Israel’s cultural exports are stronger than ever, with television, food and even celebrities making inroads overseas. But do they really have an impact?
BY AMY SPIRO JUNE 22, 2019
GAL GADOT waves to fans at the MTV Movie and TV Awards in Santa Monica, California, last week. Do any of them care that she’s Israeli?. (photo credit: MIKE BLAKE/ REUTERS)
She’s regularly touted as a better ambassador for the State of Israel than the hundreds of Israeli diplomats stationed around the world. And she’s arguably the most famous Israeli face on the planet.
But do Gal Gadot and Israel’s increasing cultural visibility really improve its image in the eyes of the world? Can the success of Israeli television, films, music and food move the hearts and minds of the average onlooker?
The Israeli government certainly seems to think so.
The government, in particular the Strategic Affairs Ministry led by Gilad Erdan, has ramped up the fight against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in recent years. The ministry has made its attempts to counter the online boycott movement a centerpiece of its activities.
Recently, Haaretz reported that Erdan has recruited the Mossad to aid in its activities against the boycott movement.
Mossad or no Mossad, Israeli cultural creations are spreading across the globe at a rapid rate.
This week HBO launched Euphoria, a much buzzed-about remake of an Israeli show from 2012. This fall ABC is slated to air The Baker & The Beauty, a remake of the popular Israeli romcom by the same name.
And with the rise of Netflix and its love of foreign TV shows, original Israeli creations are reaching millions of new fans around the world. Fauda was one of the first original Israeli shows to garner real traction overseas. Now, viewers are gobbling up Israeli creations like When Heroes Fly and Shtisel.
An article in Variety last week spotlighted actors from those shows who are now on the rise in Hollywood after that exposure, including Tomer Capon from Fauda and When Heroes Fly, Michael Aloni from When Heroes Fly and Shtisel, and Ninet Tayeb, a singer who also starred in When Heroes Fly.
Israeli chefs – Eyal Shani, Assaf Granit, Meir Adoni and more – have opened eateries around the world, winning praise and awards in culinary capitals such as Paris, London and New York.
And with the Eurovision Song Contest in the rearview mirror and a slate of high-profile concerts – including Bon Jovi, Jennifer Lopez, Lionel Richie and Sean Paul – coming up this summer, the BDS movement is having a particularly unsuccessful year.
BUT HOW much does any of this really impact Israel’s public image? Can Gadot, Fauda and Eyal Shani’s roasted cauliflower in a pita win over those who feel negative – or even neutral – about the Jewish state?
“I’m not sure how much Gal Gadot changes the overall image just by being a big star, but I think her meeting other big actors, executives, entertainers on a personal level – I think that can only help,” said Ari Ingel, an attorney and the director of the Creative Community for Peace (CCFP), a nonprofit that works to counter boycott efforts against Israel.
“The more people you have like Gal Gadot or even like Dennis Lloyd [the stage name of popular Israeli musician Nir Tibor] – when they’re at film festivals, when they’re at Cannes, when they’re on set, when they’re performing at Coachella, when they’re mixing with people that do have a lot of outreach… [people are] meeting an Israeli and seeing what an Israeli is about.”
Shayna Weiss, a scholar of Israeli culture and the associate director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, said this is a classic question of “soft power.”
The political science term refers to the ability to influence minds and hearts through noncoercive means, typically through culture, foreign policy and economic influence.
“The question, of course, is how you measure soft power, and can you measure it,” Weiss said. “I don’t think Gal Gadot harms Israel, but do I think Gal Gadot helps Israel much? Not so sure.”
Weiss pointed out that – especially with individual celebrities – there is a risk to the Israeli government in pointing to their success as a diplomatic win.
That was particularly clear earlier this year, when Gadot came to the defense of her friend Rotem Sela, in an online spat with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over campaign rhetoric against Israeli Arabs.
“Gal Gadot is not stupid, she’s a very intelligent person, and therefore when she speaks and when she doesn’t speak… she knows exactly what she’s doing,” Weiss added. “She’s saying to Bibi, to Israeli hasbara (public diplomacy): You want to claim me, but ‘I’m not your toy.’”
