Critic of Gaza Plan Tapped To Head Media Campaign

By Nathaniel Popper

Published March 04, 2005, issue of March 04, 2005.
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A vocal critic of Israel’s Gaza disengagement plan has been tapped by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia to spearhead a new program aimed at selling Jerusalem’s side of the story to foreign journalists in the region.

The Philadelphia federation gave $100,000 to launch the new Jerusalem office of The Israel Project — an organization devoted to putting a positive face on Israel’s story. To lead the project, the Philadelphia federation chose Lori Lowenthal Marcus, president of the local chapter of the Zionist Organization of America.

The ZOA has been one of the most prominent American critics of Israeli government’s Gaza disengagement plan, as well as of the government’s recent negotiations with the Palestinian leadership. Marcus has been a leading voice for the organization, as the co-host of its ZOA Middle East Report show on Philadelphia radio.

It is routine for advocacy organizations like The Israel Project to have board members from all sides of the ideological spectrum. But as a ZOA official, Marcus is strongly affiliated with an organization that has spent most of its energy advocating against the very policy that the Israel Project will be strenuously supporting during the next year.

“It would be unfortunate, if Jewish community money was being used to support activities that were undermining the Israeli government,” said Jonathan Jacoby, a founder of the New York-based Israel Policy Forum, which supports the disengagement plan.

Marcus said that she will defer to The Israel Project’s policy of support for the disengagement plan in her dealings with the organization; and Gary Erlbaum, head of the federation committee that granted the funds and chose Marcus, said he is confident that Marcus will follow the federation’s policy of “unreserved support for the legally elected government of Israel.”

The Israel Project is a Washington-based organization that has worked to provide American journalists with a more positive spin on Israeli policies. The office in Jerusalem, which will be the organization’s first operation outside the United States, plans to work with the approximately 400 members of the foreign press corps stationed in Israel.

The Israel Project has had disagreements with the Israeli government in the past over the best way to make Israel’s case in the media, and those tensions could be exacerbated by The Israel Project’s presence in Jerusalem, where the Israeli government is generally in charge of most dealings with the foreign press corp. But Marcus said that the Israeli government only devotes $8 million to its own public relations, and “whatever help we can provide them will be useful.”

Marcus was in Israel with the director of The Israel Project, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, last month, organizing their office and working to hire two staff members. Marcus said the main focus of the office will not be “advocacy,” but rather providing foreign journalists with physical tools, like translators and vehicles, to ease their job.

“Disengagement isn’t an issue in terms of our staff here,” Marcus said. “Reporter’s need photographers and translators — that’s what we’re about here.”

But Mizrahi said that in addition to providing practical help, The Israel Project will be working on “how to best present the story to journalists.” Among the main stories the organization will be working on is the disengagement plan, which is set to dominate Israeli news during the coming year.

“We’re going to be spending a lot of time talking about the disengagement plan,” Mizrahi said. “We’re enthusiastically supporting the disengagement plan.”

The ZOA has been one of the sharpest critics of the Israeli government’s recent conciliatory moves toward the Palestinian Authority. The national office, headed by Philadelphia-area resident Morton Klein, has issued a stream of press releases like one issued last week, titled “ZOA Opposes Sharon’s Release of 900 Prisoners.”

Marcus’s co-host on the Sunday radio show, Steve Feldman, said that Sharon’s disengagement plan is “an anathema to Judaism — and we think it’s just wrong. It’s a matter of ethnic cleansing.”

Marcus, who works on a number of Israel advocacy projects in Philadelphia, has not been as harshly critical of the Sharon government as some of her ZOA cohorts have been. She told the Forward: “I don’t think you’ll ever find me criticizing the Israeli government in terms of [disengagement].” But on a recent radio show, she laughed as Feldman referred to the recent Sharm El-Sheikh summit between Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as “Sham El Sheikh.” And she said that the disengagement plan only sends a message that “terrorism pays.”

Marcus told the Forward that while she “feels bad” about the disengagement plan, when she is working on behalf of the Philadelphia federation she will not work against its stated policies.

“People know my opinions,” Marcus said. “But I’m there to represent the Philadelphia federation, and that is the extent of where I can go.”

A number of members of the Philadelphia Jewish community said that the local chapter of ZOA has not always been so willing to be accepting of organizations from the other side of the political spectrum — particularly when they were criticizing the Israeli government. According to Al Erlick, former editor of the Jewish Exponent, the federation-owned newspaper in Philadelphia, back in the 1990s, ZOA activists, including Klein, jumped on “anything ever printed or said that was critical of the Israeli government.”

“When things go well for a group, they’ve got one set of rules,” Erlick said, “and when things go badly, they’ll create another set of rules.”

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