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Propaganda on a Shoestring

THE JERUSALEM REPORT
With unexpected success, a Kfar Saba couple takes on Israel's information battle
Hanan Sher

"TAKE A MOMENT TO IMAGINE." The words flash across the computer screen. "Imagine that a bus ride ends like this." A photo of a burned-out bus pops up. "Imagine that a trip to the shops ends like this.... Imagine that a teen disco ends like this." With each caption comes a picture of post-terror carnage. Then finally: "Imagine that this happens in your hometown."
"Imagine" is one of four remarkably simple, hard-hitting and effective Internet presentations created by Udi and Mal Ohana to help Israel in the information war.
A husband-and-wife team from Kfar Saba, northeast of Tel Aviv, she's an English- language editor-translator, he's a graphic artist. Huge numbers of surfers have clicked onto their presentations over the last year; and they have won praise - but no financial support - from bodies responsible for official "information" efforts.

Mal and Udi, around 50, insist that they never set out to make a political information tool at all. "Imagine" originated in a series of e-mails that Mal wrote to a list of some 60 friends, many of them childhood friends from her native England, to show "what it felt like to live here, sending kids to school or to go out at night." Eventually Israeli-born Udi joined in, and the words of the letters turned into graphics. "I tried to write," he shrugs, "but then decided that I ought to express myself in what I know how to do, not in my Israeli English."

The Ohanas' friends told their friends, triggering an unexpected avalanche: In the first three weeks, the site (now reachable at www.conceptwizard.com/info.html) attracted thousands of web surfers. "We began to understand the idea," says Mal. "We send the link to 10 people, and they send it to 10 others. It was like a chain-letter" that asks to send a dollar. "But without the dollar," chuckles her husband, who has gray curly hair and wears a stud in his left ear.

In the past year the Ohanas have produced three more presentations, each a quick-changing collage of text, photos and multimedia animation, which they say aim at presenting the Israeli consensus for the uninformed. The series includes "History in a Nutshell," in English, French, Russian and Dutch, more Israeli history in "Nutshell Too," in English and Russian, and "Anti-Semitism and Islamic Expansion." They have struck a responsive chord among Israel supporters in search of an effective tool to shore up Israel's eroding image, with well over 1 million individual "visitors" who come to the website (as opposed to individual "hits" on one page). Almost 1,000 people from around the world have contributed small donations to help cover costs; another 100 have paid $25 for a CD of the presentations.

On the main table of Udi's one-room graphics studio, among the graphics paraphernalia, sits a vintage Singer sewing machine. "It's there," says Udi, "as a reminder of the time when people who designed something paid attention to every small detail." If the Singer represents order, the ear stud "is a kind of rebellion saying that even if you're 50, you can still do what you want to. If clients expect me to think like someone who's 25, I must understand them."
And apparently he does, if the success of "History in a Nutshell" (the name was coined by Mal) among savvy surfers is any guide. Condensing the events of the last 55 years "into three or four minutes, without a lot of text," its popularity has been overwhelming," says Udi. "In about three weeks, we had 300,000 individual visitors."

The response was gratifying till the bill came from the Ohanas' Internet service provider, which said the unexpected traffic had exceeded the monthly quota of site visits. "In one week we passed 100 percent of our monthly quota, and they started charging penalties. But you have no control over who visits your site."

The Ohanas panicked, closed down the website temporarily, and worked out a different deal with the provider. "The day we took it off, we got an explosion of e-mails," says Mal.
"Some people asked if we needed money. At first I didn't want to accept that, I don't like the idea of schnorring," says Udi. One letter, from a woman, changed their mind. "She wrote that when a friend asks to borrow her car, then keeps it all day, that's a schnorr. But what you are doing is not that, you are giving us a service, the lady said. We were convinced."

Over the last year, the Ohanas say they have received money from over 500 donors, including "a few" gifts of $100 or more. But most of the donations were small. "Once I brought a check for $5 to the bank, and the clerk told me to throw it away, because the charges were more than the check," says Udi.

The inflow of money (the Ohanas have not provided an exact figure, but insist the sum is not large) also created a potential tax problem. "I went to my accountant," says Udi, "and told him about the contributions. Surely I would not have to pay 50-percent income tax. He laughed. When I told him it was all a gift, he laughed again. And finally I brought him all the receipts we issued, dumped them on his desk and said, 'Do the best you can.'"

They also began looking for a sponsor, approaching the Anti-Defamation League and the America Israel Public Affairs Committee during a U.S. visit last year. Udi says he talked about a six-figure sum, and was told that would be "no problem" - but that months later, he has yet to receive a reply.

Joel Levy, director of the ADL's New York Region, denies he led the Ohanas to expect funding. "I did not see a finished product," Levy told The Report, adding that approval, in any cause, would have to come from ADL's national office, at the same Manhattan location, rather than his own regional operation. And, he adds, he saw no need to pass the request on at the time.

Back in Israel Udi met Ilan Ben-Dov, head of the Information Department at the Foreign Ministry, but got no money there either. "Our budget has always been limited, and it's even smaller now," Ben-Dov told The Report. "But it's a shame that he didn't take some of the other help we offered," like providing ways to increase the viewership of the presentations.

Even without funding, the Ohanas say they'll keep on making them. "The truth is that it's addictive," says Mal. "The kids are out of the house and we have time, after work..."

Going it alone also has its advantages, picks up Udi. "These things have to come out quickly. And large organizations don't work that way; they are too slow."

Indeed if independence is good for their creativity, the Ohanas might have chafed under the constraints of official funding. Imagine a sponsor who insisted on vetting every image and text. Imagine an approval process involving endless committee meetings, corrections and changes. Imagine...


This article is reproduced with the permission of The Jerusalem Report.
www.jrep.com