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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

May 22, 2003

Another contribution to the PR discussion

A reader who requested that his/her name be withheld, has sent the following contribution to the PR discussion. It is being posted with the reader's permission, of course.

I am writing you in response to your recent post on the IsraPundit blog, in which you invite discussion on improving the efficacy of blogosphere leaders in assisting pro-Israel advocacy.

First, I would like to express my appreciation for your initiative in this endeavour. I am a law student at [deleted] and during the past three years, I have been witness to some of the inflammatory anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic rhetoric that has been bandied about not only by the openly partisan Arab/Muslim student groups, but also by
organizations such as the Amnesty and ACLU student outreach groups. In response to one particularly distasteful all-day student-organized symposium on "How Palestine was Stolen", a number of law students -myself included - set up a pro-Israel advocacy group at the law school (the existing Jewish student group declined to deal with
political issues). And yet it feels like slicing water - or rolling a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down time and again.

I am glad people like you are exploring new ways of shaping public opinion, because the existing methods do not seem to be working effectively.

Turning to your questions:

1. - What is your assessment of the current status of pro-Israel advocacy?
2. - What can we, bloggers, e-mailers, and blog readers, do to help in the immediate and short term?
3. - What can we do to improve co-ordination and co-operation among bloggers with the object of getting the word out?
4. - What can we do to include non-bloggers, such as organizations and institutions?

1. My assessment of the current status of pro-Israel advocacy is that it is very effective among the top political circles (Senate, House, White House), unimaginative with respect to "John Q Public", and totally lacking in traction among the liberal intelligentsia. The importance of this last group is that it supplies many of the civil servants who play a crucial role in shaping the information and policy-setting tools of top political decision-makers; witness the impact of State department civil servants on Secretary Powell's worldview. In addition, this group plays an important part in establishing the norms of public discourse, as reflected in the media, in academia and among prominent NGOs.

What causes the problem?

I believe the problem stems from hijacked rhetoric. It's a psychological linkage. I say "copy machine", you think "Xerox". "Intifada" - "liberation struggle". "West Bank" - "occupied territory". "Settlements" - "illegal". Of course the rhetoric is a fraud, and top politicians are paid to have long conversations with pro-Israel advocates, who explain to them the real situation and ultimately undo the damage done by the rhetoric. Unfortunately, most Americans do not devote a lot of thinking time to world affairs - so
first impressions are critical. The hijacked rhetoric is damaging precisely there - in first impressions. The stark picture of Israeli tank and Palestinian youth. The context explains why Israel is justified in sending in the tanks, but most Americans don't stick around to listen to the context.

This does not explain the intellectuals, however, since they do spend time thinking about these issues. Here, I think the matter is more one of cognitive dissonance - refusal to accept facts that contradict one's pre-existing world view. I think intellectuals are more vulnerable to cognitive dissonance for a number of socio-psychological reasons having to do with status and hierarchy in the academic world and which I won't go into here.

2. Response: shift the rhetoric. Remember how some folks tried to insert the term "homicide bomber" into mainstream discourse (and reaped ridicule for their trouble)? That is the right instinct, but it has to be done consistently across platforms. Pick terms that mislead or deceive, replace them with neutral terms, use the neutral terms ubiquitously, especially in well-written articles that get published in mainstream publications. At the moment, if someone talks to me about the "occupied territories", I don't uusually bother to correct the person (technically, "occupation" refers to territory taken from another state, but neither Egypt nor Jordan had legitimate claims to the disputed territories in the first place, so they are in an anomalous legal status best referred to as "disputed territories"). However, if I constantly encountered the term "disputed territories" in reading blogs, the use of the term "occupied territories" might be sufficiently jarring to cause me to do a doubletake, and correct the speaker. More importantly, it is vital to get the message across to the "average American" that there is a legitimate alternative rhetoric that is used consistently by a large and well-educated "minority" (that would be us, even though on actual numbers we may well be a majority), and that doesn't just crop up occasionally in one of Secretary Rumsfeld's off-the-cuff remarks. We need to embolden people to object to the use of misleading terms, or at least to question their use. Injecting the proper terms into the public discourse is the best way to accomplish this.

(I can point you to a number of studies showing how silent majorities are often cowed into accepting the opinions of a minority, thinking that the minority really represents a near-consensus; but once a couple of vocal constituencies speak out, the spell is broken and the majority asserts itself. I'm not sure how much you want or need this social-science academic validation, but let me know if you want me to send you the details).

Orwell was brilliantly right about the importance of language in shaping political discussion. It is easy for many Americans to feel a knee-jerk resentment at Israel for failing to "freeze" "illegal settlements" in the "occupied territories" when these threaten "Palestinian self-determination". Recast the issue as pressuring the Israeli government to prevent population growth in Israeli towns and villages on the 20% of the disputed territories that would not be an obstacle to the viability of a Palestinian state, and maybe Israel's position doesn't seem so unreasonable.

3. Improving cooperation/coordination: Obviously, frequent communication is key. How about an e-mail list circulating among the main pro-Israel bloggers? Or perhaps a bloggers' blog - on which only the accredited bloggers would post and comment but which, if you are feeling generous, the public at large would be able to read. (The Protocols of the Elders of pro-Zionist Blogs?). You could start by initiating threads for different propaganda terms, and use those threads to reach a consensus on proper terms. E.g. "Palestinians" in scare quotes, or Palestinian Arabs, or just leave it as plain Palestinians? West Bank, or Judea and Samaria? Consistency is very, very important. Using different terms for the same concept undermines the credibility of an "alternative" rhetoric.

4. On including non-bloggers: There are a number of wonderful NGOs out there, ranging from MEMRI to CAMERA to the ICT to the various elements of the pro-Israeli lobby in the US and many more. Don't ask how they can help you - ask how you can help them. You can help them by providing free publicity, so they can use their all-too-few
dollars on research rather than marketing. You took exactly the right position by decrying the lack of publicity for the Zionist Leadership Summit.

Gather the main bloggers; establish websites for different regions/cities; invite pro-Israel NGOs to submit their events to those single-purpose websites (e.g. the Zionist Leadership Summit would be submitted to the Washington website); and have the "regular" blogs provide blurbs and links to the specialized event-announcement websites (as well as the websites of the sponsoring NGO) prior to the event.

Have the regional websites set up so they can register e-mails into a mailing list (for economy of scale purposes; we don't want every "regular" blog to set up its own mailing lists of Washington-residents, NY-residents, SF-residents, etc.). Have room for comments on the regional websites - maybe even set them up as blogs - so people who go to the event can discuss it later, generating "buzz" and perhaps motivating other people to join the mailing list.

There is another type of non-blogger out there you should open channels to: authors. This means media columnists, sympathetic academics, and other pro-Israel public persons who shape language (umm, William Safire? :)); people who testify before Congress, and whose words are permanently scribed in the public record. If people like Joseph Farah, David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes, etc., buy in to your attempt to shift the terms of discourse, and start publishing using uniform terminology, the campaign to un-hijack our political language from pro-Arab distortions will be boosted immensely.

I don't think these suggestions will fix everything that is wrong with Israeli PR, but I do think they represent what blogs are best suited for. You all have day jobs - unlike an NGO's salaried employee or full-time volunteer, you aren't going to go to Gaza to do some hard-line investigative journalism. You aren't going to film documentaries of interviews with IDF soldiers or victims of terror. Your main tool is your ability to communicate with a lot of people; that means you can influence language, and you can provide links to information that other people gather.