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.