VERMONT -- "Israel-occupied White House." "Who let the Zionists out?" "Iraq, Haiti, Palestine: Occupation is a crime." These sentiments -- expressed on signs held by protestors last month when Laura Bush visited Vermont -- are increasingly common among antiwar activists and other members of the "Far Left."
That trend alarms a group of Burlington-area Jews, who believe that these attitudes are fueled by an incomplete understanding of the Jewish state. To counter the tendency, last spring they founded the Israel Center of Vermont. The nonprofit's goal is to give Vermonters a more balanced picture of Israel -- one that transcends the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and encompasses Israel's history, culture, economics and people.
"A lot of what people know about Israel, whether they're Jewish or non-Jewish, is just what you see in the newspaper every day," explains Program Director Shoshannah Boray. "It's mostly about the conflict. There's very little historical background or context."
Yoram Samets, board vice president of the ICV and a partner in the marketing group Kelliher Samets Volk, says he's concerned that many younger Jews don't feel the same connection to Israel as their parents or grandparents did. He attributes some of that "generational shift" to the media's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"There are many times that the media handles Israel inappropriately," says Samets. "I don't think it's out of malice. It's more about not understanding the issue." Samets cites a recent example from last week's media coverage of the Middle East. One story he saw described Iraqi leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as "a terrorist," he says, while another referred to a Hamas leader who was responsible for the deaths of several Israelis as "an insurgent."
"Those are very subtle differences that have a profound impact on the way Americans view what is happening," Samets suggests.
The ICV has launched an Israeli book club and sponsored Israeli folk dances, monthly cafe nights and screenings of contemporary Israeli films. It has begun talks with the mayor of Arad, Burlington's sister city in Israel, about arranging student and professional exchanges between the two cities. When a model UN group at Winooski High School wanted a speaker on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they contacted the Israel Center.
The group has also brought in speakers. Last week, it sponsored a visit by David Baker, the senior foreign press coordinator for the Israeli Prime Minister's office. He came to talk about media coverage of Israel -- another source of concern among center members.
Baker, who spoke to a group of about 85 people at Temple Sinai in South Burlington, outlined what he called "Israel's special PR predicament." More than 400 international journalists are permanently stationed in Israel and thousands more regularly rotate through; Israel's media attention is exceeded only by that on Washington, D.C., and Moscow.
The global community has what Baker called "a legitimate but . . . insatiable appetite for news coming out of Israel." And with so many reporters "hungry for the juiciest story they can get," Baker contends that a small percentage of them, particularly in the European media, have "made their mark" by producing stories that are inaccurate, biased or false.
Baker's audience was largely Jewish and sympathetic to his message; his presentation was largely a how-to seminar for shaping public opinion. "It's not enough to just sit down and kvetch about how they're trying to do Israel in," Baker said. Rather, he implored the audience to invest in Israel, to become "vocal locals" and "take matters into your own hands" by challenging anti-Israel bias with letters to the editor, op ed pieces and phone calls to reporters and editors.
"This does not mean that you should in engage in media bashing, which is absolutely the worst thing you can do for the state of Israel," Baker added. "Journalists want to report in a professional manner. They are not out to get us, by and large."
Baker was mostly complimentary about the U.S. media's coverage of Israel, and even offered a favorable opinion of the Arab-language television stations, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyya. His harshest critiques were leveled at some in the European press, which he said sometimes "prefer to hype a pre-concocted story- line."
Sympathies within Burlington are divided on the issue -- Burlington was the first American city to have sister cities in both Israel and Palestine. But those competing sentiments have also led to schisms within the peace movement. ICV board President Mitch Knisbacher notes, "We're not going to convince anyone over at the Peace and Justice Center to change their minds" on their pro-Palestinian stance.
But as Knisbacher also points out, the goal of the ICV isn't only to be the "pro-Israel" voice on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but to help Vermonters recognize that Israel is a multifaceted nation that, like the United States, isn't defined entirely by its foreign policies and security concerns. As he puts it, "The contributions that Israel makes, whether in science or medicine or technology or music, are phenomenal."