Op-Ed: On Israel delegitimization, media matters

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Comedian Jon Stewart’s recent selection as the most influential man in America in a poll by AskMen.com, a popular online magazine, is more than just an inane piece of trivia. It can help inform the international Jewish community of the approach we must take to confront the very serious and growing threat posed by Israel delegitimization.

So, too, can a look at the public relations strategy of Israel’s biggest delegitimizer, Iran.

Stewart, of course, is the American comedian and star and executive producer of the widely popular and critically acclaimed “The Daily Show.” His satirical TV news program lambastes mainstream TV news, particularly Fox, CNN and MSNBC, the three major 24/7 cable news channels in the United States. His show has the highest ratings of any American late-night TV show; it’s is the only source of news for many young Americans.

So Stewart receiving the most votes of the 500,000 respondents tells us something important about the influence of the media among Americans, especially the younger demographic.

The Israel Project (TIP) long has understood the importance of Stewart’s “fake” news program. Quite often it deals with Israel and the Middle East conflict, mimicking how the American media inordinately and sometimes perplexingly focuses on Israel. TIP sends the show’s producers the same news releases and background information we send to tens of thousands of “real” journalists across the globe. And each year for the past five years, our summer media fellows go to a taping of the show live in New York City and meet with some of the writers and producers.

“The Daily Show” is no joke for any strategic communications professional whose job it is to influence public opinion.

In fact, those who work on public opinion issues know full well that the vast majority of Americans of all ages get their news from television. Poll after poll conducted by The Israel Project demonstrates that 62 percent of Americans acquire their information on the Middle East from TV. That number is similar throughout Europe and 90 percent in the Arab world.

The Internet ranks second at 36 percent, but that, too, is derived mainly from the websites of mainstream news sources. Newspapers came in third at 23 percent. Contrast these figures with the 4 percent of Americans who say their Mideast views are shaped by schools and universities, and 3 percent from lectures or events.

It couldn’t be any clearer where the bulk of the Jewish community’s pro-Israel strategic communications efforts should be placed, especially in combating Israel delegitimization.

This issue and what it portends for Israel and Jewish communities around the world have become a rallying point and cause of great concern. Israel’s image in many countries has suffered in the past few years, particularly since the Gaza War and even more since the flotilla incident, according to recent opinion polls.

Boycotts of Israel by performers and academics persist, though they are only moderately successful. The sanctioning of Israel in international bodies is going strong, requiring us to contend with the resources and might of nongovernmental organizations and their backers who work tirelessly to weaken Israel. The red-green unholy alliance of extreme left-wing groups and extreme Islamists is alarming and a security concern for Israel.

Israel’s biggest delegitimizer and greatest enemy is Iran. A look at its public relations strategy for weakening Israel is instructive for the pro-Israel community.

The Iranians have invested tens of millions of dollars on PRESSTV, a 24-hour, global news network broadcast in English that also started Spanish broadcasts last month. PRESSTV is available free in much of the world on cable and satellite TV, and can be seen live online. It generally reports the news straight — except on Israel and Iran. In covering Israel, PRESSTV uses blatant and subtle anti-Israel and anti-Semitic messages.

The Iranians understand too well that the most effective way to sway opinions against the Jewish state is to relentlessly repeat the same anti-Israel messages again and again on the media that shapes views the most — TV and the web.

The Jewish community has the resources and know-how to fight Israel’s delegitimizers the world over. But we have to learn the lessons available from disparate, even incongruous, sources. These point us to the persistent and consistent use of television (though not to the exclusion of other media and communications and education vehicles.)  This communications strategy of focusing on television must be understood and utilized intelligently, applying the best research and tools at our disposal.

This is a battle for the hearts and minds of literally hundreds of millions of people whose genuine support Israel dearly needs. It is a battle with serious strategic consequences for Israelis and Jewish communities worldwide. It is a battle we must win.

(Laura Kam is the executive director for global affairs for The Israel Project, a nonprofit educational organization that provides facts about the Middle East to the media, leaders and the public.)

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