NEWSWEEK: Babes in the Holy Land – Israel flirts with a racy new public-relations strategy.

David Blumenfeld for NewsweekApril 9, 2007 issue – Jim Malucci has two tatoos, one on each bulging bicep. On the left one, the photographer for Maxim magazine has etched an image of a seductively dressed pinup; on the right, he has stenciled the words go with god in Portuguese. He leans on his left arm and points his camera at a model in a bikini on the Tel Aviv beachfront. “That’s hot, that’s wicked,” says Malucci, as the model shifts her hips and parts her lips. “I wanna see the curves. That’s it, honey. On your knees, legs apart. Nice arch in your back-boom!” The flash flickers as the sun drops toward the Mediterranean. A Hassidic man in a black hat accidentally steps into the frame. “Love the guy with the hat!” Malucci says, chortling.

Taking in the scene, David Saranga can’t help but grin. The Israeli consular official based in New York approached Maxim six months ago. His proposal: the government and other pro-Israeli groups would fly a camera crew across the Atlantic in an effort to remake the Jewish state’s public image. Israel’s reputation had suffered after last summer’s war with Lebanon; in a recent BBC poll taken in 27 countries, 56 percent of respondents considered Israel a “negative influence” in the world, higher than both Iran and the United States. But Israel’s real PR problem, according to Saranga, is that Americans-particularly men aged 18 to 35-either associate the country with war or holy relics, or don’t think of it at all. “We have to find the right hook,” he says. “And what’s relevant to men under 35? Good-looking women.”

Saranga’s effort is the latest volley in a long-running battle over how to sell Israel to the world. Tourism is a nearly $2 billion-a-year industry in Israel, and the art of public relations is something of a national obsession. In Hebrew it’s called hasbarah, which means “explaining.” For a country that’s always craved international acceptance, hasbarah was “the first growth industry of Israel,” the American author Richard Ben Cramer wrote. “We almost have a psychological disorder when it comes to public image,” adds Eytan Schwartz, the first winner of Israel’s top-rated reality TV show, “The Ambassador.” Schwartz’s prize is proof of that: the winner of “The Ambassador” gets to become a public-relations flack.

Still, by definition, hasbarah is open to interpretation. One of the central dilemmas is which aspects of Israel’s wildly diverse society to emphasize. Israelis disagree about which is more likely to appeal to Americans?Tel Aviv’s freewheeling, secular charms, or Jerusalem’s holy sites. Settler leader Benny Elon, a former tourism minister, says he considers ads touting Israel’s beaches a waste of money. For Elon, it isn’t only a cultural issue; it’s also bad business. Tourists in search of sunshine will always favor the French Riviera or the Caribbean. Israel’s “unique selling proposition” is its religious heritage, says Elon. “It’s the only state where you can take the Bible as your tourism guide.” A recent study by the consulting firm Ernst & Young recommends that the Jewish state target American evangelical Christian tourists-one of Elon’s pet projects.

Yet trying too hard to lure Christian tourists could end up alienating secular liberals. “Benny Elon is just dead wrong,” says Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, author of “The Case for Israel.” “It puts Israel in the camp of arch-conservative people.” Already, a recent study by the New York marketing firm Wunderman has concluded that Israel’s “brand” is perceived similarly to those of Philip Morris and the NRA. Ultimately evangelicals’ support for Israeli tourism will evaporate, says Dershowitz; Christians will eventually become “disappointed” with the Jewish state as their interests diverge. But even Dershowitz thinks the idea of paying to fly a magazine crew across the Atlantic is a little over the top: “Completely not the way to go. I can see models anywhere.”

Saranga insists his campaign is just smart niche marketing. “You have to match the message to the audience,” the diplomat says. And his supporters argue that the Jewish state’s diversity is one of its strongest selling points. Ultimately, says Dershowitz, “Israel is both countries … a country where models pose at great holy sites.” The tattoos on shooter Jim Malucci’s biceps make the balance look easy to find. But marketing budgets are finite, and cultural rifts aren’t so easily bridged. The reality of Israel is often having to choose: go with the girl, or go with God.

© 2007 Newsweek, Inc.

