With the appointment of a new Israeli tourism minister, a debate is taking shape about how best to market the Jewish state. Stas Misezhnikov, of the Israel Beiteinu party, wants to revamp the previous administration’s strategy of promoting Israel as primarily “sunshine, beach and beautiful girls” and instead focus more on “history, religion and culture.” Here in New York, however, the man most responsible for changing Israel’s image is David Saranga, who is completing his four-year tenure next month as consul for media and public affairs at the Israeli Consulate. As his term winds down, Saranga, a Foreign Ministry diplomat, sits down with The Jewish Week to discuss Israel’s branding progress.
Q: Misezhnikov says that Israel should concentrate on acquainting visitors with culture rather than beaches. Some of your rebranding tactics have involved Tel Aviv beaches and beautiful Israeli models. How do you react to Misezhnikov’s ideas?
A:One doesn’t contradict the other. Our branding efforts of making people understand what Israel is all about are not only for tourist purposes. The goals of the branding process are to improve Israel’s image, to make people understand that Israel is like America. The purpose of branding is to increase investments, commerce, cultural exchange and also in the long run to strengthen political support that people have toward Israel. And if the byproduct of improving Israel’s image is increasing the number of tourists, we are all happy.
What [Misezhnikov] is saying is correct in terms of increasing the number of tourists. There are three main profiles of people who visited Israel. First are Jewish people, who have relatives and contacts in Israel. Second are businesspeople. Third are Christians. We are thankful for the Evangelical community — even during the time of war, of terror attacks, of intifada, the tourists who came from this niche continued to come to Israel.
This is what is so beautiful in Israel: that on the one hand we have the history, the heritage, the culture. But at the same time if someone is coming for these reasons, he can enjoy beautiful beaches.
Q: What do you consider your biggest accomplishments?
A: We were the first country to use Web 2.0 for public diplomacy. Regarding showing the normality of Israel, last fall, The New York Times dedicated three different articles to Tel Aviv as the next hotspot in culture and tourism.
We brought our message to the masses via social media, sometimes bypassing the conventional media. The best example is the Twitter press conference that we conducted during the war in Gaza.
Q: What advice do you have for your successor?
A: Israel is facing huge challenges — Iran, the peace process, Islamic fundamentalism. We have to continue dealing with these issues. But our work is not complete if we don’t refer to the values of Israel, reflecting what Israel is all about. The fact that Israel is a multicultural society, a democracy, a vivid society, a place where the amount of creativity per square-meter is the highest in the world — this is something we should keep repeating because, unfortunately, people relate to Israel only in the context of conflict.