Branding Israel Through Technology

This is my recent “Jews in the Digital Age” column for the Detroit Jewish News:

Sally Whittle is a blogger in Lancashire, England. Her blog “Who’s the Mummy?” is one of approximately 4 million “mommy blogs” on the Web. Like many other young mothers she journals about her life as a mother and provides advice for other mothers around the world. With over 30,000 visitors a month, Whittle is used to receiving comments on her blog but she was surprised when she was offered a free trip to Israel with a handful of other popular mommy bloggers.

The group of mommy bloggers visited Israel this past July as part of VibeIsrael, a program of the apolitical non-profit Kinetis. The social startup seeks to generate domestic and global awareness of Israel as the capital of creative energy. Its founder and executive director Joanna Landau was recently in Metro Detroit to share her vision of how to brand Israel for the 21st century and how to market that brand as widely as possible.

Landau, a lawyer and start-up entrepreneur made aliyah with her family when she was five-years-old. Raised in a well-to-do philanthropic and Zionist home, she actively sought out a way to transition from her for-profit work into a non-profit passion. Her interest was piqued in 2004 when Israel’s Foreign Ministry launched the Brand Israel Project, which aimed to improve the country’s image abroad by downplaying religion and avoiding any discussion of the conflict with the Palestinians. Landau incorporated Kinetis in November 2009 seeding it with some of her own money and got to work on her re-branding Israel project.

While in Metro Detroit, Landau was eager to learn how the state’s “Pure Michigan” campaign was working to improve its image. She quickly noticed the similarities between Metro Detroit’s desire to retain talent by keeping its young people local after college and Israel’s desire to have its children choose to remain in Israel following army service. “Brazil is known for ‘fun’ and Paris is about ‘romance’ and America is connected to ‘freedom.’ When people around the world hear ‘Israel,’ they automatically think about politics and the conflict with the Palestinians,” Landau explains. Israel is all about ‘Creative Energy.’ This is what differentiates Israel as a country and Israelis as a nation. It represents the essence of Israel’s offering and encompasses the nation’s relative advantages in the fields of art and culture, technology and science, lifestyle, heritage and the environment.

Landau argues there is a misguided belief among Israelis that if they can only convince the rest of the world of the legitimacy of its political policies, then the tide will turn and there will be increased travel, investment and love of the Jewish State. “People are not interested in Israel beyond the conflict because we haven’t given them a reason to be interested. Whenever Israel gets a chance to say something, all we ever talk about is this conflict.”

When asked if Landau’s Kinetis is a new type of Israeli hasbara (public relations) organization, she laughs. “Hasbara is what you do when you feel you need to explain yourself? Only when you have done something wrong or if you’re unclear,” Landau clarifies. “In Israel we have been so consumed by crisis-management and self-defense that we have been unable to think of a long-term strategy.”

Landau wants a paradigm shift that will change the conversation. She believes that Creative Energy is in the DNA of Israelis. She wants to highlight her country’s high global appeal through a hi-tech, arts and culture, lifestyle, and extreme sports. “The Jewish religion is a very creative religion. Curiosity is encouraged and conventions are challenged,” she says. . “What we want to do is celebrate the things that Israel has to offer that are interesting on a global level,” she says. “Branding is about giving people something to relate to and connect to on an emotional level.”

It is Israel’s imperative to tell her own story and under Landau’s direction Kinetis has taken full advantage of modern technology to control the message. Its Facebook page features a video of Warren Buffet praising Israel as a place in the Middle East that might not have much oil, but it has an abundance in brains, energy, integrity and imagination. At the top of the Facebook page, there is a message that anyone can submit “an inspiring image or video that encapsulates “Creative Energy” about Israel and it will be posted on the page.

In addition to the cutting edge and attractive Facebook page, Kinetis boasts an impressive website available in both Hebrew and English that outlines its many programs all with the goal of place branding Israel in the most positive ways. Drawing upon the success of the book “Start-Up Nation” by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, Kinetis offers an academic program for Israeli students and international students from around the globe. These students in the Start-Up Nation Awareness Program (SNAP) will investigate the sources of Israel’s creative and entrepreneurial spirit across numerous spheres. Ultimately, their connection to Israel will help develop Israel as a model to be taught in leading universities worldwide.

The VibeIsrael program provides an all-expenses-paid personalized experience of Israel like the one set up for the mommy bloggers. These groups of opinion leaders include bird watchers, digital photographers, women entrepreneurs, extreme sports enthusiasts, archeologists, members of the fashion industry, technologists, and gourmet chefs. Participants are offered a glimpse into real Israeli life by connecting them with their Israeli counterparts. Rather than spend a week touring all of the typical tourist locations, VibeIsrael participants travel the country with locals who show them places relevant to their interests. These thought leaders then return home where they publish a critical mass of posts, blogs and articles in the printed media and on the Internet which convey an authentic, unadulterated “buzz” about what Israel truly offers.

