During the first weeks following the terror attacks on New York and Washington, Israel’s Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem instructed officials charged with explaining Israel’s position to avoid, when possible, interviews and media queries. Meirav Eilon Shahar, Israel’s consul for communications and public affairs in Los Angeles, recalls a prevailing sense within the diplomatic community that no matter how sympathetic they were to America’s plight or how good their terrorism expertise, Israelis should realize this was not their fight.
"The concern seemed to be that if we assumed a high profile, we might find ourselves blamed, somehow, for attracting terrorism to these shores," Shahar told The Journal.
Less than a month later, even as Israel is rocked by a political assassination of a top Cabinet minister, charges of Israeli culpability have become commonplace not only in Osama bin Laden’s videotaped pronouncements, but at barber shops and beauty parlors, bingo halls and bowling alleys, and wherever else Americans regularly convene and commiserate.
Media pundits have outdone themselves in accounting for Al Qaeda’s motives, its inherent nihilism, its intent to reverse the current world order. Americans have heard them repeatedly explain bin Laden’s animus in terms of the "infidel presence" in Saudi Arabia, and the continued Western sanctions against Iraq. Bin Laden-watchers like Abdel-Bari Atwan of the London-based newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi have stressed that opposition to Zionism and support for Palestinian rights remain a sideshow of a sideshow, not the causative force claimed in bin Laden’s most recent video.
But for a growing number of Americans, blaming Israel is easier than wrestling with the more arcane or esoteric sources of Islamic discontent cited recently by specialists. A refrain of anti-Israel statements has become common on American talk radio, as it has been in Europe for years. For example, the French Foreign Ministry cites "excessive support for the Jewish State" as a root cause of all Mideast terrorism. This week, the Simon Wiesenthal Center called on TV Asahi, a leading Japanese TV network, to immediately remove Koji Kawamura as an "expert commentator" from its programming after he alleged on air that the "common threat liking the targets of anthrax attacks was the they were Jews."
Among Americans, 58 percent said that U.S. support for Israel was a key motive behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, according to a Pew Research Center poll done for Newsweek. And 46 percent of respondents agreed that it might 0be time to reconsider America’s traditional support for the Jewish State. Yet despite these findings, nine out of 10 Americans support the campaign in Afghanistan, while 81 percent would like to see the president move into Iraq to clean up the mess left a decade earlier by his father. And nearly three out of every four Americans asked say they’d like to see terrorists pursued as far afield as the Sudan or the Philippines.
"Sure, it looks a little nuts at first," says Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "We’re one month out from an event that was bigger than Pearl Harbor, and the parameters of this war are no more clear than during the first few days. We don’t have Osama yet, but you do have incidents of anthrax, and things are clearly going to get worse before they get better. We are beginning to understand that this is a war without borders, waged against an enemy without soldiers. No one expects immediate closure. But people want the terrorism to stop.
"On the other hand, people are telling themselves, "’Gee, if only the Israelis would just cut a deal with the Palestinians, maybe the rest will fall into place.’ After all, Sharon started talking about the need for a Palestinian state even before Bush or [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld. OK, given the absence of a language of compromise elsewhere in the Islamic world, it’s probably not going to work. But maybe this looks like a quick fix to a situation where none is in sight."
Commenting this week in the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv, the Anti-Defamation League’s National Director Abraham Foxman explains the persistence of the "Blame Israel" factor in more historical terms. Assorted voices within the American community initially blamed Jews for the Second World War, Israel for the 1973 oil embargo, and both for the Gulf War, Foxman said. Blatant and not-so-blatant anti-Semitism was always available to provide support for these contentions. Yet when push came to shove, most Americans respectively identified Hitler, OPEC and Saddam Hussein as the true source of each conflict. And according to most indications, Foxman said Americans were now training their gun sights on bin Laden, the Taliban and radical Islam.
Still, some recent developments continue to concern Foxman. "[The situation] is more serious today," he said. "Both because we’re talking about terror attacks on U.S. soil and because Israel and Jews are facing direct blame for them."
The question now may not be whether America has the frame of mind to respond effectively to the situation, but whether Israel has internalized the extent to which its greatest ally now finds itself transformed.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s lamentable speech of two weeks ago, which The New York Times’ Tom Friedman characterized as "stupid and offensive," suggests that in this regard at least, the Jewish State remains dangerously clueless. Sharon had warned Bush, "Do not try to appease the Arabs at our expense." Linking the president to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who sacrificed Czechoslovakia to Hitler in 1938, Sharon said, " Israel will not be another Czechoslovakia."
