NEW YORK — Did you know that Israel is the first country to ban underweight models? A recent law prohibits the use of ultra-skinny young women and of altering images in photos and ads.
And a new technology developed in Israel allows people to use Wi-Fi hot spots at 80 outdoor areas in Tel Aviv, including beaches.
You might also be interested in knowing that Kobi Levi, a popular Israel designer, has created wearable art for Lady Gaga, who wore his work in her “Born This Way” video. And that Miss Israel is an Ethiopian Jew.
This information, and lots more like it, is being made available on popular websites, targeted to reach 18- to 24- year-olds in the U.S., thanks to “reThink Israel,” the latest entry in the Israel hasbarah (or, public relations) effort. Its early results have me impressed and depressed all at once.
I’ll explain why, but first a little background.
For years one of the few things that pro-Israel supporters from the left and right seemed to agree on was that Israel did a poor job of telling its story and promoting itself to the world. There has long been frustration that the lone democracy in the Middle East, the one country championing human dignity, freedom of speech and women’s and minority rights, is the target of Western liberals who ignore the lack of those same freedoms among Arab states in the region.
Rather than call attention to the fact that Arab citizens have been ruled by despots and can be jailed and even executed for violating laws that, for example, ban homosexual behavior, these critics of Israel focus almost exclusively on the occupation of the West Bank, ignoring the history and complexity of the situation in seeking to delegitimize the Jewish state.
Any number of attempts have been made to highlight this double standard applied to Israel and the hypocrisy of the international community through the United Nations, which has condemned Israel as the chief violator of human rights — while remaining silent on the far more serious abuses of human rights by countries like Iran, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Some supporters of Israel debate whether to attribute this outrageous behavior to anti-Israel sentiment or outright anti-Semitism. Others have chosen to focus on the positive accomplishments of the Jewish state that benefit the entire world. Israel 21c and
NoCamels.com, for example, are nonprofit groups that provide news about the country’s advances in technology, health, environment, travel and culture. But who cares?
Jewish organizations here have spent years and significant funds to find out what Americans think about Israel, and what to do to improve perceptions of the country. A recent major study that has not been made public found that most Americans know little about Israel and care less. About 22 percent strongly support the Jewish state, about 8 percent are hard-core critics, leaving about 70 percent in the middle, vulnerable to anti-Israel propaganda, and the target of pro-Israel efforts. Supporters of Israel tend to be older, white and conservative politically, the study found. Reaching young liberals, particularly among minorities, is an uphill struggle.
To help meet that challenge Gerry Ostrov, a successful advertising exec for many years at Johnson and Johnson, was recruited by Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Ostrov, whose work for reThink Israel is pro bono, was chairman and CEO of Bausch & Lomb, and he believes that the tools needed to promote Israel are not unlike those used to promote contact lenses. “You engage the consumer from the heart, not the head,” he told me during a recent interview.
The key to success is to find relevant information, surprise people with it, and in that way engage them, said Ostrov, who has put together a team for the independent nonprofit that is made up of a few top ad specialists and consultants, and about three dozen donors, including Las Vegas businessman and hawkish pro-Israel philanthropist Sheldon Adelson.
Their initial objective is to reach 20 million young Americans over the next 16 months, largely through social media like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The goal “is to make sure Americans know Israel, because to know Israel is to love Israel,” Ostrov says.
The news items being posted by reThink Israel range from fluff, like “From Israel: 3 Dating Apps That Get The Job Done” and “5 Things You Should Know About Israel’s Nightlife Poster Boy/Girl Uriel Yekutiel,” to Israeli scientific and medical innovations that comfort people with autism or help paralyzed people walk.
The material is apolitical and does not deal with religious issues. “We don’t touch the conflict,” Ostrov says. The results in the early going of the project are notable, with 300,000 views and 30,000 Facebook “likes” for the news items posted in the first four weeks. What’s more, much of it is passed on to friends — heightening exposure and credibility — and can hold the reader’s interest for about 30 seconds, which is a good sign, according to Ostrov.
He says he is not worried that young people will respond negatively if, for example, there is a front-page story in The New York Times that casts Israel in a negative light. That’s because his target audience doesn’t read The Times or other mainstream media, he says, and is not so interested in international news.
That may be a depressing reality for me to get my head around. But the folks at reThink Israel are onto something with their short-term objective of providing relevant, interesting and positive information about the Jewish state, and they have the numbers to prove it.
“We had to break with old modes of thinking” to “staunch our losses,” said Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents. His organization is associated with reThink Israel and several other projects to improve the image of Israel, which is seen by more than half of those surveyed (by a study the Conference helped conduct) as an apartheid state. “The traditional ways of reaching people are not going to work with this new generation. This is the way to engage them,” Hoenlein said.
I appreciate that, but I worry about the shallow aspect of much of the material, not to mention of the audience — our future leaders. From a marketing perspective, yes, you can’t engage people in Israel until you have their attention. But can reThink Israel succeed if it steers clear of the conflict completely? At least let it provide readers with links to more substantive information about Israel’s history, society and context on current issues. Otherwise they may never make the leap from “hey, cool,” to “tell me more.”
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column first appeared in the Week.)