Israel is a thriving nation made up of citizens who are proud of its accomplishments and offerings. Landau is working to highlight Israel’s best assets to the rest of the world. Through place branding and exploiting new media, every day she is raising the awareness of Israel as the creative energy capital of the world. With the help of technology and drawing on the clout of those with loud voices in the digital age, Kinetis is quickly positioning Israel as a center of excellence in the fields of innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship.

After returning from her visit to Israel with VibeIsrael, Whittle blogged “What I saw in Israel was an irrepressible sense of possibility. And going forward that means I will always approach any political story about Israel with that memory in mind – the memory of the people we met, the experiences we had, and the fun we shared.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Clarifying Natalie Portman’s Hadassah Gift That Never Was

I pride myself on always trying to provide factual information on this blog. However, it has come to my attention that six years ago, in March 2005, I reposted a news report that the Jewish/Israeli actress Natalie Portman made a $50 million gift to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. I didn’t provide any of my own commentary on the post, but simply reposted a news report that had been published on several other websites, based on Israel’s Arutz7. A Google search still retrieves many of the original news reports of Portman’s supposed gift from 2005. Here is what the Arutz7 website report about Portman’s donation looked like back in 2005:

The operative word in the Arutz7 article above is “including,” insinuating that a total of $50 million was received including a “large donation” by Natalie Portman. That was misinterpreted when it was reposted on the NataliePortman.org blog (clip below):

Now, Natalie Portman has won an Oscar and is starring in several big box office films. She is also making headlines for standing up to Dior’s John Galliano and speaking out against his anti-Semitic slurs. Hadassah issued a statement last week praising the actress for her courageous stand. And then, I’m sure some Google searches by Hadassah staff and members turned up the various blog posts from 2005 about the $5 million gift that turns out to be a misunderstanding.

So, six years went by and no one seemed to question this erroneous donation? I did a little research and it turns out that a woman named Phyllis commented on a blog in April 2005, stating “she [Portman] didn’t donate $50 million personally-they received donations of $50 million and her donation was included in that re-read the article: ‘Jerusalem’s Hadassah hospital received a $50 million donation last week including a large donation from one of the people born there — famed Jewish actress Natalie Portman.”

Early this week, I began receiving emails from Hadassah staff members inquiring about this supposed donation. And then I received this message from Hadassah:

“This ‘story’ was originally misreported exactly six years ago this month when Hadassah announced it had raised $50 million in just two short years from quite a variety of sources for a new center for emergency medicine. Natalie Portman appeared at the event but did not contribute to the center. For some unknown reason, last week, people began to re-circulate the very old, very wrong version of the story claiming that Portman had made a $50 million donation. Hadassah would be grateful if you would post a correction to this post. This was obviously no fault of yours. But these things quickly take on a life of their own. Thanks very much.”

So, I am hereby retracting the misinformation that was published on this blog in March 2005. Natalie Portman has been a strong supporter of Hadassah Hospital and I’m sure she will continue to be, however, she never made a $50 million donation to the expanded emergency trauma unit.

I’ll conclude this post by reminding everyone that the new Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower at Hadassah Hospital, named for the mother of the late Jewish philanthropist Bill Davidson of Detroit, is still in need of funds and I encourage everyone to contribute to this important cause.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Why Atheists Love Religion Websites

I published my first blog post on the Huffington Post website back in October. What immediately amazed me was the large number of comments posted about my piece. In the first couple of days there were close to 500 responses to what I had written. And then I began to skim these “talkbacks” to find that the vast majority were written by individuals who were angry about any form of organized religion and believed that God was as make-believe as Mickey Mouse. I was surprised to see so many self-affirmed atheists not only lurking on the religion section of the Huffington Post, but also being its most vocal contributors. It should be noted that my blog post had little to do with God and was devoted to post-denominationalism in Judaism. Most of the comments were from lapsed Christians who now felt religion was a joke and seemed angry that it was still in existence (in any form).

I planned to write about this phenomenon, but never got around to it. So, I was glad when my colleague Rabbi David Wolpe, of Los Angeles, posted his feelings about it on the Huffington Post yesterday (“Why Are Atheists So Angry?”). In a much more eloquent way than I could, Rabbi Wolpe put into words his take on why there are so many atheists participating in the online conversation on websites devoted to religion — and why their comments are so tinged with angst. When I first read his post yesterday there were no comments, however, when I checked back today there are now close to 900 responses — certainly with a good number of them from the atheist community.

Rabbi Wolpe writes:

How harmless is it to post an article about why people should read the bible on a site devoted to religion? I did on this very page, and it evoked more than 2,000 responses, most of them angry. I had previously written a similarly gentle article about how God should be taught to children that evoked more than 1,000 responses, almost all negative and many downright nasty.

It is curious that a religion site draws responses mostly from atheists, and that the atheists are very unhappy. They are unhappy with the bible (“foolish fairy tales” is one of the more generous descriptions), unhappy with the idea of God (the “imaginary dictator” whose task in human history, apparently, is to ensure that oppression and evil triumph) and very unhappy with anyone (read: me) who presumes to offer religious advice to the religious. Only the untutored assume that religious people predominate on websites (Huffington Post Religion page, On Faith in the Washington Post, Beliefnet.com) devoted to religion.

