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Why Jews are So Bad at PR and How Israel Can Win

January 8, 2013 11:58 am 5 comments

Ron Dermer with the author. Photo: Shmuly Boteach.

The biggest question surrounding the State of Israel is why it is so hated. The conventional wisdom is that the world remains hopelessly anti-Semitic and is therefore deeply biased against the Jewish State. No doubt there is some truth to this assertion. But to absolve Israel and the Jewish people of any involvement in this monumental failure to communicate strikes me as convenient and allows us to blame others for our shortcomings.

In truth, while the State of Israel was asleep the Arabs pulled off one of the great propaganda coups in global history. They somehow convinced the nations of the world that six million embattled Jews, with a deep commitment to democracy, human rights, and religious pluralism were the aggressors in a war with hundreds of millions of oil-rich Arabs, whose governmental commitment to women’s and religious rights is tenuous at best and appalling at worst. The Palestinians in particular demonstrated a black belt in PR by convincing the world that amid their rejection of every peace deal ever offered to them, including the 1947 UN Partition plan, it is Israel that has no interest in peace.

More than anything else ours is an age of media. Those who master media rise to great heights while those with contempt for PR most often fall. In 2000 Barack Obama lost in his run for Congress. Eight years later he was the most powerful man on earth. Why? Because in that time he mastered the media, wooed radio and TV producers, and won over op-ed columnists with his vision for America. Agree or disagree with this policies, his meteoric rise is a demonstration of how mastery over the organs of communication ultimately leads to mastery over the opinions of the people.

Yet here we are, a nation with a Biblical charge of serving as a light unto the Nations, that is simply terrible at communication. Perhaps we Jews feel that we will never be understood anyway, so why try. Or perhaps it’s that Israel’s cause seems so self-evidently just that it requires no explanation. Or maybe it’s that we find PR to be trite and superficial, all form with little substance. No matter the explanation, we have ceded the PR ground to Israel’s enemies.

The price paid is steep. What good is having Apache helicopter gunships, or Merkava tanks, to defend your citizens against attack if you can’t even use them because the world thinks you’re always the aggressor? Indeed, in the recent war in Gaza, Israel did well in the PR battle precisely because it was using a defensive weapon – Iron Dome – which the world, amid its bias, could not possibly construe as an offensive instrument.

But the people paying the biggest price for Israel’s often deplorable PR efforts are Jewish students on campus the world over. It is at universities which are, for the most part, great bastions of liberalism that PR attacks against Israel are the most strategically coordinated and most effective. I remember as Rabbi at Oxford how well funded the Arab student organizations were while we struggled to convince donors of the importance of influencing impressionable young minds with pro-Israel advocates. Inevitably, the haphazard Jewish response by mostly volunteer activists on the world’s campuses is no match for the well-coordinated and well-funded efforts of anti-Israel campaigns that have become de rigueur on campuses throughout the world.

It is for this reason that at Universities, more than anywhere else, there must be an effort to galvanize Jewish student leaders who are naturals at PR. And they must be cultivated from an early age.

The news stories this week that Ron Dermer, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s senior adviser, may be tapped to be Israel’s next Ambassador to the United States, is a case in point. If the news is accurate then American Jewry can look forward to an electrifying few years of pro-Israel arguments on the American airwaves with little previous parallel. Michael Oren, Israel’s current Ambassador, is already one of the greatest communicators ever to occupy the role. As a world class historian prior to taking the post, he has further distinguished himself as an eloquent and magisterial defender of the Jewish State.

Cut from the same cloth, Dermer will take this to the next level. In my experience, Ron is quite simply the most capable and erudite advocate for Israel alive anywhere in the world today. From the time that he arrived at Oxford in the mid-1990s as a brilliant political science superstar from the University of Pennsylvania, he shone as a leader and as one of the university’s most charismatic students. At the time, the battles we faced in making the case for Israel at one of the world’s premier Universities was intense. Oxford receives a great deal of Arab philanthropy and each year graduates the sons and daughters of the leading Arab families of the Middle East. In addition, the University has long had a romantic history of Arabism and Lawrence of Arabia was one of Oxford’s greatest twentieth century products.

