Thursday, January 20, 2005

Partners for Peace update Jan. 20, 2005


DESCRIPTION OF TOUR Three women from Jerusalem, Nahla Asali, Palestinian Muslim, MichalShohat, Israeli Jew, and Claudette Habesch, Palestinian Christian, touredthe United States from coast to coast between January 6 and January 24, 1998.

They went to ten cities in seventeen days: Minneapolis/St.Paul, St. Louis,Seattle, San Francisco, Atlanta, Roanoke, Baltimore, Philadelphia,Princeton and Washington, DC.

The goal of the tour was to offer these women who are living in themidst of continuing violence and fading prospects for peace the opportunityto give voice to their hopes, fears and frustrations.

RECRUITMENT The three women were recruited by Jerri Bird, Executive Director ofPartners for Peace, a Washington based non-profit organization, whose goalis to promote a just and lasting settlement of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. We sought one Muslim woman, one Jewish woman, and one Christian woman--who are active in their communities and are wives and mothers. For interviewpurposes they had to be able to handle English effectively. They were asked tocome under the banner: Jerusalem Women Speak - Three Women, Three Faiths,One Shared City - Jerusalem.

They did not know each other and met over tea about ten days before theycame to the United States. They came to Jerri Bird's home directly from the airport and were met there by Caryle Murphy of the Washington Post whowas the first to interview them. It was only then that they heard each other'sviews. Audiences were fascinated with these facts and always asked, "Do youfight?" And through the entire seventeen days the answer was, "Not yet!"

PLAN From day one the tour was designed with the media in mind. A media planwas integrated into all aspects of the planning. When we selected speakers weimmediately asked for bios and later asked each to write a 600 word op-ed whichgave us additional material to work with.

A comprehensive bio is very helpful. For example, Nahla Asali attendeduniversity in the Midwest in the 1960's. We contacted the alumni publication andthey accepted the op-ed she wrote. Her message reached an additional 60,000 people.

We informed the women the tour would include radio, TV and print interviews and talk show appearances and provided them with a few hours of basic training inhow to handle interviews when they arrived.

The theme of the tour was designed to attract media interest and also gaveus a number of different “news pegs” to pitch our story from. We worked the“women angle,” the “religious angle” and the “foreign policy angle.” Wecontacted religious press, secular press, periodicals and radio and TV talkshows locally in each city they visited and syndicated national media outlets. Our press contacts started a few months before the women arrived.

Partners for Peace in Washington recruited "key people" in each community to handle local logistics such as home stays, local transportation and publicity.These key people were essential in designing the local events and advisingabout important local media contacts. The tour could not have had the enormousimpact it had without their devoted efforts

We made it clear to the organizers in each city that our goal was to reach theentire population with the message of the three women. For example, in the Twin Citiesarea in Minneapolis we asked the organizers how they were going to reach the twoand a half million people who lived there. We provided them with sample pressrelease, made suggestions and if necessary called key reporters for them. This expandedtheir vision to include outlets they hadn’t thought of before.The local organizerswere a great asset.

There was a troika for each city -- the key people, the Partnersfor Peace Washington office and our Media Specialist.

AUDIENCES AND RESPONSE The schedule was designed to include at least one public event,usually an interfaith program; a prestigious venue such as a World AffairsCouncil or City Club; and a meeting with any active local group. In SanFrancisco this was the Israeli-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group.They met with religious leaders and addressed groups in churches andmosques. They stayed in the homes of people in the community.

Almost without exception the audiences were standing-room-only andwere uniformly enthusiastic about the effectiveness of these women inexpressing their views. There were always contentious questions, but thesewere the exception, and audiences were clearly inspired.

