It was an “aha” moment.
Young Israeli model Nivit Bash, sporting a skimpy string bikini and big smile, was perched atop the ticket gate at the Azrieli train station entrance on a busy weekday morning as photographers from the popular US men’s magazine Maxim snapped away.
The 2007 shoot, including other models like future star Gal Gadot, was for a PG-rated spread that appeared a few months later titled “Women of the Israel Defense Forces.” I wasn’t there solely in an ogling capacity, but as representative of my organization – ISRAEL21c – that partnered with the Foreign Ministry to successfully pitch the concept to Maxim and then organized and financed the journey to Israel for the magazine’s team.
Sexist? Very likely.
Inappropriate for a country like Israel, that prides itself on being steeped in religion and history? Perhaps.
An effective tool to condition American males aged 18-26 to connect thoughts of Israel with images of babes? Slam dunk! The resulting photo spread generated a huge response – both from those calling the effort an innovative way to promote Israel and from those who were outraged that Israel’s ample assets being touted were not the Kotel and the Dead Sea.
The ‘aha’ moment for me was the realization that Israel was for once not being seen through the prism of terrorism or conflict, nor history or religion, but being portrayed as simply a fun, vibrant place that boasted, among other natural resources, beautiful women.
Memories of that photo shoot emerged this week following the announcement that the Tourism Ministry was participating in the cost and organization of a $55,000 VIP trip-for-two to Israel being presented to the 26 nominees of this month’s main Academy Awards categories.
The gift was just one of a plethora of luxury items in the $200,000 Oscar gift bag arranged by Los Angeles exclusive gift packaging company Distinctive Assets.
Among them were swag like a 15-day walking tour of Japan ($45,000), a laser skin-tightening procedure ($5,500), a lifetime supply of skin creams from Lizora ($31,000), and something called the “Vampire Breast Lift,” described as “the new secret ‘must have’ in Hollywood” using “blood-derived growth factors to revive rounder cleavage without implants.”
But even that outlandish item failed to prompt reactions like the elite trip to Israel. Ironically, it provided a rare common rallying point for both staunch Zionists and BDS activists.
The latter predictably and unimaginatively focused on the smoke screen Israel was attempting to create through bribery to hide its policies of occupation and apartheid.
The former took offense to the revelation that Israel’s very own Tourism Ministry was footing $18,000 for the land arrangements for each of the 26 golden tickets, including hotels, transportation, guides and activities (the first-class air fare is courtesy of a Brooklyn-based tour company run by Orthodox Jews called ExploreIsrael.com).
Why, they asked, should the likes of megastars like Matt Damon and Jennifer Lawrence receive private tours of Masada and the Chagall Windows and dine in the country’s poshest restaurants on the taxpayers’ dime – especially when they could cover the costs themselves with chump change? The clear and reasonable response to subsidizing potential visits to Israel by Cate Blanchett or Bryan Cranston emerged, surprisingly enough, from a government minister.
“If they do indeed accept the invitation, their visit will have enormous resonance among millions of fans and followers, including social media. The very fact that they are considering visiting Israel places the option in the public discourse in the social and professional circles in which the stars move,” Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said in a statement.
He’s right on target. Let’s face it, the perception of Israel in the US is predominantly defined by its relationship with the Palestinians.
Ask your average Middle American to play a word association game – if you say “Israel,” they’ll say “conflict.”
That is, unless they say “terrorism,” “bomb” or “Gaza.”
If a publicity shot of Leo DiCaprio swiping hummus with pita in Jaffa or a gossip item about Mark Ruffalo driving a jeep in the Judean Desert can move the needle ever so slightly in shifting how Israel is perceived by the world, then the benefit of that $18,000 outlay is priceless.
Some may call that whitewashing, but actually, the opposite is taking place. It’s adding color to an Israel that has historically been seen only in terms of black and white.
Guess what? The conflict is here to stay. Just ask our prime minister and our opposition leader, who uncharacteristically agreed this week that a two state solution is not in the cards for the foreseeable future.
We can’t ignore the dire situation we are in with the Palestinians, but at the same time, we can’t dwell on it or become defined by it. Like most countries – actually much more than most countries – Israel is multi-dimensional. We are the Kotel, the Start-Up Nation, the people of innovation, the cradle of civilization, a bastion of democracy. However, due to the incessant emphasis on the ongoing unrest, we’ve succumbed to the widely held notion that it is one-dimensional.
So, embrace the premise of the Oscar gift bag. Break out your spiffiest duds to impress Jennifer and Matt if they do end up redeeming their voucher for their 10-day trip to Israel.
And, for God’s sake, stop writing about the conflict on Facebook and Twitter. Israel’s image is hanging in the balance, by a string... bikini.The writer is the managing editor of The Jerusalem Post and the co-author of the book Goodbye Parkinson’s, Hello Life.