In the ever-unwinnable image war, maybe what Israel needs is a Cover Girl.
I’m thinking someone tall, curvy and striking, who boasts a record number of appearances in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (say, 13, with three covers), a role-model type who has created a billion-dollar company, someone wholesome and spiritual, with solid family values (like a doctor husband and three kids) — someone like Kathy Ireland.
More than a former supermodel, Ireland is CEO of kathy ireland Worldwide, an international branding company that has grown into a billion-dollar empire and earned her the venerable title Super Mogul. She is also a furnishings designer, a committed mother, philanthropist and, lately, a passionate and public advocate for Israel.
She first traveled to the country in 2007, on a church mission with her mother. She told me she was instantly besotted: “It’s such a beautiful place, just breathtaking,” she recalled. “I was really surprised by the beauty and just how magnificently it’s preserved. And the people are incredible, and the landscape so diverse. There’s no place like it.”
By the time she returned with her children in 2010, she had already been named an international ambassador for the Friends of Sheba Medical Center. In 2011, she was honored by the Anti-Defamation League, and last March, she earned the distinction of appearing as a keynote speaker at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference in Washington, D.C. There, she was given a precious 14 minutes to speak to the conference’s full 13,000 attendees. Her speech was a hit, covering all the major talking points — an Israel imperiled, an isolated democracy, an international pariah state — and affirmed her public commitment. “It is my personal promise to stand with Israel for the rest of my life,” she told AIPAC.
On Sept. 6, Ireland will be honored in Los Angeles by the Jewish National Fund, further cementing her role as Israel’s new post-fashion-career poster girl.
Raised in a secular household, Ireland didn’t find religion until her late teens. “The way I found my faith was out of jet lag and boredom and loneliness,” she said. She was 18, staying at a stranger’s house in Paris before a fashion shoot when, one night, she felt incredibly restless. “I couldn’t sleep; there were no cell phones and no Internet, and it was the middle of the night,” she recalled. “My mom had just become Christian, and without telling me, she slipped a Bible in my suitcase. Out of boredom, I picked it up. I knew that what I was holding was the truth.”
Coming to God, or “The Word,” as Ireland puts it, was a strange feat for a fashion model. The industry was notoriously decadent and even harmful to its denizens, steeped in a culture of illicit drugs, outrageous parties and damaging diets. Not exactly the values-based milieu to which Ireland aspired. “I was such a rebellious teenager that had I been in a healthier industry, I might have rebelled against good things. But my faith allowed me to rebel against unhealthy things,” she said. “Jesus became my Lord, my Savior, my best friend. And one thing I loved is that he was this Jewish rebel; and I loved how he treated women. Here I was, a young woman in a world that felt dominated by men who were of questionable character, and he honored women.”
Though she eschews the term “religious” (too “man-made”), faith is what brought her to the Holy Land. It undergirds her intense passion for the country: “Israel is a global minority and the hostility and venom thrust upon this great nation is just unbelievable,” she said. But she insists that it is not faith alone, but also her belief in Israel’s humanitarian spirit that binds her to the country. “Israel is not strictly a Christian value or an American value; it is a value of humanity.”
On the topic, Ireland can sound dogmatic. Alternating between lavish praise and fiery defense, she is so on-point with her historical and political claims, it sometimes sounds as if she’s reading from a pamphlet. And her advocacy, to be sure, has deep strains of Arab distrust.
“I see bullying. I see a lot of revisionist history,” she said, earnestly. “All one has to do is look at the PLO and their own documents. This is not about land; the Arab League has 22 separate Islamic states spanning an area of 5 million square miles. Israel is 9,000 square miles! It’s not about the land, which is one sixth of one percent of the entire Middle East — it’s about a hatred that is so vile and so deep that it seeks to eradicate a people.”
To skeptics, the intensity of her conviction can come off as surprising, or even suspect. But Ireland said she worked hard to educate herself about the issues, and that she is more than a dutiful mouthpiece for mainstream Jewish groups. “As someone whose former job description was ‘shut up and pose,’ I’m very concerned with people wanting to put words in my mouth,” she said. “People know one thing about me and assume that’s all there is to know.”
She utterly dismisses the notion that beneath her pro-Israel punditry is really an exploitative theology that sees Jews in Israel as a means to a triumphant Christian end. “I am extremely disturbed that so many Christian churches have adopted this replacement theology. It is absolutely horrific and it’s not biblical,” she declared. “All one has to do is read the Old Testament to see how God feels about Israel and his chosen people. His Abrahamic covenant is forever; it’s unconditional.”