When the story of Israel’s first Jewish-Arab hi-tech incubator, in Nazareth, graced the front page of The New York Times business section recently, several Silicon Valley moguls smiled triumphantly.
Their effort to get the American media to show a more positive side of Israel had borne fruit – big time.
While Israeli government spokespeople engage in verbal duels with Palestinian counterparts on TV and watchdog groups protest media bias against Israel, this entourage of entrepreneurs opts for another way to boost the country’s image: presenting a picture of Israel “beyond the conflict.”
Their idea, Israel21c, is a non-profit organization that comprises a Web site (Israel21c.com) and a story placement agency, disseminating articles that show Israel’s democratic nature as well as its technological and medical prowess.
The driving force behind the venture is a group of Jewish Silicon valley whizzes (including several transplanted Israelis) who got tired of the bad press Israel has been getting since the outbreak of violence in October 2000.
“There was a feeling of powerlessness in the face of the media-bashing. Israel21c was born out of a reaction of almost self-defense,” explains co-founder Eric Benhamou.
As chairman of the board and former CEO of California-based 3Com Corp., one of the most successful computer networking companies in world, as well as chairman of Palm Inc., maker of the ubiquitous handheld computer, Benhamou is also in a position to feel the economic repercussions of bad press.
“There had been a wave of academic boycotts [against Israel], and similar ideas were beginning to circulate in the business world,” says Benhamou, who has investments in several Israeli companies, including the Herzliya-based computer network company Atrika, which was founded with seed money from 3Com.
In some instances, well-meaning business people were simply afraid to do business with Israeli firms. “There are Israeli tech companies with great mastery in a particular subject that have lost business to less worthy competitors simply because Israel is viewed as an unstable, dangerous place.” Atrika is one. “I’ve seen many customers really nervous about engaging in a relationship with the company when they realize that they need to make at least one on-site visit,” says Benhamou. “The company has lost business because of that,” thought not a significant amount, he says.
“As supporters of Israel, we felt under attack, and we felt that playing a purely defensive game – correcting wrong facts written about Israel – was not sufficient,” he says. “You don’t win a football game by just playing defense.”
Benhamou, an Algerian-born Jew who grew up in France, and other colleagues in Silicon Valley, including Zvi Alon, founder of Netvision, Israel’s largest Internet provider, responded with Israel21c.
“We wanted to show Israel as a vibrant 21st century democracy in order to strengthen the sense of attachment and support for Israel among Americans,” says Benhamou, who serves as vice-chairman of Israel21c. Other members of the board of directors include Alon of Netvision; Tali Aben of the Silicon Valley-based Gemini Israel Funds; Karen Alter and Ellen Konar, former executives of Intel Corp.; Davidi Gilo, chairman of the board of Vyyo; Isabel Maxwell, president emeritus of Commtouch Software; philanthropist Andrea Bronfman; and AIPAC western states director Elliot Brandt.
The enterprise started two years ago as a Web site but quickly expanded its mandate to placing positive apolitical stories about Israel in mainstream American media. An Israeli team, headed by former Jerusalem Post news editor David Brinn, digs up the stories while the New-York based PR firm Ruder Finn markets them to US media outlets.
The result: some 400 stories placed in the American media over the last six months. One story about an Israeli-made technology that helps the deaf was picked up by The Associated Press, and ran in 300 papers, reaching some 9 million readers.
“I like to think that this has some subliminal effect on the way Americans regard Israel,” says Brinn, himself a native of Maine.
Other stories picked up by the American media include an interview with Microsoft chairman Bill Gates expressing appreciation for Israeli technological brainpower; a piece about an Israeli-invented low-sugar fruit that can be safely eaten by diabetics; an article about how Israeli technology aided American forces in Iraq; and a story about Arabs and Jews playing together on Israel’s soccer teams, which was placed in Newsweek’s on-line edition and on the ABC Radio Network program broadcast by popular sports columnist Mitch Albom.
“We look for stories which show how Israel adds value to US life, or how Israel shares the values that underpin US life,” explains Larry Weinberg, the organization’s Los Angeles-based executive vice president.
“Using Technology to Develop Arab-Jewish Ties,” read the recent New York Times headline, describing the Israeli government-supported project in Nazareth. The story was pitched by Israel21c.
“That story showed Israel’s entrepreneurial spirit, as well as cooperation between different ethnic groups – values shared by Americans,” says Weinberg.
Israel21c is hardly the only organization out there engaged in the proverbial hasbara (information) battle. But its members claim to have specialized skills and a unique approach to the mission.
“There are lots of organizations trying to analyze, report, and interpret Israel and the conflict. We focus on Israel beyond the conflict – on educating people about 21st century Israel,” says Weinberg, who ran a successful public relations firm for years before joining Israel21c.
Adds Benhamou: “One thing we don’t do, which many Jewish organizations do, is take out a full-page ad in The New York Times saying, “We support Israel for these reasons,” and have it signed by a whole bunch of famous people.
“This [kind of campaign] feels good just like taking a tablet of chocolate in evening gives you a rush,” he says, “but in terms of lasting effect on public opinion, it’s a waste of money… It doesn’t move the needle at all. At best, it gives you a warm feeling that you’re not alone.”
Instead, Israel21c relies on business marketing tools. It works in collaboration with another US-based organization, the Israel Project, which holds focus groups to test messages and conducts public opinion polls to measure American attitudes toward Israel. Last year, the two organizations, along with the American Jewish Committee, blitzed television networks with jointly-produced 30-second ads promoting Israel that were carefully designed to incorporate the results of market research.
“One of the most effective segments in the campaign was a scene showing elderly Arab women casting ballots in an Israeli election,” notes Benhamou. “This shatters so many prejudices about Israel, and brings home the message of a thriving democracy.”
Israel21c members say they have no illusions about turning Israel’s enemies into passionate supporters. “There are those who support Israel and always will. There are those who never support Israel and never will. Our aim is to reach everyone else,” says Weinberg.
Benhamou believes that within this broad group are Jews whose support for Israel has diminished over the years. “When we first began this initiative I was dismayed to see that many American Jews had become embarrassed to speak up on behalf of Israel,” says Benhamou. “They had difficulty separating their attitude toward a particular [Israeli] government from the fundamental attachment they should have to this country as Jews. Our goal is to restore to them a foundation of core reasons for having unshakeable support for Israel – to establish a beachhead of support.”
What about the many Americans who have no strong feelings for or against Israel?
Benhamou hopes to reach them by showing how their lives are better off because of Israel – “because of a new Israeli-made technology that improves the chances of survival of those with heart disease, for instance.”
Is there a day when Israel21C will be unnecessary?
“No,” says Benhamou. “There is an ongoing need to promote Israel because it will always have its detractors.”