On the Brink of Opportunity

A media milestone of sorts took place last week, with nary a mention by the press.

Ellen W. Horowitz

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A media milestone of sorts took place last week, with nary a mention by the press. A conference entitled "The Media as a Theater of War, the Blogosphere and the Global Battle for Civil Society" opened up opportunities and possibilities as big as its ambitious title suggests.

I'm not a blogger, nor am I a political strategist or government mouthpiece. I write when the spirit moves me and these days, it doesn't come easily. Nevertheless, this not-very-disciplined commentator reluctantly took a front-row seat at the symposium, sponsored by the Institute for Policy and Strategy of the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya (IDC).

The ghosts of the Oslo Accords and the Disengagement Plan haunt these types of forums. I'm reminded that, more often than not, these hallowed conference halls echo with the enormous egos that bred devastating errors. This writer longs for the day when excessive public dialogue will be replaced with the kind of private monologue and introspection that will produce wise and thoughtful results (and perhaps some competent leadership, as well). But I attended in a work-related capacity - as an observer assigned with the simple task of reminding the speakers when their 12 minutes of presentation time was up.

I must confess that the prospect of silencing some of my less-than-favorite personalities, with the mere flash of a two-minute warning sign, was inviting. But rather than revel in my new power, I found that I, as well as many of the attendees, wanted to hear more.

I was inspired by the charged atmosphere and appropriate sense of urgency, and moved by the sense of sincere reflection and remorse that I saw among several of the conference participants. The conditions for real cooperation and correction on the Israel hasbara front were palpable.

A general theme throughout the conference was that, although the State of Israel is facing an enormous crisis, it's only under these pressing conditions that the paradigm is capable of shifting. That our long-held ideas, institutions, organizations and endeavors are in danger of failure and collapse is indeed cause for alarm, but this also presents us with an immense opportunity for positive change.

Government and military spokesperson met blogger, and academic met layperson. It was a place where heads (with and without kippahs) met hearts in what appeared to be a reawakening of the Zionist spirit. It took a blogging history professor to bring this eclectic bunch together. Richard Landes is a medievalist crusading on behalf of civil society. He's the kind of white knight with a refreshing type of thinking that may help us get through some very dark ages.

In an era when Arab storytelling has efficiently deposed factual news reporting, and has captured (kidnapped?) the imagination of media outlet and viewer alike, there was a majority consensus that it was time for Israel to remove her kid gloves and throw down the gauntlet. Some attending the conference may have been taken aback by the assertive, no-nonsense positions presented by many of the participants. The true global aspirations of the Jihadists and their supporters were painted in a no-holds-barred, fire-engine red.

Surely, this was no pacifist festival. Even those on the political Left seemed acutely aware that we are engaged in a battle for the very foundations of civil society, and in an existential battle for Israel's survival. A good friend recently reminded me of Eli Wiesel's words: "The opposite of love is not hate; it's indifference." And this was hardly an indifferent or passive crowd.

There were some piognant and stunning moments. All the attendees were humbly hushed as French Jew Philippe Karsenty relayed how he had presented a flawless defense, with impeccable witnesses, in the libel suit brought against him by France 2 Television for claiming that the Mohammed Al-Dura shooting was staged. He lost the case on the grounds that if the Israeli government or military had not issued a formal complaint against Charles Enderlin's news coverage of the incident, then Karsenty's claims and evidence have no validity.

At this point, Dr. Raanin Gissin, media advisor to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, stood up and offered a spontaneous, heartfelt apology, claiming he felt "ashamed" and "humiliated" for Israel's indifference to Karsenty. He lamented a lost opportunity and then called to task government officials who were not at the conference to hear of Karsenty's independent efforts, trials and appeal on behalf of Israel to correct a gross injustice.

I noticed former IDF spokesperson and Brigadier General Nachman Shai lower himself to the dais steps in order to catch a better view of the screen, where Itamar Marcus, director of Palestinian Media Watch, was presenting damning material.

The IDC Media Conference presented a unique opportunity for Israeli government officials and academics to get off their high horses and climb down from their ivory towers, in order to see the accomplished grassroots and individual efforts that have been launched on behalf of Israel by a lot of concerned, determined and talented people. It's a shame that more Israeli press wasn't there to cover the forum. It is this indifference on the part of our own media sources that may be indicative of the sorts of problems we now face on the hasbara front.

But this type of conference did demonstrate that when the lines are clearly delineated and defined, they won't be drawn between Left and Right, religious and secular, or expert and layperson. At the end of the day, it will be those people with a sense of true justice, a will to live and a beating Zionist heart who will determine Israel's future.

[This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.]