Monday, March 12, 2001

“Michael Steinhardt and Edgar Bronfman Are At It Again”

Agree with them or not, there is much to admire about Michael Steinhardt and Edgar Bronfman. They’re billionaires, of course, which puts them in rarefied territory, although even with the market meltdown they have plenty of Jewish company. Like the superrich generally, they get attention, have status and are presumed to be knowledgeable and wise. While experience and logic suggest that certain of these attributes are not necessarily associated with wealth, especially inherited wealth, there has never been a society where money counts that has viewed matters differently.

What distinguishes Messrs. Bronfman and Steinhardt is their determination to circumvent the established Jewish organizational network by creating their own initiatives and then pressuring others to go along. Michael Steinhardt, in particular, recognizes that it’s impossible to reform our vast mountain of institutional waste and irrelevance. These Jewish dinosaurs will not disappear because dinosaurs do not become extinct rapidly, however dysfunctional they may be. The very bulk of our mad, mad organizational world acts as a protective shield, as an inertial force standing in the way of change. So we go on spending more than a billion dollar a year on these dodos, which will continue so long as people with money are willing to fund organizations that accomplish nothing.

Instead of exercises in futility, the Steinhardt-Bronfman duo establishes its own approaches to contemporary issues. The most notable is Birthright Israel, a huge venture that demonstrates the capacity to leverage relatively small personal contributions to compel support from sources, such as the Jewish Agency and Federations, that may have other ideas about how to spend their money.

The intrepid pair is now fixing on fixing Israel’s image through a new public relations effort to be called Emet. As has become standard fare in the early stages of their ventures, there is much jockeying and acrimony as those who are entrenched seek to resist or at least limit the poachers. I suppose that the philanthropists will have their way, not because they will spend tons of their own money – possession is nine-tenths of status and what you give is far less important – but because everyone believes that Israel’s public relations need to be improved.

Many yearn for the voice and eloquence of an Abba Eban. What we too often get as Israel’s spokespeople are men with jowls who look like Boris Yeltsin and sound like him. They are no match for Hanan Ashrawi and others who are adept at turning the discussion away from terrorism toward Arab children who have been killed and maimed.

Messrs. Steinhardt and Bronfman will be able to create a new public relations mechanism. It may be effective at the margins, but it is unlikely that it will have much of an impact on how Israel is perceived, in part because public relations is a low profession that is most effective when the stakes are small and small fibs go unchallenged.

I doubt that improved public relations could convert Deborah Sontag into a competent journalist, bring fairness to CNN, teach civility to Christiane Amanpour or change the reportage of dozens of newspapers that are not especially friendly toward Israel. There is a culture in both the print and broadcast media that encourages hostility to the Jewish State and it is sustained by too many Israeli journalists and Jewish writers, notably Ha-Aretz, one of the world’s most over-rated newspapers.

When we reflect on the anti-Israel media line-up, it’s extraordinary that American public opinion continues to be overwhelmingly supportive of Israel. This suggests that Israel might be doing some things right.

It’s hard to figure out what the Bronfman-Steinhardt initiative might add to what CAMERA and others are doing, unless it adopts a distinctively confrontational style and that is unlikely to happen. I believe that there are occasions when we must take off the kid gloves.

That should have been the American Jewish reaction several months ago when the Los Angeles Times plunged deeper into the sewer of anti-Semitism with a cartoon as vile as any that has even appeared in a major American newspaper. As stunned as I was by the cartoon and the dishonest email response by its creator to those who challenged him, I was even more shocked by the absence of any organized communal reaction. Far more than we need a new organization, we need a new militancy, a willingness to say that there is a difference between criticism of Israel and old-fashioned hatred of Jews.