Ido Aharoni, Israel’s consul general in New York, has long been an innovator and proponent of “Brand Israel” campaigns to emphasize the positive technological, medical and scientific achievements of the Jewish state rather than focus on the political conflict. He served as consul for media and public affairs in New York from 2001 to 2005, and later led a similar rebranding project at the foreign ministry in Jerusalem.
An energetic man who presents well to American audiences, he has the savvy of one who has worked in, and understands well, both U.S. and Israeli communities. He is always on the lookout for young people outside the small circle of pro-Israel advocates who can be effective in making Israel’s case as a vibrant, democratic country to a wider audience, like the young participant in a mission to Israel for bloggers from the U.S. who criticized Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker (“The Color Purple”) for her highly critical comments about Israel in her new novel, “The Cushion In The Road.”
“He wrote of his own experiences,” noted Aharoni, who recently visited the offices of The Jewish Week. “Young people relate to their peers” more readily than to older writers, he said.
Q: How have you changed your approach to engaging young American Jews?
A: We spend far more time visiting students in college and graduate schools enrolled in business and law programs. I’ve been to 50 campuses, and I sense the urgency. We used to concentrate on students enrolled in Mideast programs but that was a mistake. I speak to students in MBA programs, where we make sure Israel is part of the curriculum, where they can study abroad in Israel. And we meet more with faculty, who represent continuity on campus. We encourage academic partnerships with Israeli institutions.
What’s the message you seek to impart?
Our job is to educate and build relationships, not get into debates over Mideast policy. So we are changing the conversation about Israel. It used to be about victimhood, survival and conflict; that turns away even many of our friends. Why focus on perpetuating Israel’s imperfections and problems with the Arabs? That is such a narrow discussion. We talk about Israel as an opportunity and advantage based on its success as a startup nation, a leader in science, medicine, business and technology.
How do you measure success?
It’s a monumental task to change perceptions, but we are doing well. You can see the enthusiasm in terms of Israeli tourism and culture. It’s a generational change and a different kind of relationship, one based on relevance and opportunity — to make money, to reconnect with the Jewish heritage, to find a means of self-expression, even to find a spouse.
What has been the influence of Birthright Israel in this endeavor?
There is the program itself, offering free visits to Israel, and there is the spirit of Birthright, the tremendous power of experiential programs that speak to this generation. These young people see that Israel can be many things to many people. And Birthright has had a big and positive influence on non-Jews, too. When our young people come back from the trips and write about their experience and post photos on Facebook, their friends read about it and see it. It’s uncensored, authentic and reliable, coming from the young people themselves.