Todd Morgan, chairman of the board at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, says, "I understand Sharon’s aggravation. I think he misspoke. He admits it and wants to change that. It is an inappropriate time for the United States to push Israel hard when terrorism still exists there. It seems hypocritical to talk down on terrorism, yet open the door for a Palestine state. Washington is getting pressure from the Arab states to reduce their strong commitment to Israel."
Yet, Morgan maintains: "These events could have a positive impetus for Israel and the Palestinians to have peace. So maybe now terrorism will stop, and they will make it to the peace table. If that’s what it takes to get to the peace table, God bless."
In Jerusalem over the holidays, Cooper expressed dismay upon learning that the Foreign Ministry was closed even during Sukkot, and that no one showed up for work even on the intermediary days when work was permissible, despite the fact that "there was a war going on." The only consolation, he told The Journal, "is that despite the continued existence of a National Unity government, created so that Israelis might speak to the world with one voice, very little of any coherence is coming out of Jerusalem."
One member of Israel’s Cabinet recognized the need for hasbara, or spin. Shortly after the attacks, Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael B’Aliya party announced the launch of the Israeli Citizens’ Information Council (ICIC), self-described in a press release as a "grass-roots hasbara network providing Israeli-speaking citizens with English-speaking backgrounds a platform through which they can actively participate in Israeli information and promotion effort."
Sharansky, Israel’s deputy prime minister and minister of housing, said the group was necessary to explain Israel’s position, especially in light of the Sept. 11 attacks. "Officials representing the government can only do so much. It’s the power of the people in their everyday interactions with colleagues, families and communities abroad, which ICIC is harnessing," he added.
In the United States, meanwhile, Israeli officials seem to have given up entirely on exercising a meaningful impact on American public opinion. During a recent visit here intended to help bolster American Jewish leaders faced with hasbara problems of their own, Israeli Minister for Regional Cooperation Roni Milo called upon the American Jewish community to spread the message that Israel is not the cause of terror attacks against America.
"People must understand what we are going through," he declared somewhat plaintively.
What he did not explain was how anyone could hope to do so when one day the Israeli prime minister calls Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat "our bin Laden," and the next day sends his son, Omri, for negotiations. If Israel’s official spokespeople don’t know how to put the correct spin on these mixed messages, then how can Americans Jews even begin to neutralize statements that cast the president of the United States — a man now fully engaged in routing out terror on a planetary scale — as the next Neville Chamberlain?
Here in Los Angeles, attempts to enlist prominent American Jews as Israeli spinmeisters have failed miserably, much to the mounting frustration of Israel’s Consul General, Yuval Rotem.
"Do you know how many times we tried to put a workshop or symposium or rally in UCLA during the last year?" Rotem says. "How many times we were turned down by different activists who are supposed to mobilize Jewish students during this time of deep crisis? Do you know how many rallies there were on the other side? Or demonstrations in front of my consulate in the last year? How many times do you think Jews wanted to stand one hour in one weekend during the last year?
"Nada. Nicht. Nothing doing."
Elsewhere in the community, there seems to be a mounting recognition that however dramatic the sea change in perceptions throughout America, those intent on getting Israel’s message out will have to go back to the basics.
"I think the hasbara effort could be vastly improved," says John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation. "There needs to be a greater sophistication of how messages are formulated, and almost what I’ve referred to others as deconstructing what the other side is saying in today’s battle for the hearts and mind of the public. We need to begin, in a nondefensive way, to put across the facts in a meaningful and dispassionate way, and to create a sense that this is not solely a geopolitical struggle, with serious defense and security overtones, but has impacts on flesh and blood people."
"It’s a sad truth," comments Rabbi Mark Diamond, the vice president of the Los Angeles Board of Rabbis, "that people like short, simple messages when, in terms of this conflict, there aren’t any. But what really amazes me is how here, of all places, we’re still so media unsavvy. The Palestinians hold a rally, and no one strays from message, which is that the Palestinians are being murdered by a vastly better-armed opponent. We hold a rally, a small group of people who make their way to the forefront, and, when they hear something they don’t like, chant ‘No justice, no peace.’ Meanwhile, our own supporters are screaming and yelling whenever they see Shimon Peres on the screen.
"Obviously something is very wrong with this picture. Our message is neither clear nor simple nor unified."