Our 'human-lens' approach to hasbara

Yes, Jonathan Tobin, we want to shatter preconceived notions about Israel.

gal gadot 88 (photo credit: )
gal gadot 88
(photo credit: )
Suppose for a minute that an Israeli research team found an alternative energy source that would reduce world reliance on oil by 60% and that the breakthrough was reported in a scientific journal and then crossed over into the general press in America. If pro-Israel advocates then used that small piece of reality to show that most people's perceptions of Israel are different from the reality, could anyone possible object? Of course not, yet in a way, that's pretty much what happened when a recent photo feature of Israeli women ran in Maxim, a magazine aimed at young American men. Now that the balagan has settled down and the more than 2,000,000 young men who read Maxim each month have seen their pre-conceptions about Israel explode and help create in them an awareness that there is more to Israel than a terrible, ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, we can look at why the Maxim feature is a very successful communications enterprise. First, let us clearly state that we agree with those, including Jonathan Tobin in his Post op-ed "Lost is the message" (July 1), who say that the conflict is Israel's most important and challenging issue, and let us also agree that it is vital to challenge those who hate, demonize and de-legitimize Israel. These are valid concerns and activities, but what percentage of the American audience, as Tobin says "think Israel is a wicked oppressor of poor Palestinians"? Certainly some people on some campuses do and there are many groups engaged that battle. But as a growing body of quantitative and qualitative research proves, they are blessedly a precious few indeed. Every poll shows strong American support for Israel and that is certainly the most conclusive proof that most Americans don't think Israel is wicked. Indeed, the larger problem - and opportunity - is found in the vast majority of Americans who know almost nothing about Israel except that they think there is a, long-running conflict there where fault is probably divided in some way between each side. So there are other questions that must be asked: Should the overall pro-Israel communications strategy be aimed at a tiny audience who will almost certainly never be convinced? Or rather should we think about a strategy that is built from an awareness of what the overwhelming majority of Americans knows - or more appropriately, doesn't know - about Israel and what information will best serve the hope of improving Americans' affinity for Israel over time? FOR US, this becomes a very simple exercise in common sense. Should we allow the conflict to become all that defines Israel for Americans and others around the world? Every day more people get up in Israel and go to work trying to make the world a better place - by improving technology, diagnosing and treating disease, conducting valuable basic scientific research - than the total of people in the army, the intelligence services, police and security guards who get up and "go" to the conflict. Shouldn't Americans know what these Israelis are doing and how it affects their lives in America? To us it's obvious: of course they should. Research conducted by the Brand Israel Group shows definitively that Americans see Israel through two lenses, Orthodoxy and conflict; and that we need to add a human lens. Research by Young and Rubicam shows that Americans think Israelis are not like Americans and that Israel is not relevant to their lives. When you can make a statement like this one, "everyday the life of every American is made a little safer, easier, more efficient and healthier by Israelis and the things they do that add value to the world," why wouldn't you pursue a strategy that shows Israelis through the "human lens" of what they do and how they live and how what they do impacts directly and positively on the daily lives of Americans? WHEN YOU see the Maxim article as a tactical choice to get the attention of a segment of the population that research says is the most problematic for Israel (males under 30) and to shatter their preconceived notions about Israel so that they will afterward be more attuned to and receptive to other information about Israel, then you begin to understand why the photo spread and accompanying article is good example of successful strategic communications. There are probably people of good will who believe, as Tobin does, that "the bad press [Israel] gets is based on unchallenged pro-Arab propaganda and a lack of advocacy for the rights of Jews..." But pro-Arab propaganda may inform some of the radicals on campuses, but it has little or no impact on a general American audience. Israel has become defined by the conflict not by pro-Arab propaganda but the lack of any proactive, positive communications efforts on her behalf. The State of Israel and her supporters have spent so much time trying to prove that Israel is right that they've never shown the world that there is anything else to Israel except the conflict. We ask you to conduct this simple exercise: Is there any doubt in your mind that if every American could spend a week in Israel that the PR problem in America would be solved? Gourmands would rave about the restaurants; art-lovers would rave about the artists; environmentalists would rave about water conservation; oenophiles would rave about the wines; beach lovers would rave about the beaches; people would learn of the real "normalcy" of life there and, yes, twenty-something men would rave about the beautiful young women. In the end, Israel would be so much better with all those Americans coming home and knowing everything else about Israel - they already know about the problems. They would also know about the diversity of Israeli society - including the bikini babes and the accomplished women of arts, letters, science, government and every imaginable field. Maxim is just one magazine. The story was a means to an end, not an end in itself. It was designed to show one audience something that would shake up their perceptions of Israel. They'll never think the same way about Israel again, and they'll certainly be paying a lot more attention. As twenty-something men say, "Hey man, it's all good." Friedkin is president and Weinberg is executive vice president of ISRAEL21c. www.israel21c.org