I published this last week, but for those of you who missed it, here it is again:
Martin Kace, the fomer CEO of Joe Boxer and Phat Pharm, gave a short talk on Thursday night titled “Rebranding Israel, Honestly” sponsored by the New Israel Fund at a New York bar called Sweet and Vicious.
Kace now runs a firm, Empax, that advises governments and NGOs on communications and branding. The dapper, well-dressed Kace calls himself a “re-Zionist”, and advises J Street and other groups. His talk was apparently an abbreviated version of his addressat Israel’s prestigious Herziliya security conference in February.
His argument is that Israel should rebrand itself in a way that somehow encompasses its self-image as a tough, spunky, upstart country with the world’s perception of it as an occupier, as a place (in his words “defined by the conflict.” The Israeli Foreign MInistry, he said, is about to roll out a new brand centered on the phrase “creative energy,” which he says is doomed to fail because it plays up Israel’s proclaimed positive qualities while making it impossible to talk about Israel’s darker side.
“Israel doesn’t give us a platform to talk about the bad things,” he argued.
Referencing the name of the bar that was the venue for his talk, he said. “Israel is sweet and vicious.” “Creative describes sweet. It doesn’t describe vicious.”
What he proposes is coming up with a new brand that somehow encapsulates the positive and negative dimensions of the country. He gives the example of Tel Aviv’s burgeoning restaurant industry, which he said quickly sprang up with the precision and determination of a military campaign. “Within six months, boom, there were 15, 20, 30 places to eat with world standard cuisine,” he said.
The word “strength,” he said, seems to encapsulate Israel as a society with deep attachments to its military.
Why rebrand Israel this way? One reason, he said, is to “neutralize the de-legitimization camp.” He didn’t elaborate on this point, but it was significant that he used the term. De-legitimization is an Israeli watchword, like “terrorism.” Israel sees itself as engaged in an existential conflict with “de-legitimizers,” which includes the BDS camp, Goldstone, and so on.
After the talk I pressed him again to explain the point of the rebranding exercise. “Israel cannot communicate its way out of its situation,” he said, conceding that only a political solution can resolve “the situation.”
Nevertheless, I was left scratching my head. There’s nothing wrong with having a complex view of any society, of any political situation. It is true that Tel Aviv’s restaurants are the product of the same country that wrought the destruction of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, but that fact is largely irrelevant, for example, to the question of whether Israel committed war crimes in Gaza.
If I punch you in the face, and then afterwards explain that by punching you I was merely displaying my “strength,” a quality which also makes me a good cook, you will probably disregard my argument as a non sequitur.
Instead of responding seriously to legitimate criticisms of Israel, Kace seems to be saying, Israel (and the Diaspora Jews in his audience) should formulate a new brand that casts these violations in a different light.
All of this strikes me as mental gymnastics. The only intellectually and morally honest response to international criticism of Israel, to the Goldstone report, is serious self-criticism, followed by a redress of grievances.
Kace’s argument is a slightly savvier rehashing of the conventional wisdom dished out by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the other wizards who came up with the notion of “Brand Israel” in the first place. It’s often based on the flawed assumption that Israel’s critics are simply out to get it, or out to get the Jews. Israel is “unfairly singled out” they say. Instead of addressing the critique head on, they change the subject, cry antisemitism, rebrand.
Instead of rebranding in a way that encompasses the bad stuff, why not fix the bad stuff, and then worry about the branding?