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The Language Game

Avi Friedman

There’s nothing like speaking to diplomats and foreign journalists in their own jargon. In ancient Persia, Mordechai’s knowledge of seventy languages played a crucial role in saving the Jewish People from genocide. And while there is no overt decree of annihilation today, the role of foreign languages is as important as ever for Israel in dealing with a hostile world media eager to paint it as a nation of oppressors at best, brutal killers at worst. In these tough times, it pays to speak their language.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

By any standard, it’s a tough time to be sticking up for Israel on the international stage. Hasbarah (public relations) professionals will tell you that defending Israel to the international community has never been an easy task, but the challenges of 2011 are more daunting than ever. In Europe, many universities have become off-limits for Israeli speakers and in South America, Iran’s growing influence has pushed several countries to ramp up their credentials with the ayatollahs by declaring their recognition of a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria. Closer to home, much of the Arab media is committed to portraying Israel in the bloodiest, most graphic terms imaginable.

In discussing these challenges, Mishpacha gathered together Major Avichai Adraee, IDF spokesman to the Arabic Media; Corporal Motti Schnitzer, a native of Antwerp who serves as an IDF liaison to the French, Flemish, Dutch, and German media; and ___ Roni Kaplan, a native of Uruguay who serves as the army’s point man for Latin America and Africa.

 

Motti, Israel’s position today in Europe is tough, to say the least. What are some of the challenges of your job?

Motti Schnitzer: I’ve got an MA degree in Media Communications and I worked for several years in sales and marketing. But when I made aliyah a couple of years ago, I felt it was my duty to use my skills to contribute something to the country and to the Jewish People. As the IDF liaison to the foreign media in the languages I speak, I’m in daily contact with foreign reporters. It’s important for two reasons: First, when an army spokesman can speak to foreign reporters in their own languages, it shows a level of professionalism on the part of the army. And, although I speak English and so do most of the foreign reporters, there’s a different level of communication when you’re speaking in a reporter’s native language. You don’t miss the nuances, and you get all the cultural references right. It helps prevent any misunderstandings between the army and foreign journalists.

 

Do your efforts help?

Motti: It’s tough out there, as you know, but I think we do a lot of good. For example, I worked with a Scandinavian reporter who contacted me to do a story about Israel. I put together a program for him to see the army the way it really is, and arranged high-level and low-level meetings and tours for this writer, I took him to see the air force, the navy, and the ground forces and I showed him firsthand the way things really are here. After a week here he told me that what he saw was completely different than what he’d been led to believe, and the next week he wrote a major article about Israel with a very different angle than he would have without my help.

 

So you spoke to him in English?

Motti: I did, but we’ve also got a person who speaks that person’s native language. Of course all this planning takes a lot of time, but at the end of the day when you see a really positive presentation on Scandinavian TV — and they do have a lot of influence in the world — you can see that it was worth the effort.

 

Avichai, if Motti represents Israel on a playing field that’s not exactly friendly, that hardly compares to your area of work speaking to the Arab world.

Avichai Adraee: I served in military intelligence for three and a half years. It was an intense time where I slept, ate, dreamed, and relaxed in Arabic. But obviously, I’m not at liberty to tell many stories from that period of time. I was twenty-three when I applied for the job — one day my predecessor, Eitan Arusy, told me he was leaving the army — and let’s just say it was a trial by fire: The day I finished my officers training course, Gilad Shalit was kidnapped. At ten in the morning my mobile phone rang with a panicked commander telling me what had happened and that I’d better get to the office in Tel Aviv ASAP. Two weeks later it happened again, with Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, z”l, as the Second Lebanon War broke out. Then there was Operation Cast Lead, and the flotilla — let’s just say there’s never a dull moment.

If I appear on Al Jazeera, I’ve got an audience of 60 million people. Of course, 75 percent of those viewers don’t exactly love the sight of me there, but the main thing is to stay on the message. You’ve got a ten-minute interview, so you’ve got to decide how to use that time to present Israel in the best light possible, and to figure how many messages you can get across. You’ve got to use all the techniques you can …

 

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