Jacqui Gal

Storm in a B-Cup

Maxim’s photo spread of bikini-clad female Israeli soldiers was a coup for Israeli hasbara, unworthy of the condemnation it has garnered.

There’s nothing as exhilarating as watching the circus come to town. Especially when it’s a media circus. Last week’s launch of the Maxim magazine issue that featured a five-page spread of bikini-clad “Women of the IDF ” successfully lured all the usual disapproving suspects from their corners.

First, the complaints came from the Israeli Orthodox community, which had caught wind of the April photo shoot in the Israeli press. Then, as the magazine launch neared and news spread to the mainstream media, naysayers ran the gamut, from denouncing this supposed new attempt at sex-tourism all the way to using this purported lapse in morality to justify the dismantling of the state.

By now, no-one really cared about the original intention of the campaign or its effect on the demographic it was hoping to reach. Most were simply wrangling for a ringside seat, within shouting distance of the clowns.

Having recently left the employ of the Israeli Consulate’s press department in New York, I was privy to all of the reasoning behind (and internal debate about) this project, from inception to execution.

One of the dreaded yet consistently-asked questions press representatives of Israel face from within Jewish communities is “Why does Israel have such bad PR?” and invariably “What are you planning to do about it?”.

In a media-training seminar, I once heard that it was more important to find ways to disarm this question than to answer it. For it can never be answered to the inquirer’s satisfaction. That is, most would rather complain about bad PR than hear about fresh attempts to fix it.

The New York hasbara department’s latest efforts were a direct response to extensive focus-group research on Israel’s image. Results indicated clearly that American males aged 18-34 considered Israel as categorically irrelevant to them. It’s not that they couldn’t be persuaded on points of Israeli foreign policy, but that they simply were not listening.

If you have ever tried to pitch stories to a glossy magazine as a PR agent, you’d know that scoring a “hit” is a rare and celebrated event—especially if your product is hard to sell, as the notion of Israel beyond the conflict can be. So the fact that the Maxim features editor simply answered “Hell, yes” to the idea of revealing some of Israel’s lesser-known beauties, shows just how spot-on this idea was for their readers.

And what did the consulate seek to achieve by this relatively small photo spread? At best, they hoped the photos would simply plant an attractive image in the minds of Maxim’s 2.5 million readers. Perhaps some of them would now realise that Tel Aviv has more cafes and clubs than Kassams. And that Israeli women do not wear burqas. No-one was expecting these boys to see the photos and buy a plane ticket.

As for the desire to plant a new, realistic picture of Israel into the heads of men (and indeed women and children too), the importance of this goal cannot be overstated. Our misinformation problem goes further beyond what most could imagine. As I was leaving for a quick trip to Israel this March, I mentioned to a friend—who happens to be the UN correspondent for a prominent international news organisation—that I was hoping to get some good beach weather while there. I added that I was so happy to be going to a Mediterranean country during the tail-end chill of a New York winter. She scoffed at me in disbelief, “Mediterranean country? Beaches?”

Well, no amount of geographical explanation and first-hand testimony would satisfy her. I resolved to take some stunning pictures and return to show her she was wrong.

However, this evidence of widespread misconception about Israel is staggering. If this is what a university educated professional whose job it is to inform about international politics thinks, what do you think is rattling around the average Joe’s head?

One of the talkback comments on the New York Times website following a story on the Maxim shoot captured the essence of what the consulate hoped to achieve precisely (regardless of whether it was intended as satire). Bob from Fresno wrote: “I like Israel. Going to the north (Lebanon), you get to see fighting (like a James Bond movie). Going to the south, you see women in bikinis (actually also James Bond stuff). Whatever.”

Meet the modern American male. You want him to take an interest in Israeli foreign policy? You can bang your head against a wall. He’s not listening.