Org attracts celebs to shape nation's public image

TEL AVIV — Earlier this month, David Arquette arrived in Israel to shoot scenes for an upcoming Travel Channel project, tentatively titled “Mile High.” While in the Holy Land, Arquette, whose mother is Jewish, headed to Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest site in the world for Jews. On an apparent whim, the 40-year-old seized the moment and decided to have his bar mitzvah, right then and there.

A rabbi at the Western Wall helped Arquette bless the Torah and perform the ancient coming-of-age ritual, while cameramen snapped away.

The Israeli Ministry of Tourism could not have been happier.

“That was fantastic,” says Uri Steinberg, director of North and South American development for the Ministry. “David Arquette’s an A-lister, he’s coming here for a show that’s going to run on the Travel Channel, primetime, and we’re able to make this connection with his bar mitzvah, which appeared in all the big newspapers the following day.”

Arquette’s bar mitzvah was also seen as an unexpected payoff from an initiative the ministry has been pouring no small amount of shekels into: Bringing celebs to Israel on glitzy, all-expenses-paid trips.

According to both the Ministry of Tourism and America’s Voices for Israel, a special-interest group committed to bringing high-profile visitors to Israel, Arquette chose the Jewish state for an episode of his travel show on the advice of his co-producer Omar Epps. Epps has visited Israel twice on free missions, first on a trip organized for the cast of “House,” and then again in May on a celebrity visit that also included Holly Robinson Peete, Mekhi Phifer and AnnaLynne McCord. Both trips were organized by America’s Voices for Israel, with the second coordinated with the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Omar’s trips, especially his visit last May, just blew him away, in a deep, spiritual, emotional way,” says Irwin Katsof, director of America’s Voices for Israel. “He decided to do one episode of the show in Israel. No one knew publicly, but it was a direct result of his experience in Israel.”

Over the past two years, America’s Voices for Israel has coordinated six celebrity missions to Israel. The Ministry of Tourism, which also organizes trips on its own, began working with America’s Voices last year in a bid to share resources.

America’s Voices was founded in the early part of the past decade, during the throes of the first Palestinian Intifada, and is also a regular sponsor of trips for leaders of the Christian Evangelical community, high-profile journalists and world politicians.

“We are an educator,” Katsof says of America’s Voices. “We believe that if we bring people on these trips, we just bring them to experience Israel and present the facts to them … they realize that the issues are very complex.”

Both Katsof and the Ministry of Tourism say they hope mission participants will use their status to tweet and blog while on the ground in Israel. “Our goal is to reach out to the U.S. population,” says Katsof. “For 19- to 30-year-olds, the best way to reach them is through celebrities and social media. They’re not reading The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.”

Celebrities are never required to sign a contract. But while Katsof describes the trips as “no strings attached,” Steinberg is more direct.

“When you’re talking about people who are not A-listers, we are in a position where we can tell them, ‘We want you as our guests, but we also insist that you will use social media and you’ll give interviews to various foreign journalists stationed here, because that’s how we want you to pay for this trip,'” he says.

“Ally McBeal” actor Greg Germann attended the first America’s Voices celebrity mission to Israel, in January 2010, an experience he calls “a dream trip.” Germann, whose grandfather was Jewish, went because it seemed like a great opportunity, not because he had any desire to serve as a de facto ambassador for Israel.

“Actors sometimes tend to inflate our importance, and the truth is when they come to you and they offer you this amazing trip, on every single level, if you’re free, who wouldn’t want to go?” Germann says.

Asked if he thinks his fans would change their opinion about Israel if he were to tweet or blog about his experience, he responds, “I honestly have no idea. I mean, I’m not Tom Hanks. But I would think of influence in terms of a specific issue. In Israel, the issues are so deeply complicated, I’m not sure what awareness any actor could bring to bear on it.”

For the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, however, visitors like Germann are invaluable.

“We have an agenda. We want to make Israel cool,” Steinberg says. “And we know that making Israel cool is making cool people visit it.”

This agenda has led to the unlikely partnership between America’s Voices and the Tourism Ministry. Katsof, a longtime Los Angeles rabbi-turned-energy executive who cultivated Hollywood connections during his time in Tinseltown, believes politics must be discussed on his trips.

“It’s the elephant in the room; you can’t avoid it, he says. “If you don’t even bring up the Palestinian issue, it’s brought up. So of course we discuss it.”

The Ministry of Tourism, however, wants to shift the focus away from Israel’s military and toward its abundance of history, culture and cuisine.

When a photo of McCord saluting in an Israeli army beret, flanked by two giggling female soldiers, appeared in the Israeli papers, the ministry wasn’t happy. “For us, every picture with an Israeli soldier damages us,” Steinberg says.

America’s Voices, on the other hand, has since made that image the cover photo on its Facebook page.

But although the two orgs don’t always agree, to get stars to Israel, the ministry needs America’s Voices. “They’ve got a lot of high-quality contacts that we don’t have,” Steinberg says.

And the celebs, it seems, continue to be onboard.

“Look, I’m an actor. A free lunch is a free lunch. I’ll go,” Germann says. “But I also wanted to learn something about where I come from.”

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