The recent controversy over the Toronto Film Festival attempting to white-wash Israeli crimes in Palestine appears to be a plan cooked up by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Rule number one: whenever the occupation is mentioned, change the subject. Or better still, deny the occupation even exists:
Imagine this dilemma: You’re Israel’s highest-ranking public relations expert. The world’s news coverage, which shapes public opinion, is at best neutral and more typically hostile to Israel.
Is there a way to change the subject – to associate Israel with something besides tanks and checkpoints? A country afflicted with warts, perhaps, but also rich in culture and high-tech innovations? Other nations and cities have successfully engaged in similar rebranding exercises. Could Israel? And if so, where should it begin?
That was the strategic exercise Amir Gissin undertook three years ago, as director of public affairs at the Israeli Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.
Three years later, he’s Israel’s consul-general for Toronto – the city he chose as the pilot project for rebranding.
That Toronto is now Ground Zero of the Middle East’s global propaganda war is not surprising. One of the most important cities on the continent, it’s a microcosmic blend of American and European influences, as well as the country’s multicultural, financial and media centre, with three large university campuses and a robust Jewish community.
Toronto was an ideal choice for other reasons: It’s home to some of Israel’s harshest critics – among them, the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the United Church of Canada, both of which have championed the Palestinian-led Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, and a noisy coterie of left-wingers in academia and the arts, many of whom, including Naomi Klein, are Jewish.
Unable to win in the military arena, “anti-Israel forces want to achieve a veto right over anything positive said about Israel,” he says. “This we have fought and have succeeded. They want to brand us as an apartheid and pariah state, the new South Africa, and strip us of our legitimacy, and it hasn’t worked.” On the other hand, he concedes, certain quadrants remain a tougher sell, notably college campuses and cultural groups. There, it’s the image of Israel as the epicentre of conflict that remains dominant. Ironically, elements of the Jewish community, here and elsewhere, unwittingly reinforce the conflict stereotype. “We keep trying prove we are right,” Mr. Gissin says, “trying always to win the argument about the Gaza war or the separation fence. We’re so intent on winning the broader political argument that we won’t let go of the debate. That just plays into the other side’s hand, because the world perceives them as the underdog and us as the overdog.”