COVER STORY: Poster boy for Israel: PR firm sells Jewish state one image at a time
By Dan Pine - Jweekly
January 28, 2005
Apparently, pro-Israel posters have a short shelf life. About eight days, maximum. That's how long most BlueStar PR posters and billboards, all of which celebrate Israel, survive at some local bus stops before vandals vent their fury upon them. But as soon as one poster is defaced, another goes up. To BlueStar PR founder Jonathan Carey, the struggle to win hearts and minds for Israel never ends. A professional trial consultant, Carey has waged many battles in American courts of law. But ever since launching the not-for-profit BlueStar in San Francisco 18 months ago, he's been making the case for Israel in the court of public opinion.
His core strategy: accentuate the positive. "Our goal is to push the edge," says Carey. "To be provocative and persuasive, not safe and boring."
BlueStar has created a series of eye-catching posters, flyers, postcards and other materials, all preaching the same "Hooray for Israel" message. Many have been posted in BART stations and bus stops. Others are printed up as "Go cards" and given away in kiosks at bars, clubs and other public places. As fast as he and his staff can design them, the posters go up on BlueStar's Web site for free and easy downloading. The images go for the emotional jugular: To illustrate women's rights in Israel, an Israeli Arab woman in full Muslim garb embraces a bikini-clad Jewish hottie. Ray Charles at his "Hit the Road, Jack" coolest ringed with some of his many strongly pro-Israel quotes. A proud gun-toting Israel Defense Forces soldier ... a gay IDF soldier.
Some focus on less-commonly known attributes of Israeli life, such as the nation's leading role in the high-tech and bioengineering industries. Others stress the multicultural nature of Israeli society, such as the successful absorption of Ethiopian Jews. Not all of the posters fly. One of Carey's favorites pictured a hunky dude in a thong bikini photoshopped to make the model appear decidedly underwhelming in the codpiece area. The caption read: "Israel: It's not as big as you think." That one drew a few too many gasps from some funders to earn a permanent place on the BlueStar poster hall of fame (though Carey says he still gets many requests for the postcard version of it). Also, a local poster-designing contest held last spring backfired when the winning design -- an image featuring an Israeli bus bombed by a terrorist -- was yanked because it conveyed too harsh a message. It just didn't square with BlueStar's sunnier style (the winning contestant still pocketed the $1,000 prize).
BlueStar has produced more than just posters, most notably "Out of the Closet and Into the Streets of Tel Aviv," a 20-minute DVD on the subject of Israel's relatively tolerant attitude towards homosexuality. The disc has been distributed to thousands in the gay and lesbian community nationwide. "The DVD shows how Israel is an open society in the Middle East among closed societies that do not allow the freedoms Israel provides," says Julie Sager, campus activities coordinator for the Zionist Organization of America. "We screened the DVD on 25 campuses, and some campuses had beautiful flyers created by BlueStar."
Carey works out of a cramped San Francisco office with his colleagues Peter Altman and Meirav Yaron, both longtime Jewish activists and now part of the BlueStar braintrust. Collectively the three do it all: design posters, market them and seek support from the community at large. As upbeat as BlueStar's message is, there's a seriously aggressive motive behind it. "Our community," says Carey, "has been silent on the positive aspects of Israel." That pre-emptive approach has resonated with activists across the country, many of whom download and print BlueStar posters for their own campaigns. "I love Israel," says Jonathan Rostoff, 21, founder of a pro-Israel group at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. "But Israel has had the worst PR. They don't know how to sell themselves. Anti-Israel groups use cool hip things to get their message across, and while the message may have straight-up lies, it's marketed well. So BlueStar is one of the most important things we have. It's a good way to get out the truth."
Carey echoes that sentiment. "Israel has $9 million a year to spend on all international outreach and PR efforts. That's less than the $16 million Huggies spends on advertising in Israel."
David Akov, Israel's consul general in San Francisco, takes issue with the criticism but acknowledges BlueStar has been a big help in augmenting Israel's profile here. "Of course we would like to have more resources," says Akov. "The government of Israel makes many efforts to confront this and will keep on doing this. But we thought [BlueStar] is a very positive project and in step with what we are trying to do." And, from Carey's point of view, very necessary. Increased anti-Israel attacks, especially on college campuses, compelled him to take action. "The other side has showed the most egregious materials," recalls Carey. "[Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon eating the brains of Palestinian children. Jewish stars with swastikas. It hit me that this was a quasi-1930s situation we face because we're Jewish. My plan was to design posters that hit on how Israel is good on human rights." Carey was never content to simply put out the posters and hope for the best. Thanks to funders like the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, BlueStar had the resources to seek alliances with other Jewish organizations, such as the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. Says the JCRC's executive director, Rabbi Doug Kahn: "Since we were in the center of the action in terms of addressing Israel education and advocacy, [BlueStar] wanted to find out our sense of the lay of the land and introduce us to what they offered. I thought it was visually grabbing, sparing in terms of its wording and conveyed a powerful message. We were all impressed."