A ‘model’ Seder

Are the daily happenings and accomplishments in Israel modern miracles? You better believe it. The classic guitar players will all tell you that they first picked up a guitar to meet girls. I can’t remember the first time I picked up a pen to write but I surely didn’t do so with the expectation of meeting any girls from it. I suppose any girls I’ve met from my time on Jdate are a result of my finely-crafted essays (or was it the gratuitous picture holding a baby?) but nothing in comparison to the surreal experience I enjoyed at the recent photo Maxim Magazine photo shoot here in Israel.

Remember the Seinfeld where George gains access to the “forbidden city” of models, an experience he may never enjoy again… That was how I felt as a witness to the latest hasbara effort of Israel’s Foreign Ministry along with ISRAEL21c – to put it succinctly, showing the young male readers of Maxim, one of the most popular mens’ magazines in the US, that Israel is chock full of beautiful women.

This issue – due to hit the stands this summer – may either generate no more waves than the average Maxim, or cause the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh to dance in the streets in anticipation of the biggest aliyah since Russia opened its doors in the early 90s.

I can just imagine this conversation:

Israeli Government Official: “Prime Minister, deh demo-grah-fix proh-blem eez no lohn-ger! Meel-yons of American Jews ahr choo-seeng to live their lives een Israel!”

PM: “To waht do you aht-tree-bute dees? Anti-Semitism in deh Diaspora? Spirituality?”

IGO: “Ehhhhhhhhhh?..thong-eem???”

When I arrived at the Hashalom train station in Tel Aviv to meet to meet the Maxim staff, the possible scenarios were already running through my head: “Hey, baby… what’s your name? Come here often? Wanna play ‘Spin the Mezuzah’?”

As I spoke with the various crew members, to my slight surprise, none of these first-time Israel visitors expressed any fears despite the stereotypical images in the media. I asked them what their biggest surprise was, what they enjoyed so far, what they thought of the nightlife, and of course, why Israelis are so hot. The answers included:

** “I follow the news but it didn’t keep me from coming. I’ve heard so much about this country and really wanted to visit. I’m blown away by it, not afraid at all.”

** “It feels very Mediterranean but also Eastern, a real mix of cultures. And I’m looking forward to the soccer game tonight!”

** As for the beauty? “They’re a mixture of cultures who are all so unique and different. People have arrived from 90 countries: Ethiopia, Russia, Europe, South America, North America?” The standard gene-mixing answer.

Fortunately, I had some time to compose myself before meeting the model, Nivit Bash. Otherwise, this conversation might have ensued.

Model: “My name eez Nivit Bash. Waht is yours?”

Benji: “BUH-DAH-BUH-GOO-GOO!”

Until our interview, I spent most of the shoot finding the oh-so-important balance between being friendly and professional enough to justify my presence and inconspicuous enough to keep them from giving me the boot and ruining my life forever. I think I made a good impression on the make-up guy, the hair guy, and even the I-get-paid-to-rub-cream-on-the-model’s stomach guy. (LORD ALMIGHTY, HOW DOES SOMEONE GET THAT JOB??? C’mon, Nefesh B’Nefesh career placement… hook a brother up!)

As the morning progressed, I patiently bided my time, waiting for the right opportunity to speak with Her Royal Hotness. A few thoughts which crossed my mind:

** What exactly qualifies someone to be an Israeli model? My grandmother could throw a rock on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Avenue and hit the next Bar Rafaeli. (And her fastball has lost a little juice over the years.) There are babes EVERYWHERE. “Hey, look at that hottie! She must be the Maxim?Oh wait… she works the register at Burger Ranch.”

** The photographer constantly gave Nivit direction like “Put the weight on that leg? yeah, that’s better.” Boy, some people sure are picky.

** Why in the lord’s name does AIPAC insist on giving American congressmen tours of places like the Kotel? Two words: THE BEACH!

With the window of opportunity beginning to close, I knew I had to make my journalistic move. As soon as last picture was taken, I jumped on Nivit with the enthusiasm of… well… a bachelor at a Maxim photo shoot.

