Caught In The Image War


The Israel Project, says its founder and president Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, was created in March 2002 in Washington to improve Israel’s image based on polls the group conducts, interprets and shares with officials of the Foreign Ministry and top Jewish leadership in the United States.

Now, though, the group is concerned about an image problem of its own, with some tough criticism coming from at least a few Israeli officials and Jewish leaders who question whether the project’s work is helping or harming Israel’s cause.

Mizrahi’s supporters, including members of Congress, Israeli officials and pro-Israel activists, say the organization has already had a compelling, positive impact, using its own public opinion research and media analysis to sharpen Israel’s message and gain support for the Jewish state in its public relations battle with the Palestinians. They also say they have rarely seen such a bright, tireless and committed worker on Israel’s behalf as Mizrahi, who gave up a lucrative political consulting business to donate her time, money and effort to helping Israel in one of its darkest hours.

Mizrahi, 39, married and the mother of two children under the age of 3, is constantly on the go, seeking funding and support for her organization, which asserts that Israel must do a better job of making its case in the court of world opinion or see its popular edge over the Palestinians in the U.S. decline. She and her husband put up $50,000 to launch the project, she draws no salary or consulting fees, and she is hoping to raise the funds for a projected $3 million budget in 2004.

“She is brilliant, excellent in every way and motivated only by pure devotion and concern about the future of Israel and the Jewish people,” says Terry Meyerhoff Rubenstein of Baltimore, executive vice president of the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds. And Shula Bahat, associate executive director of the American Jewish Committee, which has done programs with The Israel Project, says Mizrahi has brought “a lot of professionalism” to the issue of public image. “I look at her as someone to learn from,” she says, “relentless and tireless in her support for Israel.”

But a number of influential figures, including the media expert at the Israeli Consulate in New York and the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, question Mizrahi’s motives and say her work is overrated, unnecessary and even counterproductive. They say she portrays Israeli hasbara, or public relations, in an overly harsh light and, by publicizing her group’s findings in the press, helps pro-Arab groups combat Israel’s efforts.

“Any person who truly wants to help Israel’s image should not be discussing his or her findings of confidential studies with the media,” says Ido Aharoni, the media and public affairs consul for the Israeli Consulate here. “It’s unprofessional and unethical,” he says, to provide data to Israel’s Foreign Ministry and then share it with the press. He and other Israeli officials were particularly upset by an article several weeks ago in Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s best-read daily. It ranked the quality of government spokespersons, including criticisms of specific individuals, and was traced to a study done by The Israel Project.

Abraham Foxman, national chairman of the ADL, says that what began as a volunteer effort on Mizrahi’s part to help Israel’s public relations has turned into a charitable, fund-raising organization and “the whole thing gives you a sour taste.”
As in sour grapes?

Speaks To Larger Issues

Are Foxman and other Jewish professionals jealous that Mizrahi has become, in the words of one leader, “the darling” of the United Jewish Communities and other organizations for her work on Israel’s behalf? Or is Mizrahi engaged in self-promotion, manipulating the discontent among many American Jews at Israel’s handling of the war with the Palestinians to build a new organization of her own?

What makes this dispute more than just another turf battle in the Jewish community between the establishment and a new group garnering donors, and headlines, is that it speaks to the larger issues of American Jewry’s obsession with the media and the widespread belief that Israel has done a terrible job of hasbara.

Some key Israeli officials in New York and Washington complain that Mizrahi has portrayed herself in the media as the woman saving Israel’s hasbara, which they say upsets them personally and professionally, and makes their job more difficult.

In a recent article, Mizrahi wrote that “supporters of Israel have not made a significant commitment to protect and improve the image of both Israel and Jews.” She said that “negative media coverage has caused many Americans to see Israel as an aggressor and an oppressor, leaving both Israel and Jews to face increased danger. … On each day that goes without our fully getting out the truth about Israel and Jews, Americans make up their minds against us.”

Critics say that assessment is bleak and misleading, and an official of the Israeli Embassy in Washington said he resented such sentiment because it implies that if Israel was doing a better job of hasbara, the press would be more positive. “American Jews spend too much time obsessing on media coverage, particularly in The New York Times, and complaining about Israeli hasbara, which is not helpful,” he said.

He and several other Israel officials said they and their colleagues are not fools, that they have been working with sophisticated Madison Avenue firms and others for years stressing the same themes as the Israel Project: Jerusalem’s desire for peace, the shared U.S. and Israeli values, and Israel’s respect for human rights and freedoms.