Not everyone has been as impressed. BlueStar does have its detractors, even from within the Jewish community. Mitchell Plitnick is a local coordinator with Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that has been highly critical of Israel and its policies in the territories. "I'm not going to blame anyone for trying to point out what's positive," he says. "There are plenty of positive things to say about Israeli life. But BlueStar does contribute to a lack of understanding, that Israel is the besieged party in this conflict rather than the greatest military party in the region and holding under occupation another people with no rights." Plitnick admits he only recalls the BlueStar posters that annoyed him and not the ones he liked. He also stresses that no one he deals with at Jewish Voice for Peace would condone the vicious anti-Israel attacks that inspired Carey and BlueStar in the first place. Says Plitnick: "I know many people on the Palestinian front, not all of whose views I agree with, and all of them reacted very negatively to those [anti-Israel] signs. They thought they were morally reprehensible. I think the BlueStar folks are overreacting. It's one thing to have an honest defense of Israel, and another thing to be propagandizing. We need honesty and clarity on all sides."
Other critics are even harsher. Recently, a local African American community newspaper, SF BayView, ran a viciously anti-Israel cover story that bordered on hate speech. To illustrate the article, the paper ran a photo of a BlueStar poster at a local city bus stop. But BlueStar is fighting back. Carey has organized a postcard campaign in the Bayview-Hunters Point area trying to persuade residents that the article distorted the truth about Israel. It's no surprise the BayView ran a bus stop photo. Though campuses are favorite targets for BlueStar (Hillel organizations are among the most frequent users), Carey has put up posters up in other venues, especially around the Bay Area. That's how writer and San Francisco resident Rachel Case first encountered them. "A poster at a bus stop in North Beach caught my eye," she recalls. "It featured people sitting on a brick wall and read 'Jews lived in Israel when Jesus was born, Muhammad was born and when George Washington was born.' It was so unusual to see anything saying something so simple and so positive about Israel that it seemed almost radical." The posters inspired the previously uninvolved Case to become more active in the Jewish community, especially regarding pro-Israel activism.
Others have taken the BlueStar message into the political arena. Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of the Israel Project, a pro-Israel communications firm, brought BlueStar along to the last summer's Democratic and Republican party conventions. "Fifteen thousand reporters went to the conventions," she says. "We knew what messages we wanted to communicate to them and what info they needed for a fuller picture of Israel. BlueStar did a series of cards as conversation starters. We had teams of university students handing the cards out to reporters. We got very positive feedback." She also found out reporters generally hadn't known some basic facts of Israeli life: that Arabs are citizens of Israel, that freedom of religion is a protected right. "They had the stereotype of Israel as an apartheid country," adds Mizrahi. "We were dealing with an intensely difficult target group: highly educated liberals who are overly suspicious about Israel." That almost could have described the Jonathan Carey of a few years ago. A native of Massachusetts, Carey remembers how his family dropped its membership in the local synagogue shortly after his bar mitzvah, bringing to a sudden end any involvement with Judaism for years to come. Then while riding his bike in 1991, the adult Carey realized it was the first day of Passover and he had done virtually nothing to observe the holiday. "I realized that being Jewish was up to me," he says. "I sought out the Jewish community and helped found a chavurah that became really popular." He met his wife, Amy, through the chavurah, which today numbers 150 members. Carey also discovered through his involvement a newfound appreciation for Israel. Before then, Carey had earned an MBA in marketing from Tulane University. He later built a successful business as a trial consultant, creating large posterboard exhibits for more than 1,800 cases nationwide, including the recently concluded Scott Peterson trial.
He still maintains the consulting business, with BlueStar his nonprofit passion on the side. And as long as he's got the passion, he will have BlueStar boosters asking for more. "There are a number of groups that popped up over the years with the goal of providing pro-Israel PR," says the JCRC's Kahn. "But they have set ideas and come in with their own product. BlueStar listens to what the needs are and what kind of core message we're trying to convey. Then they develop models. For a newcomer on the block to be as responsive as they have been is to the advantage of all. " That Goldman Fund grant, along with small donations, got the company off the ground. With the Goldman grant due to expire at the end of the year, Carey is constantly seeking new funding sources. So far, it's not a slam dunk, but Carey is nothing if not persistent. Moreover, though he started locally, Carey isn't satisfied to limit BlueStar to the North American market. He's recently gone global, having launched BlueStar efforts in Brazil, Poland, Austria and France. Wherever in the world BlueStar may go, Carey promises to sell Israel with a measure of muscle and a touch of class. "Helping Israel is paramount," he says while repeating the old Madison Avenue adage, "Advertise, or the competition will do it for you."