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After the Rally

November 18, 2012 – 9:13 pm68 Comments

At today’s rally in Caulfield, Melbourne. Photo: Eli Parkes.

By Alex Fein
Many silly things have been written about the escalating conflict in Israel and Gaza over the past week. One of the more ridiculous refrains has implied that we wily Jews were making special use of social media to wage unprovoked war in Gaza. According to this logic – though never properly explained – an IDF announcement of an assassination on Twitter has changed the face of modern warfare.

The claim is particularly ridiculous considering that in the developed world, no aspect of modern life is unaffected by – or out of bounds of – social media. Why would Israel’s actions in Gaza be unique among human endeavour in not making it onto Twitter or Facebook?

Indeed, I’ve been relying heavily on Facebook for news of how my fellow Australian Jews as individuals and as a community have been responding to recent events. According to the Monash Gen 08 survey, between 70-80% of Australian Jews feel a deep connection to Israel that many would refer to as, “Zionist.” My Facebook feed reflected in microcosm the Gen08 findings that somewhere in the vicinity of 40,000 Melbourne Jews would have been feeling “special alarm” over the past few days as Gazan rocket fire intensified and the centre of the country came under attack.

In response to this communal concern, a Facebook group called, “Code Red,” (an initiative of the Zionist national and state organisations and AUJS) was set up in order to organise rallies in support of Israel for Sunday morning in Australia’s major cities. An employee of the Zionist Council wrote on Facebook that a pro-Israel rally would give Israel some much needed positive publicity amongst all the negative stories appearing in the Australian media. I felt this betrayed a terrible misunderstanding of both Australian media and wider public opinion.

To begin with, if we, as Zionists, have a problem with the media, we must ask why and how best we might address the absence of our narrative in Australian reportage. How is it that we have allowed the word, “Zionism,” to become synonymous with racism, even among many otherwise fair-minded journalists? Have our leaders cultivated good relations with journalists and editors of various news organisations? Do we have effective contacts with various media identities that could help our cause? Is the often adversarial nature of our leaders’ relations with the media helpful?

These questions remind me of a statement attributed to Albert Einstein: that a definition of madness is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome. Why do we continue with a set of public relations – with complaints about anti-Israel bias as the centrepiece policy – strategies that are simply not working?

When Sunday’s rallies were first mooted, they struck me as more of the same in terms of failed external communications. However, after reading people’s accounts of the rally on Facebook, I realised that the demonstrations also served an important communal purpose for many Australian Jews.

In external PR terms, our rallies have rarely – if ever – been successful. I cannot think of a single demonstration in my lifetime in which protesting Jews have changed Australian public opinion. This is because Australians in general do not like to see ethnic groups demonstrating about “homeland” issues. They believe that people come to Australia to leave ethnic strife behind and that dragging old conflicts into this country is detrimental to Australian social cohesion.

Indeed, if the anti-Israel rally mooted for next Friday in the CBD goes ahead and is as disruptive as hoped for by the organisers, that will be a considerable PR win for the Zionists. It’s extremely important for Zionists to be able to identify such “own goals.” This is why the decision to hold our demonstrations in Jewish areas, causing minimal disruption, was judicious.

The media, on the other hand, rely on the drama of such demonstrations to attract audience. The ability to shock or appal their readers, viewers, or listeners with stories of intemperate ethnics is key to circulation or ratings. The facts and minutiae are almost always secondary to the drama. This means that the most extreme behaviours are those most likely to be reported.

The organisers of rallies often fail to understand that they are not in control of the message – that the messages being quite literally mediated by journalists, editors, and producers. When it comes to public demonstrations in support of Israel, the media’s interests will almost always be in diametric opposition to Zionist Australia’s interests.

Although the rallies may have been designed as an external public relations tool, they also served another (probably unintended) function with far greater success. Rallies are most often “feel good” events, benefiting participants (by making them feel that they are a part of something bigger than themselves) more than the cause for which they’re demonstrating.

In the past, beyond writing letters to the editor, most Jews would have had no outlet for their worry, anger, or grief. Now, with social media, not only are they able to express themselves, they are given the feeling that they are contributing to the “effort.” Even so, there is nevertheless something inherently isolating about communicating via a computer. Therefore, a rally providing the opportunity for Jews to come together acts as a profound point of communal cohesion.

After the rallies had finished, people wrote on Facebook of their “pride” in having been a part of them. The demonstrations mitigated their sense of helplessness borne of not being able to offer tangible help to Israel during this crisis: they actually felt they were doing something.

What was most clearly demonstrated today was that Jews from a variety of backgrounds and orientations will mobilise and come together for a cause they believe in strongly. The challenge for our current leadership is to identify what, beyond war in Israel, might replicate this solidarity, and to waste no time in implementing programmes that will unify us and stand our community in good stead.

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