Israel’s image abroad, especially on college campuses, is generally terrible, though little or no fault of its own. But now it is clear that Israeli television drama series do more than entertain – when available abroad, they constitute a form of “soft power” that is positively affecting the Jewish State’s international image and connecting Jewish and even non-Jewish viewers in the Diaspora and Israel.
A new study by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), which was established by the Jewish Agency for Israel, has found that Israeli TV series such as Tehran (which just received an international Emmy award) Fauda, Shlisel, When Heroes Fly and others, are strengthening Diaspora Jewish viewers’ connection to Israel, bolstering overall Jewish solidarity and improving Israel’s image among Jews and non-Jews.
To mark the upcoming publication of the study, conducted by JPPI Fellow Dr. Gitit Levy-Paz, several senior figures in the TV industry convened at JPPI’s Jerusalem headquarters, along with government ministry and foundation representatives, for a roundtable discussion of study’s findings as well as various questions pertaining to the programs’ importance as a form of soft Israeli and Jewish influence.
The conference participants agreed that a first necessary condition of the success of Israeli series is that creators and artists have the creative freedom to express the complexity of Israeli society, without state interference.
On many of the programs’ Facebook pages, whose followers number in the tens of thousands, viewers often comment about their first encounters with Israel and describe a sense of getting to know the country and of learning about Jews as well. They mention an “Israeli experience” and how the series are like classes about, or trips to, a new place, a new culture.
The study also points out that for Jews, an Israeli series offers more than a “journey of discovery” or a means of learning about Israel. For them, the connection with Israel is a major element of Jewish identity, meaning that these television series have a role in enhancing and reinforcing Jewish identity.
For American Jews to whom Israel is meaningful and an important identity element and who want to maintain a connection with it in their everyday lives, the programs are an enjoyable, inexpensive and relatively easy opportunity to keep up the connection, the authors stated.
The study also finds a significant relationship between the viewership and a reinforced connection with Israel. The more robust the initial relationship, the more strongly the programs reinforce it. Another finding is that the programs have a positive impact on Jews who have no meaningful connection to Israel – especially those who have never visited Israel – the series reinforced Jewish identity and Israel’s standing.
According to JPPI president Prof. Yedidia Stern, “We know images create reality, and right now it seems from the outside as though Israel is a country with just one problem, but we know that’s not how things are in reality. And here we see the importance of these programs, which present Israel as a living, vital, and functioning society.”
The fact that Israel is pluralistic, he continued, that there is no state intervention in cultural content, that artists and creators are able to express themselves without interference, as well as the free market – this is what makes culture a strategic tool both externally and internally, he declared. “Culture has the power to connect Diaspora Jews with Israel and vice versa, and we mustn’t forgo that soft power. Israel should be a ‘Start-Up Nation’ in the TV and cultural entrepreneurship sphere. Television has the power to show how things really are, shape [attitudes], exert influence, bring people closer, and strengthen the connection between Jews around the world.”
Yulia Smolov-Berkovitz, chairman of Israel’s Second Authority for Television and Radio, also views the medium as an instrument for driving change and calls for the creation of an international Jewish broadcasting entity. “Our country is blessed with talent and creativity, that’s our greatest weapon. I believe that with these talents we can reach the entire world. We need to create an international Jewish media entity that will serve as a kind of cultural Iron Dome. The media are one of the most meaningful factors in maintaining Jewish identity. Television, film, and creative endeavors are very powerful tools that can improve Israel’s standing in the world. Any economic investment in projects of this kind will be beneficial.”
Roundtable participants noted that the medium was strengthened significantly when the digital distribution option appeared. Attorney Edna Fisher, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute who studies the relationship between the state and the cultural sphere, said that “the state has a duty to safeguard culture and freedom of expression, not to undermine them. Beyond this, it must ensure funding and protect copyrights. There is no culture for minorities, in the periphery, or innovation without public funding. The state’s financial support of creative activity is therefore very important.”
However, she warned against incorrectly understanding or interpreting terms such as “freedom of funding” and “cultural loyalty.” Setting goals in the cultural sphere that relate to content, or imposing limits on state assistance and support based on content or on interpretations of creative work, could cause tremendous damage to culture, she said.
The JPPI is a nonprofit organization and an independent center of thought and planning for shaping strategy and action-oriented policy for the Jewish people, in Israel and the Diaspora. Its core objectives are to ensure the continuity and prospering of the Jewish people; to preserve and cultivate pluralistic Jewish identity as a culture, nation, and religion and to bolster cohesion in Israel, among Diaspora Jews and between Israel and the Diaspora.