On December 15th, The Algemeiner hosted the first in its series of discussions dedicated to “finding solutions,” to Israel’s negative media experience. The initial session on “Israel in the Media” was moderated by Gershon Jacobson Jewish Continuity Foundation Director and Algemeiner Editor Dovid Efune and generated a lively repartee. Panel members included Benjamin Brafman, James Taranto, and Ronn Torossian.
Efune organized a tripartite agenda, setting the temperament of the discussion he asked “What is the problem? From where does it come? What are the solutions?”
Renowned criminal defense attorney Benjamin Brafman initiated the discussion defending “any criticism of Israel” he would offer as “constructive.” “My heart is filled with love – such love engenders the obligations to offer suggestions – even if ‘they’ do not want to be heard.” Calling himself “an advocate on behalf of Israel,” the attorney said he was “deeply concerned that Israel does not do a good job in its efforts at hasbara, (public relations)” and needs to take “pre-emptive actions.”
James Taranto, editor of the Wall Street Journal’s OpinionJournal, followed, stating that he “hates” and is “a skeptic” of public relations. He juxtaposed Israel’s “open society” against the “exotic” systems of the Palestinian Arabs, and cautioned that “anti-Semitism – not usually a problem for Americans – is a strong current among journalists from “other countries.” Taranto had specific criticism for Tom Friedman of the New York Times, who, said Taranto, is “reporting on the contents of Thomas Friedman’s imagination.”
Ronn Torossian, founder and president of 5W Public Relations, used the forum to deride the public relations practices of the Israeli government. Citing the failure to have “well-spoken people who speak to the issues,” he denigrated Israel’s public relations efforts as “a lot of people making a lot of noise and not communicating.” Israel, said Torossian “scores an ‘F’ in the school of media and public relations.”
Rabbi Yaakov Kermaier, Senior Rabbi of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue, shared moderator’s responsibility with the Algemeiner’s Efune and queried the panel about the influence of the American president – Democrat or Republican – wondering “how potential leaders will project Israel’s cause in the media.”
Lawyer Brafman responded legalistically, offering examples of “precedent.” He cited the Obama administration’s reactions to building apartments in Jerusalem as a “firestorm” verses the limited response to the murder of Syrian protestors by their own government. He expressed disdain for candidates who “patronize the Jewish population by saying everything they think the Jews want to hear….What will they do if in the office?” Brafman specifically stated he was “not endorsing anyone” and was “hearing patronizing conversations from candidates – depending on to whom they are speaking.”
While Jews tend to vote Democratic, James Taranto reminded the audience that “Israel’s popularity is far beyond the Jewish community,” specifically noting the large number of evangelical voters. Ronn Torossian’s criticism of the Obama administration was stark: “Obama is a disaster for the State of Israel. Hillary would have been worse…Any serious Republican candidate is better than Obama.”
With his next challenge, Dovid Efune returned the panel discussion to its topic. ”What,” he asked James Taranto, “is your experience among other media professionals regarding anti-Israel bias or antisemitism?” The WSJ editor responded that he “publicly criticizes those who criticize Israel,” but admitted that critics of Israel are “pretty set in their opinions.”
Public relations professional Torossian empathized with reporters who have “a crazy job,” and may not know the difference between news and public relations. Brafman noted that First Amendment protection allowed reporters to offer virtually any statement as fact, that there is a “reluctance to even correct mistakes…and there is no accountability on many levels” even when reports are inaccurate.
Rabbi Kermaier wondered if Israeli inaction in “not showing the good” or “not calling out the enemy” allowed media distortion to simply exist.
“It’s lonely when you’re Israel” responded Brafman. He spoke of the need to teach American Jewish youth how to answer criticism about Israel.
Regarding the effects of public relations on media perception Torossian was blunt: “Israel,” he said, “does an awful job with PR….Israel has to do more to help itself.” He stressed the need for “media and communications training: …telling the story is part of the battle.” Brafman joined, noting the importance of preemptive PR. “If you are preemptive you can’t lose – you can set the stage.”
James Taranto, offered a perspective of journalistic reality, saying “putting the story out there and making the case is important …I don’t think it will change the mind of those against you.” He considered that the media “has three parts – European, American and others, especially Arabian. He cited and praised the effect of Al Jazeera, which he termed “basically serious except about Qatar.” (n.b.: its major funding source). He reminded the gathering that American “mainstream media is not really mainstream” and must be held “accountable.”
Brafman’s response was passionate. “Israel is burdened by speaking the truth…When you speak the truth and the other side does not, you are at a real disadvantage. We can be our own worst enemy – it’s hard to find the unity,” he reprized. He called for education and the avoidance of confrontation.
“We need a revolution in the Jewish media world” stated Torossian. “Israel needs to do a better job of utilizing allies. The ‘trick’ is to reach people through friendly outlets, to get the swing vote.”
Each of the panelists suggested that education, especially of Jewish college aged students is essential. “Stop worrying about planting trees,: said Ben Brafman. Start planting Jewish students who know about Israel.”