A lot has been written about the unruly behavior of Israeli tourists during vacations abroad. But very little has been said about the impact this behavior has on Israel's diplomatic ties with these countries.
At a time of crisis in our relations with the European Union, in light of political disagreements and the EU's threat not to upgrade ties with Israel, it is more important than ever that Israelis visiting abroad, and mainly Europe, respect the local codes of conduct.
During a recent visit to Prague I met a group of local university graduates who invited me to join them for a beer. At some point, the conversation turned to the issue of tourism to the country, and the young Czechs said how much they hated American tourists because of their condescending behavior.
The only tourists worse than the Americans, said the Czechs, were the Israelis (they did not know I'm an Israeli myself.)
I very much wanted to get to the bottom of this deep hatred towards Israelis, and expected to hear political criticism regarding Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. But when I asked the young men why Israeli tourists were so bad I was very surprised by the answer I received.
The Czech focused on the behavior of the Israeli tourist, who they said is rude, loud, vulgar, a bad tipper and complains all the time. The list of grievances did not include even one political element.
When I raised the political issue it became clear my friends had no clue what was going on in the Middle East, and could hardly pronounce Israel's name correctly.
Personal interaction the key
This illustrated to me that while our political PR campaigns usually concentrate on political matters, on the personal level we, the ordinary people, also have the power to change Israel's image in the world. The knowledge people in other countries have on Middle East politics is very minimal. What influences their opinions about Israel and its policy is their interaction with the Israeli tourists visiting their country.
In whole of Europe there is a trend of diminishing interest in internal and world politics among the general population. According to researchers of international relations, with the creation of an international society, people, rather than states, have become the key players. The process of globalization has increased the interaction between individuals from different countries, and has thus increased the influence each person has on the nature of international ties.
However, Israeli diplomacy is based on old school notions. Israel invests a great diplomatic effort that usually focuses on the political and diplomatic relations with the European states, and focuses less on the citizens themselves.
This effort has indeed yielded positive results in recent years, and the ties with Europe have indeed improved. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the citizens of those countries, who generally oppose any support for Israel and constantly pressure their governments into taking anti-Israel stands.
These citizens' perception of Israel is based mainly on their encounters with Israelis. In order to change these perceptions, Israel needs to find new ways to improve the interaction between the Israeli tourist and the people of the host country.
Ignorance and indifference
Over a million Israelis vacation abroad each year. We must realize that these Israelis are nothing less than ambassadors of the State of Israel, and they should take part in the battle for European public opinion. No, we do not have to talk politics with every person we meet. This is much simpler.
As in any society, European society has basic rules of behavior. They are codes of etiquette and courtesy, which represent the values of society. People who do not follow these rules are rejected by European society. In Europe, tipping a waiter and treating service providers with respect is not a matter of personal choice; they represent a deep sense of equal treatment of these people.
Undermining these values is construes as undermining European society, and those who behave this way risk being rejected by this society.
Ignorance and indifference cause our "ambassadors" in Europe to hurt Israel's image. They portray us as brutal, impolite and rude. The good news is that unlike the difficulty to defend Israel's actions in the diplomatic arena, doing so in the international society can have much more speedy results.
Those running the Israeli PR effort should examine how Israeli citizens visiting Europe can be turned into "ambassadors." As part of their training, the ambassadors should receive information about the rules of behavior in the international society, as well as general guidelines regarding the specific codes of conduct in the country they will be visiting.
The impact of over a million "vacationing ambassadors" is more important than that of the several hundred official envoys sent by the State. It is important to invest in these ambassadors no less than is being invested in official envoys.
Daniel Gigi holds a masters in international relations and has been involved in political PR