Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of The Israel Project, announced last week that she plans to leave the organization she and two other women founded 10 years ago. During that decade, the Washington-based Israel Project has grown from an organization with no staff, based originally at Mizrahi’s former public relations firm, to one that now has 75 employees, including former journalists, and an office in Jerusalem. Its mission is to garner fairer and more positive coverage of Israel through outreach to the press, policymakers and members of the public. Furthering that goal is a website that operates in six languages, including Arabic; the group’s work in Europe, Asia and Latin America; and its presence on Facebook and Twitter.
But the organization also has its share of critics, including those who say that it leans to the right, rather than taking a neutral position, and prefers to ignore issues that could cast Israel in a negative light, such as settlement activity in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Mizrahi discussed the group’s work, along with her plans for the future, in a phone interview Monday with The Jewish Week.
Q: You announced in 2007 that you’d step down for family reasons, but changed your mind months later after TIP’s board said it couldn’t find an adequate replacement. What prompted last week’s announcement?
A: I’m leaving because the team’s ready. … We’ve worked very hard to eliminate what’s called “founder’s syndrome,” where the group is not able to move beyond its founder. We put a lot of time, energy and money into preparing for this.
TIP’s statement announcing your departure says you’ll be leaving the group by July 1 and plan “to establish a communications consultancy focusing on advocating for the rights and needs of special-needs children.” Can you elaborate on those plans?
What I’m going to do is reopen the company I ran before I founded The Israel Project [Laszlo & Associates, a strategic communications and public policy company]. But instead of focusing on candidate campaigns, I’ll do more of what’s called issue campaigns.
I want to fight for the rights of people who have special needs. I have a lot of experience as the parent of a child with special needs, I know what the system is like, and I know what it takes to help a child with special needs become a productive citizen.
I understand you’ll be taking two months off beforehand for rest and relaxation. Have you had any of that during your past 10 years at TIP?
Working on Israel at the level we have for 10 years is like working on a presidential campaign every day for 10 years. The level of media interest is high — it’s in the news every day — and Iran is in the news every day. And you need to stay on top of the story, or the story will be on top of you. … The enemies of Israel are spinning their web of lies on a daily basis, and we must get the facts to reporters on a daily basis.
Has media coverage of Israel changed since you founded TIP?
There are challenges and there’s still room for improvement. But, on balance, the situation is much better, and tens of millions [of Americans] have changed their minds about Israel and are more supportive of the U.S.-Israel relationship. … The Iran issue is also getting a lot more press attention.
A portion of the Jewish community believes that certain newspapers, like the New York Times, are biased in their coverage of Israel. What’s your view?
I think it’s unfair to say that a whole newspaper is biased, because a lot of people work at a newspaper. The New York Times Magazine’s cover story on Iran two weeks ago [“Will Israel Attack Iran?”] was phenomenal. I’ve been disappointed with their editorial page. I think they have a misperception that the settlements are “the” problem, rather than “a” problem, and that other problems aren’t much more important, such as the Palestinian culture of hate that’s made children look up to jihad and not prepare them for jobs.
Have some of Israel’s actions in the past few years, including the seizure of Arab homes in east Jerusalem, the so-called Nakba law and the law allowing villages and communities to bar Israeli Arabs, undermined efforts to promote a positive image of Israel?
I think it’s fair to say that one of the strongest reasons Americans support Israel is because of shared democratic values. So it’s important for Israel to remain consistent in its own values of freedom and equality.
How would TIP describe its view of settlements?
It’s an issue to be discussed in peace talks between Israelis and the Palestinians so that there can be a mutually agreed-upon solution.
Is there a good way and a bad way for an organization like TIP to promote Israel’s image? If you want to get Israel’s good points across, you don’t want to make the mistake of pretending that there are only good points. You have to be honest and factual. You cannot be a propaganda machine.
Are you leaving TIP on an optimistic note?
I’m extremely optimistic — not just about the United States, but globally. We work in China and India, and it’s my prediction that Israel will be doing a total of $30 billion in trade with both countries [as opposed to the current $12 billion] in five years.