In 1943, Ben Hecht, the greatest screenwriter who ever lived, grew frustrated with what he accurately predicted would be the unstopped slaughter of his fellow Jews in Europe. Drawing on his two most powerful weapons — words and Hollywood friends — he wrote a theatrical spectacle to publicize the fate of the Jews to the world.
Hecht’s pageant, “We Will Never Die,” was produced by Billy Rose and Ernst Lubitsch, with music by Kurt Weill and staging by Moss Hart. An audience of 40,000 packed Madison Square Garden over two nights in March 1943 to see it, and it played to huge crowds on a nationwide tour. On July 21, 1943, California Gov. Earl Warren and rows of Hollywood luminaries saw the final performance at the Hollywood Bowl, which was also broadcast nationally on NBC.
The popularity of the shows failed to impress its creator. “The pageant has accomplished nothing,” Hecht told Weill afterward. “Actually, all we have done is make a lot of Jews cry, which is not a unique accomplishment.”
Over the past several weeks, as press coverage of the Gaza-bound flotilla has peaked and ebbed, numerous Jews have determined that Israel’s biggest challenge is fighting bad PR.
I understand the frustration. I can understand the desire to start hiring consultants and developing campaigns and printing brochures and launching Web sites. But before that ball gets rolling, one piece of humble advice to the would-be PR saviors: Before you start funding solutions, you need to truly understand the problem.
Jews have been complaining about Israel’s bad PR for years — and for years there have been committees, consultants and campaigns tasked with improving it. Yet, here we find ourselves again, after all that genius and all that money, still not getting it right.
The problem is that, in our passion, we rush to solve a problem without really thinking it through. In that spirit, I offer six steps to a better understanding of Israel’s PR crisis.
1. Differentiate between critics and delegitimizers.
The international campaign aimed at undermining Israel is two-pronged. In a recent and incisive study, Reut, an Israeli think tank, has categorized these groups as a Middle East-based resistance network, which rejects Israel’s right to exist based on Islamist or Arab-nationalist ideology, and an international delegitimization network of activists and elites, which negates Israel’s right to exist based on ideological or philosophical reasons. Countering these distinct groups demands different, but coordinated, strategies. But it’s important to note that neither group includes supporters of Israel who are critical of its policies. Israel’s own left and right must find a common language to confront these two threats, even as they maintain their ability to criticize Israel and one another.
2. Go on the offensive.
Who makes up these resistance and delegitimization networks? Some fairly cockeyed people who adhere to ideologies that most sensible people would reject out of hand. The best defense is a good offense: Expose the organizers of these boycotts, the authors of these anti-Israel screeds, for what they are. Most people would rather live in Israel than Hamas-stan. Most people view America like Tom Friedman, not Noam Chomsky. “We must engage the critics,” Reut’s Gidi Grinstein told me, “and isolate the delegitimizers.”
3. Don’t give up on Hollywood; find a brave soul within it.
Ben Hecht was able to tap the talents of the leading entertainers of his day. Back then, as today, stars were reluctant to get involved in causes, especially Jewish ones. But Hecht’s willingness to take a leadership role galvanized Hollywood. To leverage the enormous power of celebrity, the effort needs just a single strong voice from within Hollywood.
4. Recognize that the enemy is more sophisticated than you, and less democratic.
When Israel has lost battles, usually it’s been from underestimating its enemies. The PR battle is no different. The Jenin “massacre,” the death of Mohammed al-Durra and the Gaza flotilla reveal a sophisticated use of horrific imagery to demonize Israel. In some ways, Hamas transformed itself from a terrorist group that uses media into a media group that uses terrorism. In this, it has learned from al-Qaeda, which now produces more communiqués than car bombs. Reut’s proposal to create a similarly sophisticated network of coordinated activists working on behalf of Israel is a smart start.
But even with that, we need to understand that a democracy like Israel will always be at some disadvantage to a group like Hamas. Hamas can freely employ lies, intimidate its dissenters and suppress information. Israeli Maj. Gen. (ret.) Danny Rothschild, director of The Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and chair of the annual Herzliya Conference, said on a visit to Los Angeles last week that Israel can’t afford to sacrifice reliability for speed of reply.
5. Understand that an enormous amount of goodwill exists toward a moderate Israel.
Read your history. Look at times when Israel received enormous outpourings of public support — after the Six-Day War, after the raid on Entebbe — when it was perceived to have acted to defend its right to exist. Look at the polls. Even after all the PR in the wake of the Gaza flotilla, only 19 percent of Americans believed Israel should be blamed for the episode. Almost 50 percent thought Israel acted justly. The battle is Israel’s to lose.
6. It’s not just about PR.
Great hasbarah (image-building), a final status agreement with the Palestinians, complete equality for Israeli Arabs and military strength are critical for Israel’s long-term well-being and necessary to win moderates and elites to Israel’s side. No one of those is a magic bullet that can eradicate those dedicated to Israel’s eradication — the deligitimizers will always be with us. However, to work for “good PR” is to support each of those goals as well.
There are a lot of people eager to lead the charge for better PR and a lot of donors ready to write them checks. But we must start by truly understanding the problem, or we will have succeeded in doing little more than getting Jews to cry over Israel’s bad rap — and that’s not hard to do.
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