Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 2.1
The Partners for Peace - Jerusalem Women Speak Tour:
A Case Study in Affecting Public Opinion
By Peter Wirth
Description of Tour
Three women from Jerusalem, Nahla Asali, a Palestinian Muslim; Michal Shohat, an Israeli Jew; and Claudette Habesch, a Palestinian Christian; toured the United States from coast to coast between January 6 and January 24, 1998. They visited 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 the midst of continuing violence and fading prospects for peace the opportunity to give voice to their hopes, fears and frustrations.
The three women were recruited by Jerri Bird, Executive Director of Partners for Peace, a Washington based non-profit organization whose goal is to promote a just and lasting settlement of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. She sought one Muslim woman, one Jewish woman, and one Christian woman who are active in their communities and are wives and mothers. For interview purposes, they had to be able to speak English effectively. They were asked to come 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 they came 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, who was the first to interview them. It was only then that they heard each other's views. Audiences were often fascinated by this facts and always asked, "Do you fight?" And through the entire seventeen days the answer was, "Not yet!"
From day one, the tour was designed with the media in mind. A media plan was integrated into all aspects of the planning. When we selected speakers we immediately asked for bios and later asked each to write a 600 word op-ed which gave us additional material to work with. A comprehensive bio can be very helpful. For example, Nahla Asali attended a university in the Midwest in the 1960's. We contacted the alumni publication and they 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 in how to handle interviews when they arrived. The theme of the tour was designed to attract media interest and also gave us a number of different "news pegs" to pitch our story from. We worked the "women angle," the "religious angle" and the "foreign policy angle." We contacted religious press, secular press, periodicals and radio and TV talk shows locally for each city they visited along with 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 advising about important local media contacts. The tour could not have had the enormous impact it did without their devoted efforts
We made it clear to the organizers in each city that our goal was to reach the entire population with the message of the three women. For example, in the Twin Cities area in Minneapolis we asked the organizers how they were going to reach the two and a half million people who lived there. We provided them with sample press release, made suggestions and if necessary called key reporters for them. This expanded their vision to include outlets they hadn't thought of before. The local organizers were a great asset.
There was a troika for each city -- the key people, the Partners for 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 Affairs Council or City Club, and a meeting with any active local group. In San Francisco this was the Israeli-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group.
The women met with religious leaders and addressed groups in churches and mosques. They stayed in the homes of people in the community. Almost without exception the audiences were standing-room-only and were uniformly enthusiastic about the effectiveness of these women in expressing their views. There were always contentious questions, but these were the exception, and audiences were clearly inspired.
In a Catholic church in Minneapolis the women addressed the two morning services, each with 1,200 parishners and received a standing ovation with promises by the parishioners to make their views known to their elected officials. In St. Louis at a luncheon sponsored by the Democratic Women's Forum of Greater St. Louis a hundred women listened with rapt attention as Michal Shohat took the initiative to respond to a criticism she had heard beforehand which charged her with being "anti-Israel". It was a tense few minutes, but her articulate defense which ended with her conviction that Israel had to learn to live alongside Palestinians in a state of their own if there was to be a future for her children, was met with resounding applause.
A strength of the presentations lay in the clear differences in approach between the Palestinians and the Israeli, but it was the their unanimity in purpose and their shared conviction that politicians were destroying the future for their children which won over audience after audience.
Presented and promoted as ordinary women, the three quickly proved themselves extraordinary and audiences gained respect for their courage and strength in facing criticisms from their own cultural groups. One Arab-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."
The media coverage was nothing less than phenomenal. It puts to rest the old belief that bias in media means it is inaccessible to those who promote another view. The Jerusalem Women Speak tour was designed to give a voice to each religious community, to the two national communities, and to women rather than male politicians. This lent credibility and distinctiveness and was an easy sell.
Talk show hosts were uniformly enthusiastic. Interview shows and specialty television programs found them interesting, and even some news clips on television featured them. This didn't just happen -- the largest amount of work in putting together the tour was the time spent obtaining media coverage, but that is the most rewarding kind of work in terms of numbers of contacts made.
A classic example is the amount of time required to try to put together an interfaith event. Contacts with all the churches, mosques and synagogues must be made and an effort exerted to persuade these religious leaders that it is worthwhile and that they should promote attendance by their congregations. Flyers must be prepared, reminders sent out, physical arrangements made. And then, if you are lucky, you might have one hundred people 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 of tens of thousands.
By adding the circulation figures for the print media that covered the tour, the listener ship figures for radio and television, we calculate over 210,000,000 contacts worldwide and over 80,000,000 inside the United States. 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 interview or talk show programs aired on radio stations, with five of those syndicated reaching an 595 additional radio stations.
Television coverage was also extensive and difficult to measure. CBC (Canada), VOA (English Service), VOA (Arabic Service), PBS-Blue Ridge Public TV, Atlanta Interfaith (statewide cable), Bay Watch TV-Channel 35 in San Francisco, TVW Cable Channel in Seattle, a CBS affiliate in St. Louis program called "Confluence", MTN Cable TV in Minneapolis, C-Span-Washington DC (World Affairs Council program), Abu Dhabi TV cable and satellite covering 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 of the National Press Club Morning Newsmaker event represent some of the television coverage.
And the coverage is still contining. A week prior to writing this article the Chicago Tribune ran a feature story in their Sunday edition, circulation, one million. Also, a reporter from Japan, who heard about the women, and wanted to interview them when he 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 message of the three women reach only those who attended their presentation. The key was 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.
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