In a Catholic church in Minneapolis the women addressed the twomorning services, each with 1,200 parishners and received a standing ovationwith promises by the parishioners to make their views known to their electedofficials. In St. Louis at a luncheon sponsored by the Democratic Women's Forumof Greater St. Louis a hundred women listened with rapt attention as Michal Shohattook the initiative to respond to a criticism she had heard beforehand which chargedher with being "anti-Israel". It was a tense few minutes, but her articulatedefense which ended with her conviction that Israel had to learn to livealongside Palestinians in a state of their own if there was to be a futurefor her children, was met with resounding applause.

A strength of the presentations lay in the clear differences inapproach between the Palestinians and the Israeli, but it was the theirunanimity in purpose and their shared conviction that politicians weredestroying the future for their children which won over audience afteraudience.

Presented and promoted as ordinary women, they quickly provedthemselves extraordinary and audiences gained respect for their courageand strength in facing criticisms from their own cultural groups. OneArab-American attacked the Palestinians for not continuing the Intifada, to which Claudette Habesch replied: "Perhaps you would like to send us your children to go into the streets."

MEDIA COVERAGE The media coverage was nothing less than phenomenal. It puts torest the old belief that bias in media means it is inaccessible to those whopromote another view. The Jerusalem Women Speak tour was designed togive a voice to each religious community, to the two national communities,and to women rather than male politicians. This lent credibility anddistinctiveness and was an easy sell.

Talk show hosts were uniformly enthusiastic. Interview shows andspecialty television programs found them interesting, and even some newsclips on television featured them. This didn't just happen -- the largestchunk of work in putting together the tour was the time spent obtainingmedia coverage, but that is the most rewarding kind of work in terms ofnumbers of contacts made.

A classic example is the amount of time required to try to puttogether an interfaith event. Contacts with all the churches, mosques andsynagogues must be made and an effort exerted to persuade these religiousleaders that it is worthwhile and that they should promote attendance bytheir congregations. Flyers must be prepared, reminders sent out, physicalarrangements made. And then, if you are lucky, you might have one hundredpeople turn out. On the other hand, the same amount of time spent"pitching" your speakers to a talk show host will result in an audience oftens of thousands.

By adding the circulation figures for the print media that coveredthe tour, the listener ship figures for radio and television, we calculateover 210,000,000 contacts worldwide and over 80,000,000 inside the UnitedStates. There were at least 32 print articles published. Articles appeared in major dailies such as the Washington Post, Seattle Times, San Jose Mercury and Minneapolis Star Tribune. There were fourteen interviewor talk show programs aired on radio stations, with five of those syndicatedreaching an 595 additional radio stations.

Television coverage was also extensive and difficult to measure.CBC (Canada), VOA (English Service), VOA (Arabic Service), PBS-Blue RidgePublic TV, Atlanta Interfaith (statewide cable), Bay Watch TV-Channel 35 inSan Francisco, TVW Cable Channel in Seattle, a CBS affiliate in St. Louisprogram called "Confluence", MTN Cable TV in Minneapolis, C-Span-Washington DC (World Affairs Council program), Abu Dhabi TV cable and satellitecovering the ME, Europe and US, and a program called "Religion and Ethics"which airs on 200 PBS stations in 190 markets, as well as CNN coverage ofthe National Press Club Morning Newsmaker event represent some of thetelevision coverage.

And the coverage still continues. A week prior to writing this article the ChicagoTribune ran a feature story in their Sunday edition, circulation, one million. Also, areporter from Japan, who heard about the women, and wanted to interview them whenhe visited Israel called to get their phone numbers. We just found out that he interviewed the women and sold a news story with photos to the Jerusalem Times.

There was nothing magical about the media coverage this tour generated. It was atypical in that unlike many speaking tours it was not acceptable to have the messageof the three women reach only those who attended their presentation. The keywas a commitment to generate news coverage from day one and a lot of hard work.

We hope that this tour will encourage other activists to no longer accept “the conventional wisdom” that the media is inaccessible to those of us who present another view.

Peter Wirth, GW Associates,
702 S. Beech,
Syracuse, NY 13210.