Ingel said that Israel racks up a lot of cultural wins, but sometimes even more so when the government is not involved.
“In our work on the cultural boycott, they aren’t very present.” he said. “Because they don’t have those connections… the government just doesn’t have the contacts or connections or even the clout to talk to” managers, agents and lawyers of A-list Hollywood stars. “The music industry – the entertainment industry in general – is very insular and very small. That’s what makes CCFP unique. Because our advisory board is made up of some of the biggest people in the film, TV and music industry, it allows us to connect to artists in the way that the government isn’t able to do.”
WHILE BDS activity is only growing stronger in recent years, Israel also continues to notch cultural wins at rapid rates.
A wide range of celebrities have touched down in Israel over the past year for public and private visits, including Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jason Biggs, Will Ferrell, Gerard Butler, Jamie Oliver, Quentin Tarantino, Mario Lopez, Liev Schreiber, Karlie Kloss, Kate Upton, Gordon Ramsay and Morgan Freeman.
Artists including Madonna, Tyga, Enrique Iglesias, Alanis Morissette, Clean Bandit, the Backstreet Boys, Ozzy Osbourne, Ziggy Marley, Jason Derulo, Bill Burr, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Jimmy Carr, Jim Jefferies, Jeff Ross and dozens more have performed for Israeli audiences recently. And each visitor and gig only enrages the BDS movement further.
But Weiss isn’t convinced these visits – even when accompanied by positive social media posts depicting Israel for millions of fans – have a real, long-term effect.
“This type of engagement is somewhat shallow; it’s thin,” she said. “It doesn’t stand up to serious discussion about Israeli challenges.” She reiterated that it is very difficult to measure the impact, but “if success is people seeing a picture of the shuk and thinking, ‘yummy, I like Israeli food’… there’s a shallowness in that language.”
Even when Americans and Europeans watch shows like Fauda and Shtisel on Netflix, the engagement is superficial, she said.
“You’re still talking about the show, you’re not talking about the actual country and the actual conflict,” Weiss said of Fauda, arguably the most popular original Israeli show in the world. “While Fauda is very Israeli, the very basic plot – good guys versus bad guys – is not a unique plot in popular television.”
But Ingel takes a more positive view of the show’s effect.
“A show like Fauda is sort of like its own Gal Gadot,” he said. “The more entertainment, film and artists that come out of Israel, it can only have a positive impact. It’s breaking down that barrier of people understanding – people who have never been to Israel, just hear what’s in the news – seeing the sort of the art that’s coming out of Israel.”
Undeterred, the boycott movement has targeted the cultural realm in an outsized way over the past several years, and has found some success.
“They have a very good narrative in Western countries that they’ve certainly locked on to,” said Ingel of the global campaign. “By conflating it – especially in America – with the struggles of African-Americans and social justice issues… they use very nuanced language.”
Ingel surmises that the BDS movement has focused in particular on the cultural realm because of its failures elsewhere.
“They’ve been unsuccessful in big business – I don’t think they’ve made much impact at all,” he said. “Google and Intel are flooding into Israel. So I think the BDS movement has found they have had some successes in the college campus space and the cultural sector, so they’re just focusing more efforts there.”
Ingel pointed to major wins for BDS with the cancellation of concerts in Israel by Lorde and Lana Del Rey. He noted that younger artists in particular are more susceptible to the bombardments on social media that are the hallmark of the boycott campaign.
But he believes some counteractions only end up amplifying the boycott message.
“I think a lot of people get bogged down in the boycott movement, when the reality is that most Americans don’t even know what BDS is, and what the boycott movement is,” he said. “It’s not impacting the masses.”
While the Eurovision in Tel Aviv last month was subject to incessant campaigns and intense media coverage of boycott efforts, it went off smoothly and was watched by 182 million viewers, according to the European Broadcasting Union.
“In the end no artists dropped out and no broadcaster pulled out,” Ingel said of the song contest. “On social media any comments about BDS were drowned out by thousands of people just enjoying the show.”
It’s clear that Israel has notched considerably more wins against the BDS movement in recent years than losses.
But as to whether it translates into more global support and understanding for Israel – that may take more than Wonder Woman to ascertain.