Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Failed 2008 Jewish Bloggers Conference

The 2008 Jewish Bloggers Conference has ended. It was, for the most part, a failure. This is despite the fact that many parts of the event were, in a certain light, successful.

The conference was hosted by Nefesh B'Nefesh, an organization doing a wonderful job at encouraging and helping people make aliyah to Israel. It's aim was to bring together 20 to 30 bloggers in order to discuss how blogging can be used to help with Israeli hasbara ("public relations").

They ended up with 200 bloggers and press, as well as a brand manager from the Foreign Ministry and former prime minister Bibi Netanyahu as speakers. The broadcast went out to over 1,000 other bloggers and curious folks around the world. I had a good time meeting a few people I'd met before, and many others whom I had never met.

So how was this a failure?

1) A blogger is a person who uses a tool called a blog, much the way that a photographer is a person who uses a tool called a camera. Other than the tools we use, and a few cultural implications thereof, there is no more unifying relationship between bloggers than there is between photographers.

In particular, there is no common conviction that Israeli bloggers are doing hasbara, or should be doing hasbara, or even what hasbara is. Among the three or four key speakers, and the eight panelists, there was little consensus that there was common ground for hasbara. Several of them denied doing it, some were completely against it, and barely any even addressed the question.

To illustrate this, at on point during the Foreign Ministry's lecture on how Israel can present a multicultural side to the world, one fanatic in the audience began yelling "Israel is a Jewish country! Israel is a Jewish country!" loudly and repeatedly, until the speaker had to step down. It was the most egregious event of the evening, but fairly symbolic of the problem: what the heck were we all doing there talking about Israel and hasbara? Why weren't we talking about blogging tools, readership, and RSS feeds? Or at least a multiplicity of topics which included hasbara for those who were interested?

Why? Because Nefesh B'Nefesh hosted the event. And they had a mistaken impression of what it is that bloggers do. In this, they were no more or less misunderstanding of blogging than the companies to which I applied for blogging positions.

2) The conference ran relatively smoothly, but the speakers were not well coordinated. Most of them appeared not to have prepared whatsoever. Most of them didn't address the topic questions, and simply spent five minutes or so saying why they got into blogging and what their URL is. After the entire evening, nearly no information was gained. No hasbara was achieved. No new plans were formulated. No non-obvious blogging tips revealed. It was, essentially, a complete waste of time, were it not for the fact that 200 blogger had a chance to meet each other.

First panel

Various bloggers were supposed to answer the question as to how to increase readership. Some ignored the question, some said the questions was irrelevant, and the few tips that were given were all essentially "comment on other people's blogs".

David aka ck from Jewlicious revealed that he believes Jewlicious to be a kiruv effort.

Bibi

The first panel was interrupted by an appearance by former prime minister Bibi Netanyahu. The last time I saw him up close, I offered him a piece of pizza which he declined. That was before he was prime minister.

He opened by looking at the nameplates in front of the panel of speakers. "Jewlicious?" he quipped. ck quipped back "Natanyahu?" which garnered a number of laughs. Bibi answered "Netanyahu is in the tanach! I don't think Jewlicious is!" He spoke, essentially, of wanting to bring Likud back to power.

When asked if he championed blogging when he was prime minister, he said no, because it was after his term (1999). But now Israel should have an anti-smear website, following Obama's lead.

When asked whether he supported direct representation in elections, he answered that Israel is too small for that, but that knesset members are currently too beholden to party lists than to voters. He favors the German election model.

When asked whether he monitors blogs (he has his own blog, by the way), he said yes.

He answered a question about Jewish rights to the land with a long speech about Jewish historical connection to the land until being evicted by the Arabs in the 8th or 9th century. And you should read his book for more details.

And lastly, he said that Arab propaganda turns the result of Arab aggression into the cause for the next Arab aggression.

Frum Satire

Frum Satire gave a short set of slightly amusing material: not embarrassing, but not especially memorable either. And then a waffle iron was raffled off to one lucky winner.

Zavi Apfelbaum, Brand Manager of the Foreign Ministry

Zavi spoke about Israel's image problem being the result of focusing too much on trying to prove we are right rather than trying to appear attractive. She said:

- branding is complementary to hasbara efforts
- branding incorporates both the bad and the good; example: The Big Apple
- If you don't define your brand, others will do it for you
- A brand engenders loyalty that will carry its fans through small periods of bad experiences

She spoke too long, too repetitively, and too simply for the audience. Long after we all got the idea and wanted her to move on, she was still trying to convince us that Israel has an image problem. She showed a video clip of how the average American knows nothing about day-to-day life in Israel, but again for far too long, when we were hoping that she would then present us with he solutions.

Unfortunately, she only barely got to solutions after the talk was officially over, and they weren't very clear solutions. They involved some combination of passion, ingenuity, and fusion, but ignored Israel's great assets of history and technology, for example.

Second panel

The second panel was supposed to answer how to use your blog as hasbara, but, as i mentioned, most of the panelists didn't feel like doing that. At best, simply presenting posts of the daily struggle for existence functions as a kind of hasbara that life goes on, outside of any external conflicts.

My Aliyah Idea

Lastly, Nefesh B'Nefesh introduced a new website for collecting ideas about aliyah, called myaliyahidea.com .

You can see the list of panelists on the conference site. They served some nice food and desserts. Pictures here and here.

Yehuda
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