Globe & Mail: A land flowing with babes and beaches – Israel aims to increase U.S. tourism with a PR attack in a racy men’s magazine

JERUSALEM — Israel, the country’s government wants you to know, is not just about wars, occupation and suicide bombings. There are women here, too, and some of them are as hot as the conflict zone they live in.So if you …

JERUSALEM — Israel, the country’s government wants you to know, is not just about wars, occupation and suicide bombings. There are women here, too, and some of them are as hot as the conflict zone they live in.

So if you want to examine another side of the Middle East, put aside The Economist for one month this summer, and intercept your son’s copy of Maxim magazine, the Israel issue. There’ll be no talk of Hamas or Hezbollah, just babes, bikinis and beautiful beaches.

The unconventional public-relations offensive is the brainchild of David Saranga, the consul for media and public affairs at the Israeli consulate in New York. He came up with the idea while staring at poll numbers that showed his country was not particularly well regarded in the United States, especially among those aged 18 to 35. The Jewish state was perceived as too religious and too militaristic for the tastes of most.

But there was a silver lining hidden in the survey data. When asked how they perceived Israelis as a people, the popular adjectives were “rough” and “stubborn,” but also good-looking.

Hoping to capitalize on the latter, Israel’s Foreign Ministry, with the help of two of the myriad U.S. pro-Israel lobby groups, decided to speak to U.S. men in a language they’d understand. Mr. Saranga began a long campaign to persuade Maxim to showcase Israel’s other assets to its 2.5 million readers.

The magazine, which promises its readers “girls, sex, sports” and usually focuses its lenses on apolitical celebrities like Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson, initially balked, but became more interested when provided with photos of 12 of Israel’s top models. The deal was sealed after two lobby groups, the American-Israel Friendship League and Israel21c, offered to subsidize the cost of flying a camera crew to Tel Aviv for three days of photography.

“When you see beautiful women, good-looking people, on the beaches of Tel Aviv … you understand that Israel has to deal with the conflict, it’s true, and there are religious elements in its society, but there are also other things,” Mr. Saranga said in a telephone interview. “I want people to know that Israel is much more than a conflict, that people in Israel have normal lives.”

Along with the bikini shoot, which is expected to grace the pages of one of its summer issues, Maxim will run an article highlighting tourism in Israel. Despite a warm climate and some of the world’s most important religious sites, the tourist industry has suffered in recent years as Palestinian attacks, sparked by the 40-year-old Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, continue to scare off most travellers. Last summer’s war against Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, which saw rockets hammer the north of the country for 34 days, was another blow.

“The only image of Israel that [young men] have in their minds from the last five years, since they were 11 or 12 years old, is of conflict, of the intifada, of buses blowing up. We want to show them that Israel is not a one-dimensional place of just wars and politics and conflicts,” said David Brinn, editorial director of Israel 21c, an organization that lobbies journalists, usually at more austere publications than Maxim, to write non-conflict stories about the country.

Mr. Brinn said that his organization, along with the American-Israel Friendship League and the Israeli Foreign Ministry, would subsidize “all [Maxim's] expenses” while the magazine was in Israel, including flights, hotel rooms, a bus and a tour guide.

The idea of showcasing scantily clad Israeli girls in a U.S. men’s magazine — which made headlines here just days after the Hooters restaurant chain announced it was opening its first Israeli branch on the Tel Aviv beachfront later this year — came under immediate fire from the country’s religious right, which bombarded Israeli news websites with allegations that the government was degrading the Jewish state and promoting sex tourism.

“The fact that this campaign to increase tourism is supported by the Israeli Consulate, Israel 21c, and the American Israel Friendship League is very unsettling,” read one representative posting on the Ynet news website.

“We have ceased to be a light unto the nations, we are now merely a mirror that reflects what is wrong with society today.”

But one of the models who will be photographed next week by Maxim saw stripping down to her swimsuit as an act of patriotism.

“The fact that I can represent this country makes me very proud,” said Tali Handel, a 25-year-old former air force sergeant who only took up modelling a few months ago.

Though she said she’d never heard of Maxim before, and was unaware of its somewhat bawdy reputation, she said she expected the article would be “serious,” and hoped it would encourage young Jewish males living in the United States to consider moving to Israel.

“I don’t see anything negative about it. Nothing else brings [people] here, not Jerusalem, not the beautiful nature. People are not interested. So, I think it’s okay to use something else to bring them.”