Bemoaning the way Israel is portrayed in the news is something of a favorite pastime for many American Jews. But rather than complain that Israel is depicted unfairly in its conflict with the Palestinians, two Silicon Valley executives are taking a different approach.
Eric Benhamou, chairman of 3Com, and Zvi Alon, founder of Netvision, wanted to get the focus off violence altogether and show Americans that there is much more to Israel beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Four years ago, they launched Israel21c, a nonprofit news feature service that covers human interest stories in Israel and pitches them to the media.
Take, for example, the group's Sept. 19 story on a video game originally used to train Israeli fighter pilots that now is being used to coach college basketball players. The story was picked up by the Associated Press and appeared in approximately 170 newspapers, according to Larry Weinberg, the group's executive vice president and its only full-time staffer in North America.
"Israel, among the nations, is still fighting to justify its existence," Weinberg said.
Stories about Israeli medical breakthroughs or social welfare projects help demonstrate Israel's value to the world. It's a "way of increasing knowledge of Israel that increases respect of Israel," Weinberg said.
"In the end, public opinion will lead policy," he added with the conviction of someone who worked in New York City politics on the staffs of three different mayors.
Israel21c is seeking to expand its market. The group recently hired Rubenstein Public Relations, a high-profile Manhattan firm, to bring its message to those between 16 and 25.
"Most young, non-Jewish Americans have almost no knowledge of Israel beyond the conflict they've seen in the news for four years," the group said in a news release.
By pitching stories about Israeli fashion, music and sports to media outlets geared to youth, Israel21c hopes to build identification between U.S. and Israeli youth. Weinberg added that the push will aid pro-Israel efforts on campus, which have seen heated debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the intifada began more than four years ago.
Israel21c's initiative comes after a report last year showed Jewish organizations were using outdated approaches that failed to interest young U.S. Jews to advocate for Israel. The report, "Israel in the Age of Eminem," was based on research by pollster Frank Luntz, who found that Jewish groups face a "communications crisis" and were failing to attract the 80 percent of young Jews whose interest in Judaism or Zionism is only marginal.
Israel21c is not the only group to tackle Israeli hasbarah, a Hebrew term for advocacy. Israel has consulates throughout the world devoted to polishing the image of the Jewish state, although many say Israel's efforts to make its case are inept, and private groups have sprung up since the intifada began, too.
According to Weinberg, the Israeli government is becoming more media savvy, realizing that "public relations and communications are as important tools in a war as soldiers, tanks and courage." But Weinberg said his group can supplement the official efforts. Israel21c's stories are used on the Web sites of more than 60 North American Jewish federations each week and are picked up by Israeli consulates and hundreds of Jewish organizations.
While government communications efforts focus on crisis management, Israel21c offers lighter fare, with a positive bent that often hits home. One recent example was an idea from Israel21c that resulted in Time magazine running an article about Israeli medical technology that can eliminate the use of needles, delivering medicine through the pores of the skin.
Anyone who has ever been to the doctor and suffered through a flu shot can relate to an Israel story like that -- which is precisely what the founders of Israel21c had in mind.
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