Israel through the glare

“The Jews do own the media… the Jewish media,” I sometimes quipped when speaking to community groups, turning the infamous anti-Semitic canard on its head. The irony is that not only do Jews (or any other group) lack conspiratorial control of messaging to the world, we also do a spotty job getting the word out to our own people about our national project—the modern State of Israel.

Israel’s Government Press Office, Ministry of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs and Ministry of Foreign Affairs in cooperation with the Ministry of Tourism, JNF-KKL, and the Jewish Agency are working to improve that situation. As JUF News went to press, I was in Jerusalem attending their first initiative, the Jewish Media Summit, which drew more than 100 delegates from some 25 countries.

“In our view, the State of Israel has a moral obligation to strengthen ties with Jewish communities around the world,” said summit organizers. The practical application is to create a direct media channel between Israel and Jewish media outlets with the objectives being “to serve public diplomacy goals of the highest order [and to] provide Jewish journalists with credible, detailed and updated information on the State of Israel, its policies, advantages and its special situation. These journalists will thus become media ambassadors and spokespersons abroad with influence beyond their local communities.”

Underscoring the importance and urgency of those objectives was the keynote speaker at the opening of the summit, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.  (President Shimon Peres met the participants for a frank and inspiring tete-a-tete earlier.)

It’s not as though Bibi or Peres didn’t have anything else doing. Earlier in the day terrorists from Syria murdered an Israeli teen and wounded four others, and the massive manhunt for three teens kidnapped by terrorists on the West Bank was ongoing.

“You have an extraordinary opportunity to tell the story to our people,” said Netanyahu, regarding the need for Jewish media to communicate about Israel to their local Jewish communities. “The truth has to be told about Israel, first to ourselves. Speak the truth.”  

Pointing to the bloody sectarian wars occurring in Syria and Iraq, and to Iran’s push to develop nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles, Netanyahu described Israel as lying on “a fault line between civilization and savagery.” Yet some groups—such as the Presbyterian Church USA—adopt anti-Israel measures while failing to cite the deadliest problems in the Middle East. In Europe, an anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist atmosphere emanating from disaffected Muslim immigrants (as in France) or from radical right wing parties (as in Hungary) makes Jews increasingly uncertain about their future.

The Jewish media can take on anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric by saying with pride who and what Israel and the Jewish people are, according to Netanyahu.

“Our faith, our heritage, our bond: that is what I want you to express,” he said.

Lord knows that’s what JUF always has done through its media channels and activities. It doesn’t mean the task is simple. Take it from me. I lived in Israel for several years, studied Hebrew and Israeli history, have visited here two dozen times, and am what my friend and former JUF News columnist, Stuart Schoffman, calls a “hasbarologist” (a play on the Hebrew word “hasbara” to describe a professional “explainer” of Israel).

Yet I am struck each time I come here, try to understand Israel and Jewish destiny, and to telegraph our faith, heritage and bond, how difficult it is. Many people (including in parts of the Jewish world) couldn’t seem to care less, and many people are leery or downright hostile, refusing to see Israel and the Jewish people through anything but a distorted lens.

I gained a valuable insight into the communications exercise while visiting Yaqub, a friend who owns a small book and music store in Jerusalem. He’s a new age Israeli, a Jewish Sufi steeped in both Jewish and Muslim mysticism, an eclectic God- and humanity-loving soul with who I share a passion for Turkish and Jewish spiritual music.

While fanatics massacre each other and slaughter innocents over the border, Yaqub helps nurture a tolerant, young, spiritually alive and artistically exploding Israeli cultural scene. So he seemed the right kind of guy to ask: “How am I supposed to understand what’s happening here now?”

He reminded me of the image that Israel is like a lighthouse, shining a beacon to the world. “And lighthouses, by definition, are situated in dangerous places,” he said.

I’m glad that the Israeli government through the Jewish Media Summit have committed to helping us transmit Israel’s light. Impenetrable as the darkness sometimes appears, as glaring as the klieg lights of hatred might be, we’ll keep on trying. 

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