NEW YORK (JTA) — Here’s what the international Jewish media conspiracy looks like: Two men and four women, all clad in dark suits, sitting around a table in a windowless conference room in a nondescript office in midtown Manhattan.
Together they run a global organization stretching from Washington to China that cultivates relationships with 240,000 thought leaders around the world — diplomats, elected officials, community leaders and, especially, journalists. They compile dossiers on each reporter, updating their database if someone gets a new job, is assigned a new beat or develops a new interest. They spend more than $1 million per year on polling and focus groups. They’ve met multiple times with each of the candidates for U.S. president.
It’s all geared toward one goal: generating sympathy for Israel worldwide.
Now the woman who has led the organization since its founding in 2002, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, is stepping down from her post as president of The Israel Project. Ten years ago, when the Washington communications strategist first dreamed up her strategy for Israel, it was hard to find backing.
“No one would take on the plan because ‘Mein Kampf’ said Jews control the media,” Mizrahi told JTA this week. “But we were ceding the battleground to the enemy and they were destroying us.”
Ten years on, The Israel Project has managed to carve out a leading role among dozens of other like-minded organizations trying to influence media coverage of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. It has done so by focusing on information and relationships rather than straightforward advocacy.
So, for example, while a group like Honest Reporting issues detailed critiques when journalists get a story wrong, The Israel Project facilitates meetings for journalists with Israeli officials — and Palestinian ones, too. It offers helicopter tours of Israel to convey the uniqueness of the country’s security challenges. It holds meetings in Ramallah and New York with Arab diplomats and reporters. And its Arabic-language Israel Uncensored page on Facebook has garnered more than 40 million views and 300,000 “likes” — about half of them from Egypt, according to the organization.
“Our job is to engage in relationships,” Mizrahi says. “The Israeli government should be doing almost everything we’re doing. But they’re not, and I think that that is a tragedy.”
Over the last decade, The Israel Project has grown into a $16 million-per-year PR juggernaut with a staff of 84 and access to top officials in Washington and Jerusalem. But after 10 years at the helm, Mizrahi is calling it quits.
“I’m burned out on Israel,” Mizrahi said Monday, two weeks after announcing her plans to resign. “I’ve been doing The Israel Project for 10 years without rest. Dayeinu. I’m tired.”
It’s not that Mizrahi has lost her love for Israel, she says, just that she’s ready to move on. After a five-month transition period during which the organization will search for a new CEO, and then a two-month summer break to spend time with her family, Mizrahi plans to relaunch Laszlo & Associates, the Washington-based strategic communications firm she ran before her detour with The Israel Project.
Mizrahi says she already has one prospective client: a certain prime minister who wants her to run his re-election campaign. She smiles slyly but won’t say his name.
It’s a rare occurrence in the Jewish organizational world for a successful chief to voluntarily cede the reins and walk away, particularly one so closely identified with her organization. The Israel Project is as inextricably linked with the dogged Mizrahi as the Anti-Defamation League is with Abraham Foxman, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations with Malcolm Hoenlein and the Simon Wiesenthal Center with Rabbi Marvin Hier.
But while Hier has been in his position for 35 years and Foxman and Hoenlein for a quarter century, Mizrahi says she doesn’t believe that leading a Jewish organization should be a lifetime appointment.
Mizrahi says the change has been a long time coming. She actually tried to leave in 2007, but after spending $100,000 on a months-long search for a new CEO, The Israel Project came to the conclusion that she was, in effect, irreplaceable.
That was a problem, in Mizrahi’s view. So in the years since, the organization spent millions more making fundamental structural changes — essentially building up the management team — to ensure it could run without her.
It remains to be seen how well The Israel Project will fare without her leadership, and it’s a matter of some debate whether The Israel Project’s work — or PR for Israel generally, called “hasbara” in Hebrew — does any good. Skeptics say Israel’s image is determined by what Israel does, the persistence of the Arab-Israeli conflict or, simply, deep-seated anti-Semitism. Whether or not your ambassador looks good on TV has no effect on U.S. aid to Israel or Egyptian policy toward Jerusalem, they say.
But Mizrahi is a firm believer that behind-the-scenes work like hers can make a difference. Like Jewish groups from the American Jewish Committee to the Zionist Organization of America, The Israel Project meets with government officials and diplomats to advocate for Israel-related issues. Unlike those groups, however, Mizrahi believes that the only way to garner empathy for Israel’s plight and maintain one’s credibility is to tell the whole story — “warts and all” — which is why Mizrahi is among the few Jewish organizational leaders not just to meet with Palestinian leaders but to facilitate meetings between them and others. She is unabashedly pro-Israel but says that doesn’t mean she can’t be pro-Palestinian, too.
Ultimately, Mizrahi says, The Israel Project’s strategy works by laying the groundwork for future support for Israel. She takes credit for what her organization’s polls show as improving favorability ratings for Israel among the U.S. electorate and says that to ensure continued U.S. support for Israel, there must be more outreach.
While polls show Israel is more popular than the Palestinians among all major sectors of the U.S. population, Israel’s favorability is weaker among Democrats than Republicans, weaker among men than women, and weaker among young than old. It’s also relatively weak among African Americans and Hispanics.
But she will have to leave those worries to her successor and the management team she is leaving behind, including COO Cathy Bolinger, a former chief financial officer for the American Red Cross and United Service Organizations; U.S. Executive Director Alan Elsner, a 30-year veteran of Reuters; Executive Director for Global Affairs Laura Kam, an ADL veteran; and Israeli Executive Director Marcus Sheff, a former reporter and PR man who as an Israeli army reservist has served as spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces.
After a decade of single-minded focus on Israel, Mizrahi says it’s time to focus on other things, including a special priority for her family: special-needs children. As the mother of a special-needs child, Mizrahi says she hasn’t quite figured out what that will be yet, but one thing is certain: “I never again want to found an organization.”