Oct
12
2009

A Fascinating Meeting With the Women of the ZCV

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Meeting with the women of the SZC

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to meet with Zionist Council of Victoria Executive Director, Ginette Searle. Also at the meeting were Eli Shalev (the Public Affairs Director) and Emily Chrapot (Israel Advocacy Analyst).

I’d requested the meeting with Ms Searle in order to discuss the best strategies for representing Israel to the wider community, and expected an informal chat lasting about 15 minutes. Instead, Ms Searle and the other two women spoke with me for over an hour, describing their work, and debating the efficacy of certain methods. Needless to say, this generosity was much appreciated.

Indeed, so much was discussed that I’ve had to split the report on the meeting into two parts.

The ZCV women described the importance of their internal advocacy activities: the ways in which they equip Victorian Jews with facts about Israel in order that individual Jews can debate the Israel/Palestine issue with knowledge and confidence in the wider world.

This is commendable and important work; however two questions arose for me:

1) How many young Jews can they actually reach as the younger generations atomise and become more difficult for our institutions to connect with?

2) Are people being given effective methods of arguing (beyond the facts) in order that their message is not obscured by acrimonious debate?

The answer to the first question was quite interesting. While there was general agreement about the difficulty of motivating younger Jews to become involved in institutional activities, the ZCV representatives gave a number of concrete examples of young people accessing ZCV information in unexpected ways.

The most surprising was the story of young Australian Jews in Israel during the time of Operation Cast Lead who read Emily Chrapot’s news summaries. These people praised the quality of the information and its ability to convey numerous details clearly and succinctly. Eli Shalev, meanwhile, is in the process of using social networking sites to create an online presence that has a greater likelihood of attracting and appealing to younger people.

Although it was not discussed at length, there seemed to be agreement that the broader issue of the younger generations’ atomisation was one that went beyond the ZCV’s remit.

The second question proved more complex and will require a second post in order to explore it fully.

As Ms Searle expounded on the work of her organisation, and as Ms Chrapot and Ms Shalev explained their strategies, I asked all three why it was that they were not front and centre in media representation for their organisation. All three women exhibit intelligence, directness, and an extremely pleasant manner that could present the Zionist Council in the best possible light.

In response to my criticisms of Danny Lamm’s media performance at the time of the Seven Jewish Children play, many people contacted me. While a number agreed that the media strategy may not have been ideal, many made a point of informing me that Lamm’s commitment to community service is second to none. His dedication and experience are clearly invaluable assets to his organisation; however, the community – and particularly those of us who are staunch Zionists wanting better media coverage for Israel – must rethink its current strategy.

In the same way that it is rare for CEOs of large companies to speak directly to the media – preferring public affairs specialists for the task – our organisations may be better served in separating the roles of leadership from media representatives.

The women I met yesterday – Searle, Chrapot, and Shalev -  would all come across extremely well on both television and radio. Their photos next to opinion columns in newspapers would similarly have significant benefits.

This is because they all possess specific traits that are conducive to presenting a particular image of Jewry to wider Australia that would be both new and appealing; however, it is also because Australian Jewish public representation is in dire need of a shift towards young women speaking on our behalf.

At the moment, much of the Australian media casts Israel as the dominant half of the Israel/Palestine conflict. A certain type of academic might say that in the media globally, Israel is “masculinised” as the dominant, aggressive power, while the Palestinians are relegated to the passive receivers of such aggressions – in other words, they are “feminised.”

Jews from most of the sub-communities in Melbourne agree that to varying extents, the risks, dangers and challenges Israel faces are downplayed in the media, while the suffering of the Palestinians at Israeli hands receives the bulk of the attention.

If we wish to counteract this image, we need far more than “facts” on our side.

We all know that raw data, no matter how relevant, will always be beaten by a powerful image or narrative in the media. So when we have middle aged, professional men speaking on our behalf, whose only defense of Israel is the truth, we will, unfortunately, not emerge looking particularly good.

This is partially explicable because a professional, middle aged man advocating for us actually reinforces the preconceptions (and stereotypes) many non-Jews already have of us.

If, however, we begin offering the media with new narratives, and new styles, presented by younger females, we actually upend these preconceptions. The same message can seem entirely different coming from a younger woman, and counteract the sense that Israel is both an aggressor and unassailably dominant in the struggle.

The sheer novelty of young Jewish women speaking for Israel will be sufficient in gaining media access initially.

It will also offer a subtle message about women’s role in Jewish life and, by implication, that our values are not so distinct from those of wider Australia.

It may be instructive to remember the Hanan Ashrawi Sydney Peace Prize “Affair.”

A number of narratives was occurring simultaneously during that conflagration. The power of Ashrawi’s – and her supporters’ – message in the wider Australian community was augmented by her gender.

Her newsworthiness, her credibility, her symbolism of peace were all heightened by her femininity. That those who opposed her were male, had the unintended consequence of reinforcing a subconcious public perception of Israeli aggression and Palestinian victimhood.

The second part of this report will examine the gulf between Jewish and non-Jewish perceptions of advocacy and public discourse.

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