Time to use ad power on behalf of Israel

By Michael Isaacs and Lionel Salama, February 5, 2009

Without doubt, the campaign against Israel and efforts to delegitimise its existence are growing — greatly assisted by the tragic images from Gaza that have been all over the media in recent weeks. Of course, no one can fail to be moved by such coverage. So does that mean we can do nothing about it? Absolutely not.

Our failure, and that of Israel, is to understand the need for a continuous campaign to establish the context, and better parameters, for the debate. The recent performance during the military campaign was very good but it is the “before” and “after” that is missing. This is not to say that nothing is being done — organisations such as BICOM do stellar work with the media, but to be fair to them, the task of winning over the journalists is daunting. We need to supplement their work with another tool: advertising.

Political advertising is a well-established and well-proven technique for influencing awareness, perceptions and understanding. In contrast to the Anti-Defamation League in the US, which has placed advertisements in American newspapers, those involved in protecting Israel’s image in this country have, bizarrely, shied away from using this route. Perhaps it is because of a concern about speaking up too much? It surely can’t be because of the funding required.

In this country, though, a precedent was established just over 20 years ago when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and the campaign for Soviet Jewry realised that they had a more formidable adversary to deal with. An initiative called Refusenik — Public Action for Soviet Jews was launched to highlight the plight of Jews wanting to leave the Soviet Union, with full-page advertisements in The Times, the Guardian and the Independent. One of the advertisements (right) was used as a backdrop by the BBC during its coverage of a meeting between Gorbachev and Mrs Thatcher. The campaign gave the issue a public profile that didn’t rely on — for example — the media choosing to cover a demonstration outside the Soviet Embassy. But most important, it provided a consistent context for all the negotiations that took place behind closed doors. In other words, in the face of Gorbachev’s very slick PR machine, it helped restore some parameters to the debate and coverage.

There is another — and very selfish — reason though why we, as a Jewish community, need to up our game and commit to such a high profile campaign. In many ways the future involvement of many of the Jews in our community depends on it. Attacks on Israel since the start of the first Intifada have done untold damage to the support from Jews. For many of these Jews, their connection to Israel was the only manifestation of their Jewish commitment and the media bias against Israel over the last two decades has helped to destroy much of that commitment.

And don’t assume that this has only affected those at the margin; core supporters of Israel have also had their foundations shaken. It’s not hard to understand why: years of coverage devoid of proper context and balance. If this continues, the impact will be significantly less involvement from many in our midst and this will ultimately result in greatly reduced funding for all our communal organisations.

In addition to ensuring that Israel’s search for peace is properly understood, Iran’s inexorable move towards nuclear weapons now provides Israel with an even more potent threat to its existence.

Ensuring a proper understanding of this existential threat will not, of course, stop Ahmadinejad, but it is crucial that we make all efforts to ensure that the world— Jewish and non-Jewish — correctly understands all Israel’s moves on this front. So creating the proper context for coverage of Israel and the conflict is more vital than ever.

The media battle is going to get harder but this is not the time to have doubts about raising our heads high and promoting Israel properly. An advertising campaign could play a major role and is surely a natural extension of BICOM’s activities. At a budget of around £1m a year, it would be good value especially when one appreciates the considerable benefit it could bring to supporting Israel’s case in many forums in this country.

And don’t underestimate the knock-on effect that such a campaign could have as it restored morale to many among us. All we really need is the commitment of our communal leaders to this vital step.

Michael Isaacs and Lionel Salama are partners in Hype!, the communications agency.

Last updated: 2:31pm, February 5 2009