“It will be very difficult,” Awadh said in a distinct understatement earlier this month in New York at a private reception sponsored by The Israel Project.
Founded eight years ago, the nonprofit organization with offices in Washington and Jerusalem tries to sway public opinion by providing Mideast information to, and working closely with, journalists.
The latest thrust of the group is to focus on the Arab community, and the guest speaker at this event was Ziad Asali, president and founder of the American Task Force on Palestine, a smaller, Palestinian version of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, in Washington.
Awadh introduced Asali as perhaps “the most moderate voice in the Arab world,” and Asali spoke of why the “old tribal fight” between Israelis and Palestinians who “want the whole thing” — in reference to the land in question — must give way to “the new think” that requires compromise and a two-state solution. Asali said he worries that if the conflict goes unresolved, it will lead to a devastating and widespread “holy war” with great damage on all sides.
In his own opening remarks Awadh, who joined The Israel Project staff in April and also is based in Washington, described feeling “under attack” during his first attempts to engage Arab journalists at the United Nations earlier this month, and acknowledged that his work represents “a very dangerous game.” But he said he felt “the friction and adversity was beneficial” because it forced the reporters to confront “an Arab with a Muslim background working with a pro-Israel organization.”
They didn’t believe he wasn’t a Jew, he said, and expressed astonishment, then anger.
“But I enjoyed it,” Awadh said of the confrontation, because he felt he was able to tell the journalists that while as an Arab he favors a Palestinian state, he could make the points that Israel is a reality and that the common objective should be peace.
“The only solution is information and education,” he said.
Awadh is used to voicing his conscience, despite pressure to be silent. In 1996 he left Iraq, where he was a medical intern, after refusing to take part in government-ordered ear-cutting operations meted out as punishment to army dissenters.
After escaping to America, he spoke out to Arabic and English media outlets on the atrocities and the suffering he saw.
In the United States, Awadh earned a master’s degree in journalism from Georgetown University and won awards for his work as a senior editor at Radio Sawa, a congressionally funded Arabic radio station broadcasting to the Middle East from Washington.
Awadh told me he never shared “the hate that some have for Jews,” and felt that “demonizing Jews was counterproductive to any peace process.”
At the reception Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the founder and president of The Israel Project, told the 50 invited guests — mostly Jewish supporters from New York — that after concluding that peace efforts were not working, her organization was undergoing “a paradigm shift.” The primary change was the decision to reach out more aggressively to the thousands of reporters in the Arabic language media “to try to level the playing field to make peace possible.”
While widely told the effort would not work and that Arab journalists were closed to the notion of hearing positive information about Israel, Mizrahi noted that some headway has been made. The Arab world still maintains a negative, one-dimensional view of Israel, but recent polling funded by The Israel Project in Egypt, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza indicates that it is possible to influence perceptions of Israel by presenting certain facts, the findings show.
“Nearly 60 percent of the Arab public say they become ‘more favorable’ toward Israel after they learn about Israel’s willingness to pursue peace and Israel’s acceptance of all religious groups, including Muslims,” according to the organization, which insists that many Arab media outlets are willing to interview and quote Israeli officials and experts.
That’s where Awadh comes in. He said that in his one-on-one meetings with various Arab journalists at the United Nations, he was put on the defensive about Israeli policy but explained that his objective was not to make Jerusalem’s case.
“I said I am here to introduce myself and tell you about the program I supervise,” he said he told the reporters. “I said I assume I am talking to professional journalists who have the ability to separate their opinions and biases, and try to present the complete story. And I said we (The Israel Project) present sources who are knowledgeable.”
Awadh said “they were not used to such answers” and that the “intentional strategic choice” of the Arab media is to put Israel in a negative light. That means, for example, choosing not to interview Israeli officials like Avishai Braverman, the minister of minorities, who has been outspoken about his efforts to improve conditions for Israeli Arabs. Awadh noted that Al Jazeera and other Arab TV media tend to show footage of graphic, bloody scenes of wounded Palestinians during interviews with Israelis.
“They [the Arab media] don’t show the dynamic of Israel as a democratic society,” like Jewish demonstrations against the demolition of Arab homes, said Awadh. “They just want to fixate on the image in the Arab mind that Israel is a vampire, seeking to steal Arab blood and land.”
But Awadh said that by the end of his day at the United Nations, he was able to persuade at least seven of the Arab reporters to meet with Braverman, though some said they probably would not be able to report on the interview.
By appealing to their sense of professionalism and fairness, and arguing that the current cultural boycott of Israel is “inhumane and unethical,” Awadh said he believed that he may have made a dent with the journalists.
“It’s a good sign,” he said, but cautioned, “I don’t know how genuine their expressions are.”
(This article first appeared at thejewishweek.com.)