A generation ago, author Joe McGinnis introduced the American public to something many already knew, but hadn't thought that much about: the pivotal role of public relations in American politics. His 1970 book, The Selling of the President, detailed the efforts of the cadre of dedicated P.R. pros whose assigned task was to attempt to transform Richard Nixon's image from a man whom most Americans wouldn't buy a used car from into one they could support for the presidency.
McGinnis' classic helped build a blind faith in the power of image-making that leads many of us to assume that any problem can be corrected with a public-relations campaign.
And that aptly sums up the attitude that many friends of Israel in this country have adopted about the way to combat media bias against the Jewish state.
The fact that Israel is a tiny besieged democracy surrounded by an Arab world whose main desire is still to extinguish the one Jewish state has been lost amid a sea of media bias. That the Palestinians have consistently rejected peace and refused to halt terror even when offered enormous concessions by Israel represents the reality, though it's seldom articulated.
So what do we about it?
CHANGE THE SUBJECT!
Two conflicting theories have their champions.
One school of thought believes the problem lies in the obsessive focus of the conflict itself, by both the media and Israel's supporters. If only the world could see Israel as the modern, engaging and entertaining place it really is where democracy and technological advancement make it a ready partner for both business and travel then, the theory goes, the country's image would improve.
To that end, a group calling itself Israel21c: A Focus Beyond the Conflict has set itself the commendable task of giving context to the hyperviolent portrayal of Israeli society that those who've never been there believe is the truth.
Others disagree. They contend that for all of the great things to be said about Israel, the reality remains that as long as its right to exist is called into question, an infinite number of pleasant stories about life there will not convince anyone it deserves to survive.
As pollster and Republican Party political consultant Frank Luntz writes in a booklet about his research on the question, "You can't get beyond the conflict until you get beyond the conflict. A strategy of focusing on all the contributions to 21st century life … will go unheard unless and until your audience hears and believes that Israel is a proponent of peace, and advocate for justice and a force for compromise."
That's why the strategy proposed by the Israel Project (www.theisraelproject.org), another new group dedicated to enhancing Israel's image, is a bit more realistic in its approach than Israel 21c.
Luntz, who conducted focus groups on the question of how people think about the issue for the Israel Project, has published his findings in a pamphlet titled "America 2020: How the Next Generation Views Israel."
His study was based on the views of graduate students at top American colleges in five cities people he calls the "young elites," who will presumably be those running the country in the future and the results he got were sobering.
These young people apparently think ill not only of Israel, but of the institutions of American Jewish life (seen as materialistic and the source of pro-Zionist political manipulation).
While this can, at least in part, be put down to the bias of the academy where anti-Zionism is the norm, Luntz's findings go deeper than that. In the mindset of these elites: "To support Israel as a Jew is to be narrow-minded and one-sided. To support the Palestinians is to be progressive and thoughtful."
That these attitudes are based on ignorance of the facts on the ground doesn't gainsay the importance of Luntz's findings.
Luntz's prescription is to "start from scratch," and make Israel's case to the country anew. His pamphlet gives a good primer on the right things to say when speaking on behalf of Israel, and ought to be required reading for the experienced advocate as well as the novice.
But there are a couple of serious problems, even in this well-thought-out approach.
First, Luntz finds in his research that "there is a direct correlation between presidential preference and attitudes toward the Middle East." In his survey population of "elites," "Bush voters are almost all supporters of Israel, while Kerry voters almost unanimously back the Palestinians." Presidential preference was the only indicator that divided the minority of Israel supporters (and Bush voters are a definite minority on campuses) from the majority that backed the Palestinians.
This is fascinating, but if the bulk of our efforts are now to be put toward the task of converting this slice of American demography, we would be forgetting one important fact: Bush won the election. And though "elite" Kerry voters may not like Israel, most of those who did vote for him still do support Israel.
While the bulk of future New York Times editorial writers may fit into Luntz's anti-Israel elite category, who's to say that this group won't be as disconnected from the views of the majority of Americans as the current holders of those jobs are. And though both Bush and Kerry went to Yale, I'm willing to bet that the majority of voters in 2020 won't be former "Elis." If the primary message heard from the pro-Israel community is to be one directed towards this "elite" group, we may be creating a new set of problems.
Indeed, if the message is primarily one of emphasis on Israel's concessions and sympathy for the Palestinians (two hot buttons for Luntz's elites), we may well lose support elsewhere.
And unless some radical Christians are correct, and at some point all believers in Jesus experience the "rapture" and fly to heaven leaving the rest of us behind, there is no reason to believe America in 2020 is going to be a place where evangelical Christians (ardent backers of Israel) have ceased to be a major political force.
Even more to the point, the problem with concentrating so much on how much Israel is giving away, as the Israel Project does, is that eventually you run out of things to give up and then where are you?
A campaign based on how generous Israel has been in giving up Gaza, and even future concessions in the West Bank, will earn Israel no credit when the Palestinians inevitably ask for more. In fact, the last decade of post-Oslo Israeli concessions has resulted in an increase in vituperation against Israel and Zionism, not a decrease.
Maybe that should lead us to conclude that what would be in order is more talk about Jewish rights to the land, and less about security (something Luntz's research hinted at) and being nice to Palestinian terrorists.
To say this is not to counsel inaction, or even rejection of Luntz's proposal, if directed at the right target audience. But as we ponder these proposed media fixes, we ought not to forget that America is more than the sum of its elite grad students.