But what Ron brought to the table when he became president of the L’Chaim Society Student Organization I established was a stirring Jewish pride that was matched only by his limitless love for Israel. Amid a ferocious determination to defend Israel with interminable scholarship and erudition, Ron maintained the closest of friendships with many Arab and Muslim students who respected him deeply for his warmth, integrity,  and convictions.

Over the years I have continued to witness Ron mesmerizing professional audiences with his ingenious and factual arguments as to the righteousness of Israel’s cause.

There are many potential Ron Dermers at the world’s universities today, if only we can nurture their gifts in their formative years.

I believe that one of the Jewish community’s foremost priorities should be the establishment of an institute that selects great talent from a pool of students nationwide and trains them, over the course of a year and as part of a special scholarship, in the art of media and PR mastery.While promoting Jewish values and wisdom in the popular culture would be an integral part of the coursework, learning how to make Israel’s case methodically and effectively would be its first calling. In so doing we might just cultivate a new generation of young Jews that not only reverses Israel’s reputation but allows Judaism and the Jewish people to emerge as a light unto the nations.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” this week publishes his newest book, “The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.”

5 Comments

  • How can a renowned Rabbi consider the same art of the wicked Balaam one of the Jewish community’s foremost priorities? PR is not Jewish, Rabbi Boteach. PR and Media is enchantment. Israel can win only with the art of turning curses into blessings. And that’s a Jewish art for a select few, not enchantment.

    • Wati. To compare PR and Media with “enchantment” is to insinuate that those who wish to have themselves depicted accurately and who use for example the internet are to be compared to witches and warlocks of medieval times. In the same way that we are expected to use force of arms to defend ourselves ,we have a duty to stand up and speak the truth when others covet and bear false witness against us. To fail to challenge lies simply allows others to infer that we have no defence and that therefore such stories put out to besmirch us are true.

      • Peter, PR means diplomacy and hypocrisy. PR means parties, it’s the art of the schleimer, to please the nations who stick together because of their same non-Jewish blood, not because of PR. PR is not Jewish, it never was. Being tacheles is an attribute of the Jewish soul, not PR.
        And PR doesn’t mean to stand up and speak the truth, that’s being tacheles.
        Standing up and telling the truth is how you get everyone pissed off, no matter how nicely you do it. And it’s anachronistic that you mention witches and warlocks (who were neither Jewish), because advertising is the “witchcraft” of modern times. You only have to watch your local TV to understand how the Media is not Jewish. Therefore, I prefer internet and the Media where you have your own choice. But with choice, the “nations” will always have more followers, hence גוים. For millenia sooner or later, the truth always prevails without the use of PR and Media.

      • Tacheles means to speak straightforwardly and honestly in Yiddish, because there was and still is a different way for the other nations to speak, the “PR speak”.

        On the other hand, the Talmud advised Jews to disregard malicious gossip. However, if the adverse rumour can’t be disregarded, because it breaks out again, it should be stopped with intimidation, not PR. That’s the Jewish way.

  • I have been shouting from the hilltops for a year about the effectiveness of the Islamic PR machine and how we have fallen so far behind. During the Gaza conflict I pleaded thro” Times of Israel comments for our young and old technology gurus to blog tweet, comment wherever and as often as they could and put the truth out there. Many did but the fact is that many use the excuse of anti semitism being so deep rooted to make it a waste of time. The Islamists are experts at PR and they have the capability to find the weak spots in our attitude and exploit them. We have a tendency to address an argument with a counter accusation rather than take the other sides argument head on and destroy it with relevant facts. In truth we also have an annoying tendency to start arguing amongst ourselves and then lose sight of the original subject matter. I could not agree more that we need the help of those on university and college campus, the Islamists stronghold. There are wonderful debaters there much more capable than many of the rest of us. We need their input , we are all in this together. We need to be united not arguing amongst ourselves. There is too much in our religion of an inability to listen to other peoples points of view and suggestions. Everyone knows best and as a result we are ineffective as a united front.

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