-Orthodox women’s party created because they are excluded from the ultra-Orthodox parties.

It’s still 6 weeks to go until the March 17 election – far too soon to predict results and there’s likely to still be surprises along the way.

This election will focus on the typical issues of security given the recent Gaza war, the instability in the north and the lack of resolution with Iran. But social justice disaffection still remains high with the issues of affordable housing being the significant one for the man in the street.

The influx of French and other European Jewry are also raising questions about why many who are wealthy and established are still entitled to tax concessions and other Aliyah benefits. 

While in Israel, I also thought intensely about Israel’s PR, its effectiveness or lack thereof. Constantly having to battle emotive images of towns and houses turned to rubble, the injured and dead women and children. The fact is there’s no PR message that can remove those images once seen. There’s no explanation that can be given, no matter how accurate because most people are not interested in a complex and nuanced conversation. And more to the point, we often can’t provide an accurate response as to what has occurred until well after the images and story have taken their toll and the viewer or reader has moved on.

Matti Friedman – a former Associated Press journalist who was their reporter in Israel between 2006-2011 – gave a speech a few days ago about the malfunctioning in the coverage of the Israel story that confirms much of what we see on the ground. He claims the international press in Israel has become less an observer of the conflict than a player in it. It has moved away from careful explanation towards a kind of political character assassination on behalf of the side it has identified as being right. In other words, they have a narrative, and any attempts to discredit it with facts will be met with the editorial discretion not to print or air the material.

The chaos that has enveloped the Middle East, the Arab Spring that turned quickly to Winter, has not led to the press, NGO workers and activists to focus their attentions on atrocities occurring elsewhere. We constantly ask why is there the disproportionate attention upon Israel given the turmoil that surrounds her. According to Friedman people aren’t fixated on Israel despite what’s going on but rather because of everything else going on. Israel has become the symbol of what is wrong – she is a simple and easy explanation to the world’s ills.

So what to do? Of course we still have a significant role to play ensuring the facts are reported albeit often too late to make any impact. But our role must be much broader than repairing the damage. Developing relationships with individuals, organisations, and governments with mutual interests in culture, trade, medicine, science and the like are critical in improving the image of Israel for it is a truism that those who visit Israel and engage with her and understand how she operates, form an entirely different perspective about her.

I was in Tel Aviv when the Charlie Hedbo and kosher supermarket murders took place. I’ve never felt safer. Of the over 150 students who travelled to Israel in the Summer on Ulpan programs from Mt Scopus and Bialik, booking and paying their money at the height of the Gaza conflict, not one family cancelled. And that’s the greatest revenge to those who seek to discredit and boycott her. To understand that she is a different place to what is portrayed, to support her, to visit her and encourage others to go to the source rather than rely on bias and drawing simplistic conclusions.