Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Asia Watch: Soft Power

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Michael Shannon


Israel's push to gain ground in Asia is nothing if not multifaceted and the growing trade and cultural links may yet reap political benefits over the long-term.

Much has been said already of the interest Israel's hi-tech industries are generating in Asia. Countries like Singapore and China are now well-acquainted with Israel's vibrant start-up culture and technical innovation, while countries such as Japan and even Indonesia, with its staunch support for the Palestinian cause, are filing into Israeli trade shows.

Of course, Israel's tech knowhow has long been the driving force behind its defence industries. In recent days, the Philippines inked a deal with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Elta Systems for three over-the-horizon air surveillance radars - a contract worth US$56 million. A Philippines Air Force spokesman said the surveillance radars will help monitor the South China Sea, an area the Philippines is extremely concerned about due to increasing encroachment by China.

But it's not all about hi-tech.

Israeli footwear manufacturer Teva Naot is now officially big in Japan. The company has sold 55,000 pairs of shoes in the Land of the Rising Sun to net US$11 million over the past several years. Ynet reports that the secret to their success is the "Iris" model, which is similar to the slippers that traditional Japanese wear with a kimono. The shoes are marketed in three Japanese stores under the Naot brand, while the company also operates an online store in Japanese.

Although Teva Naot footwear is sold in about 50 countries, the company intends to make the Japanese market one of its biggest - the Japanese distributor promotes its product by hiring popular singers to sing in stores.

Then there is the story (courtesy of JTA) of Israeli chef Shahar Lubin, who operates Daluva, the first and only "Middle Eastern gastropub" in Hanoi, a sprawling city of 7 million with a vibrant street-food culture. The menu features Israeli favourites like hummus, falafel and shakshuka alongside American burgers and rib-eye steaks.

Israel's ambassador to Vietnam, Meirav Eilon Shahar, is among those impressed. In January, the Israeli Embassy sponsored a Culinary Friendship Week during which Lubin created what may be the world's first Vietnamese-Israeli fusion menu.

And so from culinary friendship to those that dance parties give birth to. Ynet reports that the Israeli Foreign Ministry's Asia Bureau has launched an initiative to cultivate a positive image of Israel through promoting Tel Aviv as an exciting place with a strong gay community and a vibrant nightclubbing scene.

Popular gay Israeli DJs Moti Saadia and Daniel Mariuma were then flown to Vietnam, India and China to host free Tel Aviv-themed parties in local clubs, featuring short clips about Israel, a lottery for a plane ticket to Israel, free shirts and pins and lots of dancing of course.

Adding to the momentum, Kay Long - known as the Drag Queen of Tel Aviv - was recruited to join the two DJs on another public relations tour in the Philippines and Thailand. Together, the three Israelis appeared on a television program and made a splash in local newspapers.

The immediate payoff for Kay Long after the tour was that, "thousands added me on Instagram and Facebook, proving that we made a lasting impression and left them with a taste for more."

While some may scoff at the froth and bubble of such a campaign, Yaniv Revah, an adviser in the Foreign Ministry's Asia Bureau, gave some insight into the long-term thinking behind the PR effort to Ynet. Noting that there is a greater openness to Israeli music in Asia than in Europe, he said, "It is important for us to reach the young people who do not know Israel as a place of excitement and young spiritedness."

Naturally, these hopes are tempered by persistent, irrational hostility to Israel in some quarters. Popular Malaysian actress and entrepreneur Neelofa recently sparked criticism for selling headscarves to a customer in Israel. The 27-year-old posted on Instagram a picture of a FedEx Express package to a customer, whose address lists Israel, from her Naelofar Hijab company.

"It's from Israel. Thank you, Alhamdulilah (Praise God)," Neelofa said in the offending Instagram post.

On social media, some said that Neelofa should not do business with Israelis because Malaysia refuses any diplomatic ties with the country - a fact that has not prevented growing trade between the two countries, measured at US$1.529 billion in 2013.

One Instagram user went a lot further: "Should just kill them... Israel is a race that has no scruples even from the start; it's a race that we can't do good for, a cursed race."

Others, however, came to her defence: "Neelofa said ‘Alhamdulilah' because her hijab business has gone across the world. Is that so wrong?"

 

This article is featured in this month's Australia/Israel Review, which can be downloaded as a free App: see here for more details.

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