NEW YORK (Aug. 20)
American Jewish leaders are being asked to follow the Ten Commandments.
It’s not the biblical version, but a communications strategy of that name by a group of major Washington political consultants behind a million-dollar-plus public relations campaign to build American public support for Israel.
Among the commandments in the Israel P.R. Campaign: Stress your commitment to peace; draw parallels between Israel and America; don’t attack Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat; and distinguish between the suffering Palestinian people and their government.
The question is, can U.S. Jews keep this new faith?
Led by Democratic consultant Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg and Republican strategist Frank Luntz, the campaign arises from a series of polls showing U.S. support for Israel eroding as Americans increasingly blame both sides equally for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Public opinion surveys that Greenberg carried out in July found that American viewers, in fact, react negatively to many of Israel’s media messages.
When President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are blunt and unambiguous, Americans consider it candid, Luntz wrote in a private memo that has circulated among Jewish groups. But when Israelis take an in-your- face stance, Americans view their foreign accents and occasionally pugnacious debating style as confrontational.
Research also showed that Americans — who just “want the rest of the world to get along” — grew more sympathetic when spokespeople focused on the values Israel shares with America, its deep desire for peace and its sympathy for the Palestinian plight, Greenberg and Luntz said.
At the heart of the pro-Israel P.R. campaign are a series of national TV ads slated to appear in early September on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.
The Washington insiders also are bringing their message to major U.S. Jewish organizations and top Israeli officials, arguing that it is crucial to change the way they make Israel’s case.
So far, the response is generally encouraging. Many U.S. Jewish groups are embracing the P.R. effort as a much- needed antidote to Israel’s ailing image.
After 18 months of being bombarded by “negative” media coverage of Israel, Americans are simply confused, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“The analogy is Northern Ireland: If you ask most Americans where they stand, they don’t know,” Hoenlein said. “They just want to see an end to the killings.”
Hoenlein is among dozens of American Jewish leaders and Israeli officials who have attended workshops by Luntz and Greenberg.
“It’s important to assert the positive,” Hoenlein added. “You don’t gain anything by saying what Arafat is, because people know. That wasn’t the case two years ago.”
But it remains to be seen whether Jewish groups will unite around the softer message. In fact, few Jewish leaders say that’s likely to happen.
“The Jewish community speaks in many voices,” said Gail Hyman, senior vice president of marketing and public affairs at the United Jewish Communities. But, she added, “It’s important to get our message coordinated, if not exactly using the same set of words.”
UJC is among the principal backers of the P.R. campaign, which has been led by the American Jewish Committee. Also involved is a group of Silicon Valley high-tech entrepreneurs called Israel 21C.
UJC will conduct leadership and advocacy training seminars for its members, to help spread the new strategy around the country, Hyman said.
Another group spreading the word on a grass-roots level is Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
Richard Joel, president of Hillel, said the campaign is especially timely on campus, where surveys show most students are largely undecided about the Mideast conflict but anti-Israel demonstrations are becoming increasingly frequent.
“This is a generation that draws moral relativism,” Joel said. “We have to move from being confrontational to being persuasive, at a time of unbelievable ignorance” about the Mideast.
David Harris, executive director of the AJCommittee, welcomed the effort, saying Israel’s case until now “hasn’t been made effectively.”
Jewish groups must put this plan into effect and “get on message” about the Mideast conflict, he said.
But reactions to the message differed, not surprisingly, along political fault lines.
Mark Rosenblum, founder and policy director of Americans for Peace Now, said Israel has been “beaten up unfairly in the media and in the international community” and needs strong hasbarah, the Hebrew term for public relations.
Still, good P.R. can’t compensate for the policies of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government, which has only pursued military options while building Jewish settlements in the territories, Rosenblum said.
“If you’re going to sell a more uplifting picture of Israel and you’re also going to sell hope, it’s not only a problem of Arafatocracy, but the Sharon government hasn’t offered a vision of hope,” he said.
In contrast, Helen Freedman, executive director of the Americans for a Safe Israel, said the advice to stress positive and hopeful messages simply “refuses to face the reality” of Mideast politics and panders to “Madison Avenue” image-making.
“What confuses people are all the mixed messages coming out of Israel,” led by a unity government that includes not just more hawkish ministers from Sharon’s Likud and the National Religious Party, but Labor Party leaders such as Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, whom Freedman called “traitors” for urging peace talks amid terrorism.
Israel’s message, she said, should be not conciliatory but forceful.
“Israeli spokesmen should speak the truth, and they should say it over and over again: Arafat and all the terrorists in the area have proven themselves to be nothing but that — terrorists — and we have to get them before they get us,” Freedman said.
Perhaps, it appears, even the Ten Commandments won’t be enough to get all the American Jewish groups on the same P.R. page.