“Why are Israelis so beautiful? Do you have a message for America? What’s better: sex or humus?”

Much of what happened next escapes me. But somehow… be it the classic Israeli hospitality or divine intervention, I left shortly thereafter with an invitation to this woman’s Passover Seder.

Next year in Jerusalem? MONDAY NIGHT IN HEAVEN! “You better call, I’m not kidding!” I implored. “I’m serious, I’ll call you,” she assured.

An hour later, when my heart rate had returned to its normal mammalian pace, I arrived to my office and reflected on what I took from this experience (besides pictures.) With Yom Ha’atzmaut only a couple of weeks away, Nivit helped me realize how incredible this country is and just how much it’s accomplished in less than sixty years.

While the world focuses on conflict, cease-fires, and headlines, those of us who live here have the luxury to see how much more there is. Herzl dreamed of a state where Jews would fill the workforce: Jewish doctors, government employees, laborers, you name it. With cover girls like the aforementioned Bar Rafaeli, Jewish rappers, and the upcoming launch of the Israeli baseball league, it’s safe to say that his dream has come true.

Is there still work to be done here? Absolutely. Are the daily happenings and accomplishments in Israel modern miracles? You better believe it.

Job well done, Foreign Ministry; maybe I wasn’t your desired target audience, but consider the moral of this tiny ambassador boosted. This is a magical place. And if she doesn’t call? Nivit, I’ll see you at the newsstand.

Epilogue: She didn’t call. Time to learn guitar.

Mulling the price of freedom at Passover

When we say that ‘we will do anything to bring our boys back’, what do we mean by anything?Unless something dramatic happens in the coming hours, there are three Israeli soldiers will not sit at the Seder tables on Monday night with their families or their comrades. Gilad Shalit is held prisoner of war somewhere in the Gaza Strip and Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser are in the hands of Hizbullah in Lebanon. So while millions of Jews in Israel and all over the world celebrate the historic liberation of the ‘people of Israel’ from Egypt, their joy – like every Jewish joy – will be a bit bitter, because of the absence of the three sons.

Bringing the boys home is not only a matter of interest. Israeli soldiers are willing to do everything for their country, even risking their lives, because they know that if they become prisoners of war, Israel will go out of its way to bring them back home. I flew with the Israeli Air Force for 37 years and I always felt confident about that. Many times I was assigned to secondary missions that had only one purpose: to rescue fellow pilots who flew the primary mission, if and when they get in trouble.

Sometimes the price paid for freeing our boys is extremely high: In 1985, Israel released 1,150 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for three Israeli soldiers who have been abducted by the Jibril organization. Last summer, Israel went to war against Hizbullah as a result of the kidnapping of Regev and Goldwasser and the killing of other Israeli soldiers. Most Israelis felt it was justifiable.

And of course, there is the open case of Ron Arad, the airman who was taken POW in 1986 in Lebanon by the Shi’ite organization Amal, transferred to a pro-Iranian group and never heard of again. Despite huge sums of money being offered for any piece of information, and other operations including the 1995 abduction of Amal’s Mustafa Dirani, the case of Arad is still open.

Redeeming the captive (‘Pidyon Shvuyim) is also a Jewish mitzva: ‘you shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother’ (Lev. 19:16). No lesser mitzva is to bury a dead Jew. Last year, in the Second Lebanon War, an Israeli helicopter crashed behind enemy lines and all five crew members perished. All bodies were evacuated except that of Sgt. Maj. Keren Tendler, the female flight mechanic.

It’s IDF mandatory policy that the copter wreck be bombed from the air, so that Hizbullah wasn’t able to lay its hands on it. Yet it was decided to send an infantry unit to look again for Tendler’s body, which they found. With the cover of darkness, they marched back to Israel, carrying it on a stretcher. Israelis later watched this gloomy march, which was filmed by an infra-red camera and aired on television, with sorrow, but with pride as well: We will never leave our men and women behind, even when they are dead.

However, when we say that ‘we will do anything to bring our boys back’, what do we mean by anything? Our enemies, who have long discovered this soft spot of ours, have been exploiting it mercilessly. In other words, vowing to do anything in such cases, makes Israel an eternal candidate for extortion.

