Want us to get closer to Israel? Try something new

By Marcus Dysch, June 14, 2013

The Wembley Conference Centre was a concrete monstrosity, sensibly knocked down seven years ago. But it lives on in my memory thanks solely to the events of April 26 1998.

It was on that date that 22,000 of us marked Israel's 50th birthday in style. The Dysch family travelled down the M1 on a packed coach, much as we would for a day out at the FA Cup Final played at the opposite end of Wembley Way.

For a 15-year-old from Hull it was great fun. You could fax a message to the Kotel, see the gala show, or, in the case of my father, be interviewed by the BBC for a follow-up documentary.

Sadly, I doubt that in the summer of 2028, as Israel celebrates its 80th birthday, many will look back on last week's Closer to Israel event with such warmth. Some of us struggled to remember the alleged highs even later the same day.

The organisers had predicted a turn-out of 20,000 and the most unforgettable Israel advocacy event in living memory. The eventual attendance was barely a quarter of that figure.

We are told that Closer to Israel was the "umbrella for a programme of year-round grassroots activities". These "activities" include coffee mornings, musical soirees and film screenings.

Then wake me up when the year is over. Such staples of the 1970s no longer cut the mustard. Trafalgar Square was largely bereft of teenagers and people under the age of 40. Why? Because they have little desire for more of the same.

Speeches. Middle-aged white men. Stilt-walkers. It was another dose of "meh" in a multi-cultural, high-definition era when organisations have to refresh as quickly as a teenager's Twitter feed to maintain interest.

A quick digression here, as similarly conspicuous by their absence were the supposed legions of anti-Israel activists that the boycott proponents are so quick to claim exist. For all their talk on social media beforehand, such groups could barely muster two dozen protesters on the day.

They may have big mouths but when it comes to the crunch their hate does not outweigh our love. It is a point that is worth remembering.

Our leading concern, though, should be what more could have been done with the £250,000 that the event astonishingly cost? A three-and-a-half-hour, one-off event in a few square miles of central London is not a lot to show for such a sum.

For quarter-of-a-million quid we could have had something different for once. How about Idan Raichel performing a series of gigs around the country? Or Bar Refaeli in dozens of British glossy magazines? Yossi Benayoun promoting Uefa's showpiece Under-21 tournament in Israel? Who knows whether these would have been possible, but isn't it worth finding out?

Ambassador Daniel Taub and the Chief Rabbi are, alongside Howard Jacobson, the finest Israel advocates in the UK. But they are not exactly short of public speaking opportunities. Putting them on a stage to speak for two minutes to a crowd that already loves Israel achieves nothing.

Imagine the impact if the wider British public had instead been introduced to Yityish Aynaw, the current Miss Israel. An Ethiopian orphan whose grandparents took her to Israel, Yityish thrived in her new home, serving in the IDF before her title catapulted her on to the global scene and gave Barack Obama the chance to tell her she was "very beautiful" at a state dinner. Her story is every bit as remarkable as Israel's own miraculous development, and would surely have made a greater impression on wider views of a country that is regularly derided as belligerent.

Think back to those big Australian advertising campaigns - "So where the bloody hell are you?" - that caused such waves of excitement in Britain a few years ago. California ran similar commercials. They were ballsy, good-humoured affairs. Why not try something similar for Israel?

The mix of excitement, youth, fun and the bit of chutzpah required for such a campaign certainly exists in the Holy Land. Imagine showcasing Tel Aviv's beaches, Jerusalem's history, Gay Pride parades, pioneering medical innovation, Arab-Israeli football stars, and so much more.

In 1996, Dutch soccer star Ruud Gullit coined the term "sexy football". People laughed, but his point was made. It is time to do a better job of showing off Israel's sexy side.

Our approach to Israel advocacy needs to go the same way as Wembley Conference Centre. We would certainly get more bang for our buck than from an hour of speeches in Trafalgar Square.

Marcus Dysch is a JC reporter

Last updated: 10:46am, June 14 2013