Here's a public relations problem, easily avoided if we just keep it simple:
Ronn Torassian, recently hired by birthright to do its PR, already does PR for some fairly unsavory ideas. His firm, 5W Public Relations, was caught up in defending Agriprocessors in the face of their own workplace and workers rights debacle; in addition, he's all mixed up with Irving Moskowitz's drive to establish Jewish homes in the Palestinian neighborhood of Ras al Amud, the Silwan, and Sheikh Jarra, from Hawaiian Gardens profits, a real estate power grab that is about total control of Jerusalem (not really about security) and will only harm chances for peace. In a recent interview with the Jerusalem Post, Torassian referred to President Obama as "a disaster." (There's no such thing as 'bad' PR, I guess.) We should mention the Rev John Hagee as well. (If 5WPR did Hagee's website on the other hand, kudos! That site is amazing.
Inexplicably, 5WPR also has represented the American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, American Friends of Magen David Adom, and the Shaare Zedek Medical Center.
Besides learning that he represents Evian Water, Budweiser Beer, AND birthright, you get to learn all sorts of interesting things about Torassian, like, with regard to the media ban in Gaza last winter, "No, I think it was very smart not to permit the press to enter Gaza. This isn't a war between two equals; it's a war between a civilized democratic nation and a group of murderers and terrorists. And the media have difficulty grasping that - though whether this is due to actual difficulty grasping it or whether it is purposeful is open to interpretation." Hey, I was in favor of the Gaza War as well--it's just that I'd prefer to have media and reporting to monitor behavior of all sides. When a military can operate without witnesses, human rights abuses always increase. Look at Iran most recently--there the press helps the revolution, no?
The issue here is the wrong-headed notion that birthright NEEDS PR. It does? Really? Why? Word of mouth alone make it a great idea that everyone already knows about. And it's FREE. That generally gets people's attention as well.
Look, everyone has a right to make a buck, I guess. And everyone has a right to get some good press, too. But what was so wrong with birthright's press ("Free Trip to Israel!" posters when I worked at NYU did the job each year) that one has to go into business with a guy who represents unethical religious people (Agriprocessors) Apocalyptic Evangelicals (Hagee) and overly politicized practitioners of real estate double standards (Jews can buy and build anywhere in Jerusalem, Arabs can't.) It seems to me that if you add those three things up, that's BAD PR for birthright, not good. And they're paying for it! And you don't think that smart, unaffiliated kid that you're going for, trying to turn on to Jewish identity and Jewish community, isn't going to be turned off by such media-savvy strategies to sell him a product? Why get into bed with these guys at all? Do we really need the headache?
It's a gamble not worth taking. But what do I know about gambling? Ask Irving Moskowitz for advice...
Here's Failed Messiah's post.
Here's Daniel Sieradski's Twitter petition.
The thing that motivates me is that I love what birthright does for people--why muck it up with overly complicated message makers.
Keep it simple. Stick to the idea that inspired the program and then focus on helping connect participants to vibrant Jewish communities after their trip to Israel. By the way, I just finished a great five weeks in Israel this summer with some amazing high school students and you know what? I'm in touch with all of them--by email. Free PR for Torah and staying connected to Jewish life!