One of our old sages has already cautioned us against it. Rabbi Meir Ben Baruch, The Maharam of Rotenburg, was one of the leading rabbis of Germany in the 13th century, when King Rudolph started persecuting the Jews. He arrested the Maharam, hoping to get a huge ransom for him, and indeed, the Jews started to collect money for that purpose. Yet the Maharam, from his cell, issued a directive strictly prohibiting such move, by citing the Halacha: “It is forbidden to redeem captives for more than their worth” ( Gittin 45). He pointed out that setting a precedent in his case would endanger all Torah sages, who would become instruments of kidnapping and extortion.

So when we Israelis sit at the Seder table Monday night and tell the story of how the people of Israel gained their freedom, we should also be thinking about the price of freedom.

I know that if I looked around the table and one of my children was missing, because he or she were in enemy hands, I would want my country to do anything to bring them back. As a collective, however, wishing to persevere and maintain our resilience, we also have other considerations.

Globe & Mail: A land flowing with babes and beaches – Israel aims to increase U.S. tourism with a PR attack in a racy men’s magazine

JERUSALEM — Israel, the country’s government wants you to know, is not just about wars, occupation and suicide bombings. There are women here, too, and some of them are as hot as the conflict zone they live in.

So if you want to examine another side of the Middle East, put aside The Economist for one month this summer, and intercept your son’s copy of Maxim magazine, the Israel issue. There’ll be no talk of Hamas or Hezbollah, just babes, bikinis and beautiful beaches.

The unconventional public-relations offensive is the brainchild of David Saranga, the consul for media and public affairs at the Israeli consulate in New York. He came up with the idea while staring at poll numbers that showed his country was not particularly well regarded in the United States, especially among those aged 18 to 35. The Jewish state was perceived as too religious and too militaristic for the tastes of most.

But there was a silver lining hidden in the survey data. When asked how they perceived Israelis as a people, the popular adjectives were “rough” and “stubborn,” but also good-looking.

Hoping to capitalize on the latter, Israel’s Foreign Ministry, with the help of two of the myriad U.S. pro-Israel lobby groups, decided to speak to U.S. men in a language they’d understand. Mr. Saranga began a long campaign to persuade Maxim to showcase Israel’s other assets to its 2.5 million readers.

The magazine, which promises its readers “girls, sex, sports” and usually focuses its lenses on apolitical celebrities like Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson, initially balked, but became more interested when provided with photos of 12 of Israel’s top models. The deal was sealed after two lobby groups, the American-Israel Friendship League and Israel21c, offered to subsidize the cost of flying a camera crew to Tel Aviv for three days of photography.

“When you see beautiful women, good-looking people, on the beaches of Tel Aviv … you understand that Israel has to deal with the conflict, it’s true, and there are religious elements in its society, but there are also other things,” Mr. Saranga said in a telephone interview. “I want people to know that Israel is much more than a conflict, that people in Israel have normal lives.”

Along with the bikini shoot, which is expected to grace the pages of one of its summer issues, Maxim will run an article highlighting tourism in Israel. Despite a warm climate and some of the world’s most important religious sites, the tourist industry has suffered in recent years as Palestinian attacks, sparked by the 40-year-old Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, continue to scare off most travellers. Last summer’s war against Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, which saw rockets hammer the north of the country for 34 days, was another blow.

“The only image of Israel that [young men] have in their minds from the last five years, since they were 11 or 12 years old, is of conflict, of the intifada, of buses blowing up. We want to show them that Israel is not a one-dimensional place of just wars and politics and conflicts,” said David Brinn, editorial director of Israel 21c, an organization that lobbies journalists, usually at more austere publications than Maxim, to write non-conflict stories about the country.

Mr. Brinn said that his organization, along with the American-Israel Friendship League and the Israeli Foreign Ministry, would subsidize “all [Maxim's] expenses” while the magazine was in Israel, including flights, hotel rooms, a bus and a tour guide.

