August 22, 2002
The big wheels of the American PR industry are finally spinning on behalf of Israel.
Spearheaded by Democratic political consultant Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a bipartisan group of leading pollsters and consultants has launched a two-part mission to change American perceptions of Israel. Mizrahi, along with Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg and Republican strategists Frank Luntz and Neil Newhouse, first culled polling data from a wide variety of Americans. They then developed the Israel PR Project to influence opinion elites, politicians, college students and the larger American public. They've run their strategy by Jewish leaders in America and Israel, and plan to launch a series of television ads and training sessions for Jewish U.S. and Israeli spokespeople next month.
As Mike Levy reports on page 14, an important facet of the PR campaign will take place in colleges and universities.
In the hothouse of academia, issues play out with an intensity all their own. Nowhere in the United States have pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli protesters clashed as regularly and as virulently as they have at places like UC Berkeley, San Francisco State University -- and UCLA.
The PR people, along with officials at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Hillel and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), want to arm students, especially Jewish students, with information and arguments to counter a well-organized, well-funded campus PR push against Israel. As our correspondent Leslie Susser points out on page 28: "...the key problem in Israeli hasbara [public relations], has been its narrative of peacemakers fighting terrorists against the Palestinian narrative of freedom fighters opposing occupiers." Transport this hasbara problem to campuses where students are predisposed to side with underdogs and against authority, and it's no wonder many Israel supporters report feeling besieged.
Critics of the PR idea say the problem itself is overstated. An AJC poll showed that collegians, much like other Americans, support Israel over the Palestinians by a 4-1 margin. Anti-Israel flare-ups are the exception, not the rule.
That poll, itself controversial, may be accurate, but doesn't obviate the need for a campaign. Opinion is fluid, if not fickle, and only a concerted pro-Israel effort will ensure Israel gets a fair hearing on campuses.
But will the campus PR campaign work? Not if it's only a PR campaign. With all due respect to the consultants and pollsters who have thrown their experience and expertise into helping Israel, what students go to college for is education, not public relations. (OK, they go for a few other things as well, but that's a different column.)
Students come to ask questions, and, when confronted by a pressing social issue, to seek answers. The Palestinian propagandists have marching orders to turn every argument about terror into an attack on "the occupation." Giving Jewish students marching orders to fend off every charge of occupation with "Israel's desire for peace" will ring hollow, not just with many non-Jewish students, but with many of the best and the brightest Jewish collegians as well.
That's because behind the PR problem is Israel's political problem, and in the interest of unity, and perhaps simplicity, it's one the PR mavens refuse to confront directly. So the students will be urged to stand behind Israel, but not for a specific political solution. They will be told to go out and convince their fellow students that Israel wants peace. To which I'm sure legions of students will rightly ask, "Yeah, and so?"
We should arm students with some phrases and facts that will help them survive the initial onslaught of Palestinian propaganda. But more importantly, we should be urging them to begin the complex intellectual and emotional task of understanding the conflicting narratives of the region, and of promoting solutions, not shibboleths.
The PR mavens are used to fighting battles in which one candidate loses and the other one wins, where the playing field is black and white and the whole deal is wrapped by Election Day. But the Middle East has grays, and at the end of the day, the Israelis and the Palestinians will have to both win and lose. That may be tough for some Jews and Arabs to understand, but I have a feeling most college kids already get it.