“We have a policy problem, not an image problem,” said Aharoni of the Israeli Consulate in New York, noting Israel’s political fragmentation. “This is not about fine-tuning our language, using ‘disputed territories’ instead of ‘occupied territories.’ People are focusing on the wrong issues because they are more convenient. They talk about Israel’s image problems instead of its real problems” like its dealings with the Palestinians, the economy and unemployment. He said people who want to help Israel should be visiting or investing in Israel, and speaking out rather than complaining about its public relations, which is of little practical value.

“There is a dangerous disconnect” between the troubles and the perceived troubles, he said, “and the PR hysteria out there is not what we need.”
Aharoni asserted, for example, that if Israel is losing the “battle on campus, it’s because of the ongoing, colossal failure of American Jewry to provide Jewish education for its children, and that’s not Israel’s responsibility. But instead of doing something, they keep complaining.”
Other critics say that Mizrahi uses polling data to scare American Jews into thinking Israel is losing the media war as a means of increasing fund-raising for her project. A recent ADL poll, for example, found that Americans remain firmly in Israel’s camp, with 41 percent sympathizing with Israel and 16 percent with the Palestinians.

But Mizrahi says the key question to gauge American support for Israel is the one her organization recently asked in focus groups: whether the U.S. should support Israel, the Palestinians or neither. “Over 60 percent said neither, and that is very disturbing,” she said, adding that she does not make public most of research the project comes up with, and most of her major donors are under 45 and not involved with other Jewish groups.

Analyzing Attitudes

The Israel Project team, including highly respected pollsters Stan Greenberg, Frank Luntz and Neil Newhouse, concentrates on how Americans view Israel and how to gain more support, based on analysis of its research.

At a recent lunch meeting in New York for about 30 potential donors, Mizrahi offered a crisp power-point presentation of the group’s work, showing public opinion findings on attitudes about the Mideast conflict and describing how the group meets with and advises key Israeli spokespeople to help them conduct successful interviews. She also explained that The Israeli Project produces and airs pro-Israel television spots, primarily in the Washington market, emphasizing the shared values of the U.S. and Israeli democracies. Polling has been expanded to Europe, Russia and India, and the group’s latest venture is to meet with influential U.S. journalists and, in a non-judgmental way, encourage them to call on Israeli and pro-Israeli sources for future coverage of the Mideast conflict.

Unlike media watchdogs like Camera or Honest Reporting, which critique coverage, The Israel Project seeks to influence stories “before they go to press,” Mizrahi says. “It’s up to the people who care about Israel to help deliver the story,” she insists.

Her primary champion in all of this work is Gideon Meir, who as deputy director general of public affairs for the Israeli Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem is the point man for the hasbara effort. Meir flies in for some of The Israel Project’s meetings here and describes Mizrahi and her team as a godsend, a group of talented, devoted professionals eager “to help us craft our message and train us according to our needs.” He acknowledged that he and the group have had their differences, particularly over embarrassing stories that have appeared in the press. But he said the problems have been discussed and worked out, and that the project’s help is worth millions of dollars to a Foreign Ministry whose budget for public relations in the diaspora is only $9 million.

Some colleagues say Meir is so desperate for the support that he is willing to overlook conflicts, but he insists his approach is clear-eyed.

He has his own views about American Jewry’s “media obsession,” which he says is sincere, but may be displaced. “Many Jews don’t want to criticize Israel’s policies so they criticize our hasbara” or media coverage, he observes, as well as the government’s seeming lack of effectiveness in promoting a positive image. “But that has nothing to do with Jennifer,” he says.

How much can be done to improve the situation is an open question. Clearly, it’s not just about pouring money into a campaign. The Saudis have been spending many millions of dollars here on ads but Americans still don’t like or trust them. And the U.S. effort to improve its image in the world, especially among Muslim nations, is an uphill and, for now, losing battle.
The message is important, we learn, but the policies behind that message are key. Israel’s strengths, goals and values should sell themselves; until they do, though, much help is needed.

Jennifer Mizrahi says it is ironic that she is in the position she finds herself now. “I didn’t want to start a new organization,” she says, “I wanted to write a check to someone who would do the job well. I went around asking for more than a year and couldn’t get any takers. We [The Israel Project] wouldn’t exist if someone was filling that void.”