Why isn’t Israel’s PR better? Last Monday I gave a briefing on the Middle East to members of a synagogue men’s group, and that question seemed to be on everyone’s mind. Why can’t Israel put some of its much-touted brainpower to use on the winning-hearts-and-minds front? Israel’s public defenders confront many challenges, some of which are also faced by Mormons who attempt to educate others about polygamy and their church.
I happen to agree with Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, who recently observed that the problem with Israel’s PR is not a lack of competence or will on the Israeli side but a growing sophistication on the part of its foes. Three decades ago, no one was running well-orchestrated media campaigns against Israel. As the recent flotilla incident showed, modern technology and social media have allowed Israel’s many critics to unite and recruit as never before. Sadly, the rabbi who posted Helen Thomas’s anti-Semitic rant online revealed today that he has already received thousands of hate e-mails.
Continuity in government policies is another problem for Israel’s PR machine. When a coalition government can be brought down any day of the week by a no-confidence vote, and any peace process-related position taken by one prime minister can be changed by his successor, it’s hard to justify investing a great deal of time and effort to defend a policy that may not be in effect next year. Just ask someone who loudly made the case to one and all before 2005 that Israel absolutely had to stay in Gaza for security reasons. How do you think he felt after Israel’s government showed the world in that year that it disagreed with him?
By way of contrast, the Arab/Palestinian narrative has been unequivocal, clear, and consistent. Palestinian leaders are essentially saying the same things now that they were 25 years ago, and their demands are nearly identical. Whether or not one accepts all of their claims, it’s hard to deny that it is much easier to build a PR campaign around a consistent message.
The mainstream Mormon Church has not sanctioned the practice of polygamy for 120 years, yet many people around the world continue to associate the two. Just as Israel’s positions are often harder to explain than Arab ones, it is harder to explain the Mormon Church’s nuanced position on polygamy than it is to simply say that since it was once practiced by the church’s leaders, it should be considered part and parcel of the modern church. In 1890 the LDS Church discontinued polygamy, though it did not disavow it (i.e., it did not condemn the prior practice of polygamy by church leaders). The basic question for the church is not whether polygamy is inherently “right” or “wrong,” but whether it is authorized by God (which would implicitly make it “right” for certain people living at a certain time). Just as we believe that God authorized Abraham, Jacob and David to marry more than one wife, we believe that for several decades in the 19th century our church leaders were authorized by God to enter into polygamous marriages. In 1890 God revoked this authorization through a revelation given to the president of the church, and we do not currently practice polygamy. It has not been a part of Mormon practice for 120 years, and members of the church who marry more than one spouse today are excommunicated. This is a good thing: as a frustrated bachelor, I’m grateful that I only have to find one wife, not two.
In the end, both Israel’s supporters and Mormon defenders of the faith have to take the initiative to define their positions before others do so. A lack of continuity in government or church policies, real or perceived, makes it difficult at times to explain policies and beliefs that do not readily lend themselves to sound bites. However, I know that both communities are more than up to the challenge. If the men on Monday night are at all representative of Israel’s PR foot soldiers, their cause will never lack passion or ideas.
World Cup predictions (first day):
Mexico-South Africa (June 11): Coming off a decisive win against world power Italy, Mexico is a confident, much-improved team that has beaten several African sides this year. South Africa is playing at home before a supportive, vuvuzela-blowing crowd and needs to win this game if it has any hope of advancing to the next round. On paper Mexico is superior at every position, but first games in the World Cup have produced some real surprises (e.g., Cameroon’s defeat of Argentina in 1990). Prediction: Mexico wins by a goal.
France-Uruguay (June 11): Everyone in the soccer world knows that this game should be Ireland-Uruguay. While both France and Uruguay had to win playoff games in order to get here, only one of the teams chose to score the decisive winning goal with a pass from a clear handball. The French team has seen better days, and Uruguay has not played well in international tournaments in many decades (it last won the Cup in 1950). While I can’t wait to see the cheaters get their comeuppance in this tournament, I’m afraid that my gratification will have to be delayed until the Mexico game. Prediction: France by two goals in a very physical game.