The idea of showcasing scantily clad Israeli girls in a U.S. men’s magazine — which made headlines here just days after the Hooters restaurant chain announced it was opening its first Israeli branch on the Tel Aviv beachfront later this year — came under immediate fire from the country’s religious right, which bombarded Israeli news websites with allegations that the government was degrading the Jewish state and promoting sex tourism.

“The fact that this campaign to increase tourism is supported by the Israeli Consulate, Israel 21c, and the American Israel Friendship League is very unsettling,” read one representative posting on the Ynet news website.

“We have ceased to be a light unto the nations, we are now merely a mirror that reflects what is wrong with society today.”

But one of the models who will be photographed next week by Maxim saw stripping down to her swimsuit as an act of patriotism.

“The fact that I can represent this country makes me very proud,” said Tali Handel, a 25-year-old former air force sergeant who only took up modelling a few months ago.

Though she said she’d never heard of Maxim before, and was unaware of its somewhat bawdy reputation, she said she expected the article would be “serious,” and hoped it would encourage young Jewish males living in the United States to consider moving to Israel.

“I don’t see anything negative about it. Nothing else brings [people] here, not Jerusalem, not the beautiful nature. People are not interested. So, I think it’s okay to use something else to bring them.”

Israeli cinema has arrived

The latest films aren’t flukes but the product of a talented new generation of filmmakers.

New York, 1990: An Israeli friend and I study the program for the Israel Film Festival. “What’s going on?” asks my friend. “They’re all about Holocaust survivors who move to a kibbutz and become incest victims.” We decide to see Goodfellas instead.

Berlin, 2007: When the prizes at the Berlin International Film Festival are announced, Israeli Joseph Cedar wins the Silver Bear Award for Best Director for his hard-hitting war film set in Lebanon, Beaufort.

Many Israelis are pleased, but few who are familiar with the Israeli film industry in general and Cedar’s work in particular are surprised by the award. In the last few years, Israeli movies have won top awards at major film festivals, including Cannes and Sundance, played all over the world and received glowing reviews, and lured millions of local filmgoers away from Hollywood blockbusters.

In January, Dror Shaul’s autobiographical coming-of-age drama set on a kibbutz, Sweet Mud, took home the top prize for an international feature at the Sundance Film Festival, the most prestigious festival for independent film. It also won a major prize in the youth division at the Berlin Film Festival.

Eytan Fox’s The Bubble, the story of a complicated romance between a gay Israeli and a Palestinian, also got several prizes at Berlin.

So how did we get from there to here?

Several factors have brought about an increase in the professionalism of Israeli filmmakers and a subsequent rise in the quality of Israeli-made films. First, let’s look back at the history of the Israeli film industry. In the past, there were two basic types of Israeli movies: sereti bourekas, or what might be called teen flicks, such as the Eskimo Limon series, and movies with serious aspirations of wildly varying quality.

In the early days of the state, these serious films tended to be dramas designed to stir up patriotism, such as Entebbe: Operation Thunderbolt. In later years, the serious films were more likely to be earnest looks at the political situation, made by directors whose leftist politics were better developed than their narrative technique or their desire to entertain an audience.

In each category, occasionally there were movies that were true gems, such as Ephraim Kishon’s Sallah Shabbati (1964), a charming, funny and intelligently satirical film about a Mizrahi immigrant family, and Beyond the Walls” (1984), an intense and hopeful drama about an alliance between Israeli and Palestinian prisoners who fight the corrupt prison system together. But these movies were few and far between. Not coincidentally, Beyond the Walls was the last Israeli film to be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category, an award no Israeli film has ever won.

Several Israeli movies were made every year, but few were worth seeing and fewer were distributed abroad or accepted at international film festivals. A government-run film fund allocated money to filmmakers and, in some cases, paid theaters to show these films by subsidizing heating and air conditioning bills for the empty auditoriums. Throughout the 1980s, I can’t remember attending a showing of an Israeli film here with an audience of more than 10. And a growing number of movies made from the 1990s on chronicled the angst of alienated Tel Aviv residents and were especially grating and amateurish.

