Margalit Toledano

PR and nationalism: How nation-building challenges shaped strategic communication in Israel

This paper argues for the abandonment of the two-way symmetric model to allow for a more realistic assessment of PR in the context of nation-building and to explore some of the challenges involved in more realistic approaches. It contends that in a situation where nation-building pressures are strong, for example, when asserting identity or securing survival, a society will naturally stress unifying, one-sided narratives rather than develop a framework for mutually beneficial relationships, open media, or ethical communication.

The paper illustrates its case through Israel, which not only built a nation state only 60 years ago, but still struggles to ensure its survival. In examining interactions between PR practitioners, media, and civil society, the paper identifies repeated blurring of boundaries between the public sphere and the government (or the ruling institutions), as a major dimension of nation-building that breeds one-way propaganda systems. It tracks the process, beginning 50 years before the establishment of the Jewish State with intensive political campaigning, which included strategic communication and a settlement movement, led by the World Zionist Organization.

It examines how, during the pre-state period, a small, politically-involved group worked to disseminate Zionist movement narratives in collaboration with journalists and schoolteachers. It looks at how they, and others, were enlisted for the cause of unifying and building the state and for bringing Diaspora Jews to settle there. It also explores how they created a common goal of connecting the new Jewish immigrants to their old-new homeland; how they forged a national identity with new myths and traditions, and how they motivated participation in this collective process.

Observing how this constructed collective assisted Israeli leaders to mobilise Israelis for subsequent challenges, the paper argues that the mobilised society stimulated intensive activities in specific PR services that resemble the engineering of consent rather than any attempt at symmetry. It suggests, moreover, that the engineering succeeded through the construction and maintenance of collectivist culture, which promoted, with the support of a similarly enlisted media, solidarity and unity as the essential values. Instead of democratic ideals such as “freedom of expression” “the right to know,” Israeli communication strategists favoured minimising dissent and supporting unity for nation-building.

The paper shows how these values became professional values embedded in the pre-state period by the national institutions, and how they continue to be revived in crises. The final section establishes their ongoing relevance through the analysis of recent national debates, and reports of national investigation committees, about the role of the military spokesperson in the 2006 war between Israel and the Hezbollah in Lebanon. It concludes that expectations of the military spokesperson, as well as public opinion survey results, demonstrate how the nation-building context still significantly influences the public sphere and the professional practice of communicators, and also suggests that the Israeli experience may have relevance for other nations.

Dr Margalit Toledano

Waikato Management School

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