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Grass-roots Activists Learn How They Can Defend Israel in the Media

June 30, 2004
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Bobbie Goldstein thought her passion was an asset. It didn’t matter, she said she thought, when her voice would rise and her tone would become more strident when defending Israel at her public appearances. What mattered was that she was getting her feelings across.

Now, the national campaign chairman for State of Israel Bonds realizes her attitude diminished her argument.

“What I need to do is level it off a little bit,” Goldstein said. “Give calm, collected answers that get my point across.”

Goldstein has a private session with a media trainer to thank for her new outlook — part of a three-day conference for pro-Israel advocates in Washington. The conference, conceived by The Israel Project, has as its goal maximizing the pro-Israel arguments of speakers in the media and elsewhere.

With Middle East issues almost always in the news, the program hopes to create a network of Israel advocates who can effectively bac! k the Jewish state in the media in times of crisis, and push for positive news coverage at other times. It is a grass-roots attempt to change what many Jews see as a trend toward negative representations of Israel in American mainstream media.

Unlike most conferences for Israel advocates, this gathering did not begin with discussions of the complexities of Middle East politics, updates on the current situation and predictions for the future.

None of that would have been news to the 300 participants. They are the most active of the active, the best informed of the well informed. These are the people who call in to radio talk shows to make pro-Israel arguments, send Op-Ed letters to local newspapers and take journalists to task for coverage they view as slanted against Israel.

Instead, the conference focused on tailoring their activism to approaches that can get best results. They learned which arguments about Israel’s role in the Middle East and the conflict with ! the Palestinians is sympathetic to non-Jewish media consumers, and how best to make Israel’s case to journalists.

“This is media relations for people who used to think media relations was waiting for someone to call you,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a media relations professional who founded The Israel Project.

Speakers highlight the need to stress hope for the future when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the importance of not demonizing the Palestinians.

They also tout the value of long-term relationships with journalists, not just keeping contacts confined to sudden complaints.

The media training borrows approaches from political campaigns and corporate ventures, and it is based on polling of what pro-Israel arguments work for a broader audience.

For example, Mizrahi sought out female spokeswomen for the training seminar. Women test much better, she says; Americans think of Israel as men with guns, and showing a woman reminds them of mothers and grandmothers.

But most importantly, trainees are being ! taught professionalism. An advocate for Israel that is misinformed or combative can do more harm than good.

“Too often we demonize the press and we demonize the Palestinians,” Mizrahi said. “And neither is effective.”

Her approach has raised some eyebrows from Jewish organizational leaders, concerned that The Israel Project is arming dozens of pro-Israel advocates with a status some believe is best left to the professionals. The worry is that some could appear on television or in newspapers lacking a real constituency, but lending credibility for any viewpoint they wish to espouse.

“It is vital that in building relationships with members of the media that one does it in a constructive, nonconfrontational way,” said one Jewish organizational official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, concerned about criticizing the new venture. “If in any manner, this encourages people or accidentally results in people taking an adversarial approach to the media, it can only! worsen these relations.”

Some local Jewish federations sent staf fers to the conference, hoping to co-opt those in their community who were seeking training.

Mizrahi says that even if her new crew of “press ambassadors” makes mistakes, they will be outweighed by the positive benefits of her program.

Participants say they are walking away with a new understanding of how to get results.

Nancy Epstein, an Israel advocate from Bergen County, N.J., said that she realized she needs to practice more before talking about Israel, so that her answers are more polished.

Susan Kone, a New York attorney who regularly calls into radio shows, said she learned that while she knows a lot of details about issues, it is best to keep her responses simple.

“I am going to make sure my message is clear, concise and simple,” Kone said. “The truth is on our side.”

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