But dramatic change did come to Israeli cinema, and part of the credit for this is due to Lia van Leer, the founder of the country’s cinematheques in Haifa and Jerusalem in the early Eighties and helped found the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. The Israeli cinematheques (there are now several in smaller cities such as Sderot) are modeled on the famous Cinematheque Francaise in Paris. They show the finest contemporary and classic films from around the world.

Van Leer also founded international film festivals in Haifa and Jerusalem in the mid-eighties, which brought some of the world’s greatest filmmakers and actors to Israel every year. These cinematheques and festivals and the excitement they generated schooled a generation of aspiring younger filmmakers in a highly sophisticated cinema culture. These younger cineastes wanted to study moviemaking and did not necessarily want to go abroad and so film schools, notably Sam Spiegel in Jerusalem, were founded and were quickly flooded with applications.

A second change can be credited to television. The development of Channel Two and cable companies in the late Eighties and early Nineties meant that suddenly there were new opportunities for Israeli filmmakers. Now, actors and directors had years to learn their craft in television. The cable companies began to finance movies, both aimed at theatrical release and television. Eytan Fox’s Yossi & Jagger (2002), for example, a drama about a romance between two male soldiers, was originally produced for television but then was shown theatrically in Israel and around the world.

These new sources of funding revolutionized the film industry, because now the Israel Film Fund wasn’t the only game in town. Outsiders in the movie industry, such as women, recent immigrants, gays, Orthodox Jews and Arabs, as well as anyone who didn’t have connections in the Israel Film Fund, now had a much better chance to get their films made.

The final factor that pushed Israeli movies to the breakthrough they are now enjoying is the so-called Cinema Law. In 2001, in a rare moment of good judgment, the government agreed to allocate a significantly higher amount of money to the film industry.

It was in 2004 that the movies that filmmakers had begun planning in 2001 started to be released and it was a banner year for Israeli films. Keren Yedaya’s drama of a Tel Aviv prostitute and her daughter, Or, won the prestigious Camera d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Eran Riklis’ The Syrian Bride, co-written by Israeli Arab screenwriter Suha Arraf, the story of a Druze woman about to leave her family in Israel to marry in Syria, took the top prize at the Montreal International Film Festival and won more than 18 prizes at film festivals around the world.

Eytan Fox’s Walk on Water,” about a cynical Mossad agent assigned to shadow the gay grandson of an infamous Nazi, earned more than $7 million in the US, more than any other Israeli film ever. Turn Left at the End of the World, a comedy-drama about Indian immigrants moving to a development town in the Negev populated mainly by Moroccan Jews, directed by Avi Nesher, broke box-office records in Israel, selling more than half a million tickets. Turn Left, which also had a successful run all over Europe and particularly in France, is especially significant because in order for a film industry to truly thrive, it has to speak to a local audience as well as filmgoers abroad. Israelis have begun to flock to locally made films (and to rent and buy them on DVD), both serious dramas, broad comedies and everything in between.

Another development that became impossible to ignore by 2004 was the diversity apparent in Israeli films. In a highly competitive year, the Ophir (the Israeli Oscar) for Best Picture went to Joseph Cedar’s second film, Campfire, a look at a modern Orthodox widow and her two teenage daughters who contemplate moving to a West Bank settlement. The National Zionist sector, although it had become increasingly influential and visible in Israeli society, had been nearly invisible in movies until then. Significantly, the Ophir for Best Actor that year went to newly ultra-Orthodox actor/screenwriter Shuli Rand, who co-wrote and starred in Ushpizin, an insider’s look at ultra-Orthodox life in Jerusalem.

Arab filmmakers in Israel have also begun to play a more prominent role. Atash, a movie by Israeli Arab Tawfik Abu Wael about an isolated family dominated by an angry patriarch, shared the top prize at the 2004 Jerusalem Film Festival and took home several honors at Cannes.

From 2004 until today, Israeli movies have continued to win honors abroad and draw audiences, both locally and internationally. Movies such as Beaufort, The Bubble and Sweet Mud will soon be distributed internationally and will likely win more awards. These films are not flukes but the product of a talented new generation of Israeli filmmakers. And don’t be surprised if next January, when the Oscar nominations come out, there’s an Israeli title among the Best Foreign Language Film nominees.