For the past couple of weeks, one of the most reviled people in the world has been Walter Palmer.
The bespectacled American dentist fancies himself a trophy hunter, one of those adventurous souls romanticized by Ernest Hemingway for going into the wild and facing down ferocious animals, much the way race-car drivers or mountain climbers put their lives on the line for a gold cup or commemorative plaque to place on the mantle.
Since Hemingway’s day, trophy hunting, alas, has become something of a sanitized industry. It involves people who are willing to pay a lot of money to have others track, lure and corner a wild and dangerous animal, generally to the point where it is so exhausted that all the hunter has to do is lift his or her weapon and fire, and then pose for a self-congratulatory photo with the lifeless prey.
Proponents say this is beneficial to herds because it prevents overpopulation and mass starvation. Opponents say strict laws are too often ignored, adding that trophy hunters are no better than poachers who bring down magnificent beasts for a single body part that can fetch a small treasure, and then leave the rest of the carcass to rot.
Unfortunately for Palmer, the people he paid to do the dirty work during his Zimbabwean hunt in early July may have led him to break some serious laws. Worse, his trophy, whose carcass was found skinned and headless, had been tagged by researchers, so authorities could quickly determine that it had been a handsome, 13-year-old blackmaned male lion. Worse yet – and by far – the lion had been such a crowd pleaser for camera-toting tourists that it had a name, and a cute one at that.
With all the negative publicity over the demise of Cecil the lion, the great white hunter went underground and hired a public relations firm that touts its “expertise in crisis and issue management.”
But in this age of uninhibited and closely read forums that populate the ever-growing network of social media, the flak got so thick and vicious that the flacks pulled out after barely a day on the job, essentially admitting that a pig with lipstick is still a pig.
BACK IN the 1980s, I made three trips to the US as part of a program called the Zionist Caravan, brainchild of a brilliant and delightful PR whiz, the late Charley J. Levine, when he was the World Zionist Organization’s director of information for North America. His central goal was to bring a piece of Israel to small- and medium-sized Jewish communities without ramming aliya down anyone’s throat or schnorring for money.
“Most Israelis come to raise funds or to work on specific projects,” Levine told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in Dallas, Texas, in December 1980, after one of the first caravans. “We came to do something completely different – to discuss what Zionism is all about, and to discuss the joys and challenges of living in Israel.”
He added that the five American olim touring as part of the caravan had been a bit surprised by their reception.
“We expected, frankly, to find resistance to our positions here and there, but it just didn’t materialize,” he said. “We found only goodwill and personal experiences from the hundreds of thousands of people who have already been to visit Israel and want to keep their ties with it fresh.”
Of course, this was before Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which arguably can be called a watershed moment for the way the Jewish state’s image, justifiably or not, went far, far south – much farther than ever before.
The first caravan I participated in was also the first to go out in the wake of that war, and by then, a secondary aspect of the project – interaction with the non-Jewish community – had become a top priority. This included appearances in the general media, frank roundtable discussions with representatives of non-Israel-related interest groups, and appearances on campuses, where we set up information desks in student centers.
On one campus, in Michigan – home to one of the largest Arab-American populations in the US – a student confronted me with one of our Foreign Ministry- produced pamphlets. He pointed to a photo described by its caption as showing a heavy machine-gun atop a Beirut hospital – a central talking point for a country trying to defend itself against an enemy that used (and continues to use) civilians for cover – and heatedly insisted that it was nothing of the sort.
He was right. Anyone who ever bothered to look skyward at a construction site would have recognized the motor housing and gun barrel-like drive shaft of a heavy winch used to haul up building material and equipment.
The only thing I could do was agree and then apologize. Afterward, I went over the material we were distributing and found several additional errors, some quite blatant. It all went into the trash – where much of our credibility, at least on that campus and probably others within earshot, already lay.
THIS WEEK, my daughter Noa, a newly minted college grad, began a long-term assignment to North America as part of a Jewish Agency program called Israel Fellows to Hillel. The idea is to send out smart and articulate young people to, in the agency’s words, “serve as Israel’s unofficial peer ambassadors on campus and in the local community, providing opportunities for students to discuss and experience every aspect of Israeli life, bridging the gap between Israel fact and fiction, and inspiring students to forge enduring commitments to Israel.”
Among the things that led her to apply to the highly selective program were a deep love for her country, a desire to share that love with others, and an awareness of the need for a better understanding as to what is going on here.
She is one of the smartest and sincerest young people I know (and believe me, I am not saying this just because I’m her dad), so I’m confident that she will do her job well and carry out her responsibilities with great dedication and wisdom.
Unfortunately, though, the Israel Fellows to Hillel program has taken on a new sense of urgency with the realization of just how strong anti-Israel sentiment has become on campuses and elsewhere thanks to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Obviously, such sentiment is only boosted by incidents in which Palestinian babies are burned alive by suspected Jewish terrorists, and LGBT supporters are slashed and stabbed by a knife-wielding ultra-Orthodox zealot just days out of prison for having done exactly the same a decade before.
A legitimate talking point for Noa and her colleagues would be to emphasize that terrible things of this nature happen everywhere, that they in no way are typical or representative of life here, and that the authorities have vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice, as well they should.
So far, so good. But unless our authorities actually follow through; unless our government goes the extra mile to change the permissive atmosphere and put all of us on notice that terms like “zero tolerance” mean just that (and for everyone, Arab and Jew); and unless we as a society are ready to vomit out from our midst the haters, no matter how many haters there might be on the other side – the result will be much the same as the photo in that pamphlet.
We owe those who go out to defend our good name (or what’s left of it) a lot more than just great sound bites. And we must remember that our problems are far more serious than a dead lion named Cecil.