View from America: Lost is the message

Israeli diplomats have forgotten: feel-good stories and sexy models don't sway public opinion.

tobin 88 (photo credit: )
tobin 88
(photo credit: )
Amid concerns over the Hamas coup in Gaza this month, some Jews found something different to worry about instead of whether Islamist killers were closer to their goal of annihilating Israel. An unlikely alliance of Orthodox Jews and feminists were dismayed over the fact that Israel's New York consulate assisted an American "men's" magazine in getting female soldiers to reveal a great deal of flesh for its photographers in front of scenic backdrops. Even worse, Israel's diplomats in the Big Apple also helped promote the photo spread at an official reception in honor of Maxim magazine. Susan Weidman Schneider, editor-in-chief of Lilith, the journal most closely associated with Jewish feminism, denounced the consulate's involvement as "sexist." Some Orthodox Jews denounced the project as demonstrating a shameful lack of morality. An emergency meeting of the Knesset to deal with this shanda was even threatened. In response, both consulate officials and cover girl Gal Gadot - "Miss Israel 2004," and a former Israel Defense Force fitness instructor (who demonstrated her own particularly appealing brand of fitness in a bikini and high heels in a photo that was also splashed across the cover of The New York Post) - responded to the brouhaha as if critics were not only hopeless squares, but also ignorant of the impact that Ms. Gadot's lithe form could have on Israel's public-relations problems in this country. David Saranga, Israel's consul for media and public affairs in the media capital of the world, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Maxim was a "serious magazine," and that his job was "to promote Israel as a normal country, particularly among the magazine's young male readership." ALAS, I AM such a policy wonk that I don't read Maxim, and so can neither confirm nor deny its "seriousness." Informed sources tell me that it's not as explicit as other examples of this genre, so perhaps we should take Saranga at his word on that point. But I was once a "young male," and I'm sure that the origin of pretty girls whose pictures my generation leered at had no impact on our opinions about politics, either domestic or foreign. I doubt that it's much different for Maxim's readers today. Granted, if Maxim's audience were presented with dueling photo essays of Gazans in burqas and Israelis in skimpy swimwear, I suppose they might decide Israel would be more entitled to most-favored nation trading status than a putative "Palestine." But the real problem is not the consulate's lack of concern for the dignity of their country. It is the very notion that anyone will be more willing to help Israel if they think its people are sexy. And it's no different for those who think Americans will support the Jewish state if they know how smart Israelis are. The Israel21c campaign (, which aided the Maxim project along with the consulate, helps promote Israel's image as a high-tech wonderland full of academics and entrepreneurs who are curing diseases and building the modern equivalent of the better mousetrap, which will motivate the world to beat a path to its door. The stories they circulate are nice. But they do nothing to change the views of those who think that Israel is a wicked oppressor of poor Palestinians. And it is that canard - not the fact that "young American males" might not know just how hot Israeli girls might be or whether Israeli geniuses are finding a cure for cancer - that is the reason why some American campuses and churches are hotbeds of hostility to Israel. SO LONG as the lies about Israel's supposed cruelty and responsibility for not only the continuation of the conflict with the Palestinians but the mess in the Middle East in general are being given a serious hearing, all efforts to change the topic to how clever Israelis are or how cute their women might be will be a waste of time. Take, for example, the cover story in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, June 24, about the economic and cultural gap between the West Bank and Gaza. While its facts about the backwardness of Gaza were indisputable, the causes for this gap, presented almost in passing, were put down largely to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, and the restrictions on travel imposed by Israel and the number of refugees in each area. Unmentioned in the otherwise unexceptionable piece were the causes of the 1949 armistice lines (an Arab refusal to accept statehood alongside a Jewish state), the reasons for the restrictions (the widely popular Palestinian cultural practice of supporting terrorism, especially suicide bombing), and the refusal of the Palestinians and the Arab world to resettle their refugees, as the Jews did theirs after 1949. Witness, also the decision last week of both The New York Times and The Washington Post to give space on their op-ed pages to spokesmen for Hamas. If terrorists whose goal is the annihilation of Israel are now part of the national conversation, what's wrong is not the lack of exposure of Israeli bodies, but of arguments that its cause is just and that its enemies are vile Islamist Holocaust-denying murderers. It is a bitter irony that ever since Israel resolved to make unprecedented concessions to its foes for the sake of peace that its support abroad has declined. British trade unions and academics were not announcing boycotts of Israel prior to Oslo. But since 1993, the notion that Israelis no longer believe in the right of Jews to live in their ancestral homeland has helped fuel a growing anti-Zionist movement in the West. MOST ISRAELIS support territorial compromise so long as they get peace in return. But their diplomats have spent so much effort either whitewashing their supposed peace partners (as they did for Yasser Arafat during the heyday of Oslo) or propping them up (as they are doing now for Mahmoud Abbas) that it is no longer entirely clear to many Westerners that what is at stake is the right of the Jews to their own country, not the supposed right of Palestinians to destroy it to achieve sovereignty themselves. Jerusalem allowed the dialogue on the Middle East to be one that balanced Palestinian "rights" against Israeli "security," forgetting that the former will always trump the latter in the court of public opinion. If Israel's envoys want to catch the imagination of American youth, they need to forget about the cheesecake. The bad press their country gets is based on unchallenged pro-Arab propaganda and a lack of advocacy for the rights of Jews, not foreign skin rags getting access to its prettiest women. The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. jtobin@jewishexponent.