In the past when I have debated noted atheists — Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others — the audience was heavily weighted toward my opponents. That makes sense. Each of these men — like Dawkins, Dennett and others — brings with them a large following. But why seek out a religious site solely to insult religion?

To summarize, Rabbi Wolpe offers four four reasons why he believes atheists are so angry. First, Atheists genuinely resent the evil that religion has caused in the world. Second, they are convinced that religion is a fairy tale that impedes science/progress/rational thought. Third, “there is an arrogant unwillingness to engage with religion’s serious thinkers.” And, finally, he argues that “there is sometimes in the atheist a want of wonder. In a world in which so much is still not understood, in which multiple universes are possible, in which we have not pierced the mystery of consciousness, to discount the supernatural is to lack the openness to mystery that should be a human hallmark. There is so much we do not know. Religious people too should acknowledge this truth.”

Perhaps websites like the Huffington Post and Beliefnet should offer a section devoted solely to atheism so that the atheists would no longer dominate the airwaves in the religion section with with their angst. Or perhaps, these individuals will continue to weigh in on the discussions surrounding religion, but will do so in a more civil manner that will actually move the conversation forward in a productive way. I know deep down that these individuals are still seeking. They are still interested in the conversation and have their fleeting moments of belief; otherwise I don’t think they’d spend the time engaged in the debate.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Rabbi Forbids Participating in Talkbacks and Website Comments Sections

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week

The more I blog, the thicker my skin gets. Overtime, I’ve learned to prepare myself before reading the comment section at the bottom of my posts. With great inventions, we have to take the bad with the good. It’s been wonderful that newspapers and magazines make their articles available to us on the Web, but it also means that individuals can post outrageous, defaming, and insulting comments underneath each article — opinions that would never be published in a print edition. And blogs are great, but with them comes a countless number of off-subject comments that only express hate and ignorance.

No matter what I publish on the Huffington Post website, I know that the atheists are going to be commenting in full force. Their comments often won’t have anything to do with the subject I wrote about, rather they will be self-serving statements about their viewpoint. I recently wrote on the Huffington Post about the importance of giving equal significance to the celebration of the birth of a baby girl in Judaism and the discussion in the comments section turned into a polemic against ritual circumcision. And of course any blog or article on the Web that even mentions Israel will soon have the page littered with hundreds of inflammatory anti-Israel and anti-Semitic diatribes accusing Israel of the occupation of Palestinian land.

Earlier this year, Ron Kampeas quoted the American Jewish Committee’s David Harris in an article on the JTA.org website about the nature of Web commenting. Harris, an avid blogger for Huffington Post, said, “To read some of the reactions to anything I write about Israel is sometimes to require a very strong stomach — it can be nasty, over the top, vitriolic and dripping.” Nevertheless, Harris believes that it’s important to continue blogging and responding to his critics, whether on Huffington Post or the Jerusalem Post, which has a notoriously controversial talkback section. Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League feels differently. He said, “It’s a magnet for conspiracy theorists and for haters. I look at it and sometimes wonder why am I bothering.”

Now, an Orthodox rabbi has ruled that his students are forbidden from responding to articles on websites and blogs as it may lead to religious and moral transgressions. yNetnews.com interviewed Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, one of Religious Zionism’s leading rabbis, who “stressed that this isn’t a halachic decree or a comprehensive ban from a higher rabbinic authority, it is a ruling he gave to his students after receiving a question via text message which asked: ‘After reading a ‘kosher’ article is it all right to take a look at the talkbacks?'”

Rabbi Aviner’s responded “No” to his questioner on the grounds that it would lead to lashon hara (gossip), humiliation and valueless time consumption. In Aviner’s opinion, the ability to respond to articles and publications and to hold debates should have promoted “clarification and reformation of ideas and opinions” which is why “it could have been a wonderful thing”, but instead it is used for diatribes and gossip under assumed identities which the Torah sees as “cursed be he that smiteth his neighbor secretly.”

Gary Rosenblatt, editor of The Jewish Week, issued a call for greater civility in discourse before Rosh Hashanah this year. He wrote, “Name a contentious issue, and the two sides line up to spew their vitriol, each convinced the other’s policies would bring disaster. There is a great deal of anger, fear and contempt expressed. But no real dialogue, little if any appreciation for the other side, and less and less willingness to hear another point of view in the hopes of reaching common ground. One practical concern is the missed opportunity for meaningful discussion in… the comments area on our website.”

As we enter the new year of 2011, my hope and prayer is that there is increased civility on the Web. Cyberspace is a big place and anyone with an internet connection can post their opinion, no matter how extreme or offensive it may be. But perhaps everyone can exercise some restraint and make the comments sections a more enjoyable place to engage, learn, and share ideas.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller