Israel has broken its tourism record for seven years running, and Ido Aharoni credits that to social media.
Mr. Aharoni is a retired Israeli foreign service officer who also spent six years as Israel’s consul general in New York.
He will speak in Teaneck on Sunday, at a fundraising breakfast for Israel’s Magen David Adom emergency services.
Mr. Aharoni believes because social media replaces newspaper photographs of violence and ambulances with Instagram pictures of beaches and restaurants, “Israel is being viewed just like any other normal tourist destination. The huge psychological barrier around the issue of safety that we had to deal with for so many years is significantly diminished now because of social media. The news feed today is very personal. It’s designed by the users themselves. If it’s not in your feed, it doesn’t exist.
“And most people don’t have the geopolitics of the Middle East in their newsfeed.”
Instead, he continued, “there are hundreds of millions of images posted online by Israelis, by people who visit Israel, by Israel’s friends. They’re authentic, they’re unmediated, they present Israel for what it is. I always said, if you give Israel a chance, Israel will sell itself. Israel is selling itself now.”
In the foreign service, Mr. Aharoni advocated that Israeli public diplomacy focus on what he called “brand Israel,” relegating debates over policy to the United Nations and similar diplomatic arenas, but “making efforts to communicate Israel in the broader sense, widening the scope through which Israel is being perceived.
“It’s an idea that caught on because of technology. Smartphones and social media allow people to communicate Israel independently. They expose all the things that Israel is all about. Some are very positive, some are challenges and threats.”
Chief among the threats that Mr. Aharoni will discuss in Teaneck are Iran and the Palestinians.
Mr. Aharoni said that American Jews have two roles to play in his approach to promoting Israel.
“The first is simply to encourage people to go to Israel and to go to Israel themselves,” he said. “The numbers are growing but we need more.
“Second, Jewish communities need to help Israel by inviting influencers who are not necessarily Jewish to see Israel for themselves. People from all walks of life — scientists, artists, culture icons, athletes, you name it — there are tens of thousands of influencers in the world today and the way to influence the conversation is to influence them. Unfortunately, we’re not doing enough. The Israeli government has very limited resources. We can use all the help we can get.
“It will also help us fight the anti-Israel sentiment on campus if you invite young academics, young Ph.D. candidates, especially in the social sciences and humanities, to come to Israel and allow them to form their own independent relationship with Israel. It will be much more difficult for them to ignore the reality when they form their opinion about the region and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The fundraising breakfast was organized by Elie Katz, who sits on Teaneck’s town council, and his wife, Esther.
“I got involved with Magen David Adom when I was in Israel for the year after high school,” Mr. Katz said. “I volunteered for them once a week.” He already had worked for the Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corp, and he returned to that volunteer job after he came back from Israel. “I did over 2,500 ambulance calls,” he said.
Mr. Katz’s EMT work and his love for Israel came together in his support for Magen David Adom a few years ago, when he took on a fundraising drive in Bergen County to buy an ambulance in memory of his father-in-law, Rabbi Joseph Feinstein. “It was always his dream to go to Israel,” he said. “He was very big on giving blood. We felt that it was a fitting memorial to him to donate an ambulance in his name.”
In addition to Mr. Aharoni, other speakers at the breakfast include Guy Caspi, who leads Magen David Adom’s terrorism-response training; Teaneck Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin; and Sarri Singer, who founded an organization, Strength to Strength, to support terror victims. “She was a victim of a terrorist bombing in Israel and Magen David Adom saved her life,” Mr. Katz said.
The breakfast has brought criticism from Teaneck’s loudest Israel critic, musician and pro-Palestinian activist Richard A. Siegel, who has filed for a permit to protest the breakfast. In the past, Mr. Siegel has protested a sister cities arrangement between Teaneck and an Israeli town and has reported to the police that his pro-Palestinian bumper sticker was vandalized.
Mr. Siegel leads an organization, Deir Yassin Remembered, which has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for posting articles denying and downplaying the Holocaust on its website.
“An event supporting the racist war-mongering apartheid Jewish state is not relevant to Teaneck,” Mr. Siegel wrote in an email to city council members. “As much as the Modern Orthodox Jewish Zionists of Teaneck might like to make Teaneck into a Jewish-Zionist town, it is not.”
Mr. Katz said he’s not calling for counterprotesters. “We’re not looking for a spectacle,” he said. “We want people to learn about the great work Magen David Adom does in Israel, not to give the other side an opportunity to get pictures of angry protesters. The best way to win the fight is to fill the room and come out for the event.”
Mr. Siegel’s protest “is very strange,’ Mr. Katz added. “The volunteers who work in Magen David Adom are made up of all different races, religions, and colors, and the people they take care of are all different religions and colors. They also go all over the world, whenever there’s a crisis, because they have a lot of experience with mass casualties.”
What: Breakfast for Israel 2019, supporting Magen David Adom
Where: Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Ave., Teaneck.
When: Sunday, May 19, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
How much: $36