Jewish Journal

Israel PR 2.0

by David Suissa

Posted on Oct. 7, 2009 at 8:15 pm

Over the past few days, several people who read my column last week (“Dayenu Moments”) have asked me what I think Israel should do to counteract its worsening image.

My thinking got jumpstarted by a piece I read in The Forward by noted historian Jonathan Sarna that discussed the “waning American Jewish love affair with Israel.”

Sarna quotes Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who warns of “a growing distancing from Israel of American Jews ... most pronounced among younger Jews.”

The new generation, Sarna explains, doesn’t see Israel through the rose-colored glasses of the Zionist dream, which Louis D. Brandeis once characterized as “nothing less than heaven on earth.”

“In place of the utopia that we had hoped Israel might become,” Sarna writes, “young Jews today often view Israel through the eyes of contemporary media: They fixate upon its unloveliest warts.”

A growing movement of pro-Israel activism — through organizations like The Israel Project, StandWithUs, ZOA and CAMERA — has counteracted this fixation on Israel’s “warts” by aggressively promoting the Israeli position and exposing the hypocrisy of the world’s condemnation of Israel.

I’ve always been a big supporter of these efforts. If our enemies attack us so viciously, and often so unfairly, shouldn’t we defend ourselves? If they’re looking for confrontation rather than a dignified debate, should we not respond in kind?

Lately, though, I’ve started to question myself. Maybe it’s because I’m just coming off a month of self-appraisal, where I’ve been forced to look inward and challenge my own thinking.

Also, for way too long, I’ve been facing this sad fact: nothing seems to be working. Despite our heroic efforts to promote Israel among American Jews — whether through aggressive activism or projects like Birthright Israel — we’re still left reading articles and surveys on the “waning American Jewish love affair with Israel.”

Finally, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the world’s fixation with Israel’s warts will probably never go away, and we must find new and fresher ways of dealing with this reality.

So, what can we do? How can we supplement our pro-Israel activism with something that will bring renewed sympathy for the Jewish state, especially among young American Jews?

Contrary to some current thinking, it’s not as simple as doing PR that is “beyond the conflict” — that is, promoting Israel’s many accomplishments in science and technology (something I myself have done through a Web site), as well as its vibrant culture.

These well-intended efforts, just like aggressive pro-Israel activism, serve a useful purpose, but they don’t address the warts that get such enormous play in the media. They can even backfire if they’re perceived as propaganda meant to distract attention from Israel’s mistakes.

It’s also not enough to simply fess up to our warts, as many leftist organizations are wont to do, especially when we know that our enemies will just use these admissions to put another PR nail in our coffin.

As it happens, I found the seed for a new PR direction in the unlikeliest place: a little news item about a Jewish settler from Hebron who is being tried in an Israeli court. The charge? Two Palestinian schoolgirls accused him of endangering them while he was parking his car. No one got hurt, but the girls filed a complaint and they are getting their day in court.

What’s my point? Simply this: Sure, we make plenty of mistakes, but God knows we also try to correct them. Our ideals demand it.

We need to exploit this idea. Yes, we should continue our efforts to confront the media’s bias against Israel; and we should continue to make the case for Israel and even express outrage when it is warranted.

But I’d love to see us add this new element to our PR and branding efforts: Let’s fess up to our mistakes, but focus on what we do to correct them.

This is a key tenet of the Jewish faith, and it ought to become a key tenet of Israel’s PR efforts. We’re far from perfect, but just like all good and noble societies, we are a work in progress.

Treatment of gays, women and minorities? Yes, we’ve made mistakes, but look at what we’ve done and are doing to correct them.

Corruption in our political ranks? You bet. But look at how our legal system is working to fix it and instill accountability.

Whether it’s the disproportionate influence of the Charedi community, a flawed electoral system, IDF actions, environmental pollution, child abuse, poverty, etc., the Israeli way is to work to correct its mistakes and make things better.

Even with the vexing subject of the “occupation,” Israel’s PR should aggressively promote what it did to try to “correct” the problem: the fair and generous offer Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made to the Palestinians as recently as a year ago.

One-sided activism and one-sided self-criticism might be emotionally satisfying, but they need help. It’s time to add something new.

There’s no guarantee this will work, but at least it’ll make Israel look more human. And compared to the way we look now, that would be a major upgrade.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine, Meals4Israel.com and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

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