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Break Down America's Preconceptions About Israel

July 12, 2007 By:
Amy Friedkin and Larry Weinberg
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Recently, Maxim, a U.S. mens' magazine with a monthly circulation of more than 2,000,000 subscribers, published a story featuring beautiful young Israeli women in revealing outfits and provocative poses. If it accomplished nothing else, it shattered Maxim's readers' preconceived notions about Israel, and left them curious or at least open to new information about Israel.

Media in both the United States and Israel picked up the story, and many people, from members of Knesset to Jonathan S. Tobin (A Matter of Opinion: "Sexy Ladies Won't Sell a State," June 28), expressed their opinions on the subject. As co-sponsors of the Maxim project with Israel's New York consulate, we at ISRAEL21c have more than a passing interest in the story and reaction to it. Now that the balagan -- the entire "mess" -- has settled down, we can look at why we think the story is a successful enterprise.

First, let us clearly state that we agree with those who believe resolving the conflict to be Israel's most pressing issue, with challenges to demonization and anti-Semitism also topping the list.

Yet one of the things that we've come to know is that people more often than not have either highly idealized notions of what Israel was, is or should be, and strict constructs for what can or should happen there. Tobin underlined this notion in his column by insisting that the Israeli government and groups like ISRAEL21c err when they focus attention on anything about Israel other than the need to solve the problems of the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.

Advocating Israel's side in the conflict is a necessary focus, but what percentage of the American audience, as Tobin says, "think Israel is a wicked oppressor of poor Palestinians?" Maybe some on the fringes of campuses, but blessedly, they are few: Every public-opinion poll shows consistently strong U.S. support for Israel.

The larger problem -- and opportunity -- is found in the fact that most Americans know almost nothing about Israel, except that there is a long-running conflict there. This raises other questions: Should a pro-Israel communications strategy be aimed at a tiny audience who will almost certainly never be convinced? Or rather, should it be conceived to work given what the overwhelming majority of Americans knows or does not know about Israel?

For us, it is simply common sense.

Should we allow the conflict to define Israel for Americans? 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, 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? The answer is obvious -- of course, they should.

Research shows definitively that Americans see Israel through two lenses -- orthodoxy and conflict -- and that we need to add a human lens. It also shows that Americans don't think Israelis are like Americans, and that Israel is irrelevant to their lives. But if it's true that "everyday the life of every American is made a little safer, easier, more efficient and healthier by Israelis and the value they add to the world," why wouldn't you pursue a strategy that shows Israelis through the "human lens" of who they are?

The Maxim article was intended to get the attention of a demographic that research shows as highly problematic for Israel (males under 30). It broke down their preconceived notions about Israel, got their attention, and they will be more attuned to other information about Israel. That is good strategic communications.

That is part of a larger effort to show that there's more to Israel than conflict -- that it's a diverse, vital society that has many things that may attract, interest or involve people.

So, which Israel should the world see: one defined by the conflict, or defined by the conflict and all of the positive things Israelis do as well? We think the answer is obvious.

Amy Friedkin is president and Larry Weinberg is executive vice president of ISRAEL21c.


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