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April 17, 2011 11:15 am

The Jewish Answer to Al-Jazeera: What Would it Take?

avatar by Dovid Efune

Israeli Kazakh philanthropist Alexander Mashkevich.

Within the ‘Friends of Israel’ camp complaints of Israel’s treatment in the ‘media’ have been widespread for many years. Over time a number of significant organizations have been established to work on rectifying the situation, but while there have been a number of individual victories; Israel’s overall standing in the arena of public opinion has continuously declined.

It is for this reason that there was great excitement in the community last week when Kazakh Israeli billionaire Alexander Mashkevitch announced that together with other investors, he was planning to launch an international Jewish news network that would serve as Israel’s answer to Al Jazeera.

The concept is one that has been circulating for quite a while. In fact in these very pages I wrote about the idea over a year and a half ago. If the challenges to Israeli sovereignty are circulated through media outlets, then this is the battleground on which it must be fought and the pro-Israel camp must learn how to navigate this minefield and master the tools of the information war. It is clearly a distinct necessity, and a dire need for international Jewish activists to establish this project in a comprehensive and far reaching manner. This however would be a great feat to set up, and an even greater challenge to ensure continual success.

It is unclear how advanced or extensive Mr. Mashkevitch’s plans are, but here are a few thoughts that may be useful to keep in mind in ensuring the viability of such a project.

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1.       In order for an international news network to have long term sustainability, a very substantial war chest will need to be raised. Al Jazeera was founded in 1996 with an initial 5 year seed loan from the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa of $137 million. Although claiming self-sustainability several years later, a congressional report from 2003 indicated that the network received upwards of $100 million annually in state funding from Qatar. It is for this reason that startup capital for this endeavor would need to be the product of a coalition of significant investors and idealistic venture capitalists. Perceived wisdom is that a partnership with the Israeli government is not a good idea, as it may call into question the journalistic integrity of the fledgling network before having an opportunity to prove itself. Additionally the network’s position could be prone to manipulation based on the reigning political climate.

2.       Additionally Al-Jazeera continuously receives grants and other subsidies that supply it with supplementary income. An international grassroots fund that is able to raise contributions from Jewish communities, federations and foundations will ensure a steady stream of supportive funds that would complement initial investment. Models for a legal infrastructure that would combine investment and charitable contributions have been created before.

3.       Al Jazeera’s rise from a local Arabic station to international recognition began following 9/11 when they began airing exclusive footage that was of global interest, first of Al Qaeda leaders, and later of the war in Afghanistan. This behind the scene access during critical moments is crucial in becoming the source for other news outlets, thus creating broad relevance. Whilst Al Jazeera is ahead of the game in the Arab world, by establishing the same extensive access in breaking Israel related stories, the new network could become a go-to source in the same way. A general focus on real news as opposed to talking heads, and thoughtless shows, would also go a long way.

4.       Many may not be aware, but in order to counter the perceived bias of Al Jazeera, in 2004 the U.S. government founded a network named Al Hurra (“the free one”). A subsequent Zogby poll found that only 1% of Arab viewers watch Al Hurra as their first choice. Of course it is a difficult task for an American network to establish itself in a foreign market and even harder for an Israeli one, but it may still be possible. However to ensure the economic success of the project it would most likely do better if initially incubated in friendlier markets in North America and even Europe.

5.       Currently the Al Jazeera website has a staff of over 100, but when it was founded the prominence of the internet was less than it is today. Clearly now, for a fraction of the cost greater influence can be built online. It may be possible that the best first step for this endeavor is to begin with an extensive web presence and build upon that platform.

Whatever direction this important venture ends up taking, it is greatly refreshing to see Jewish philanthropists and leaders who are thinking in proactive terms. This time, the Jewish people do not lack the military might and grit to defend themselves physically, but ironically it is the battleground of ideas and persuasion, typically an area of great Jewish success that now raises the greatest challenge of our time. The Jewish people must learn how to respond with vigor and resolve.

The Author is the director of the Algemeiner Journal and the GJCF and can be e-mailed at [email protected].

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