Storyworth: How Did You Bring Peace to the Middle East – Chapter 2

| October 15, 2022 | 0 Comments

Two years after our experience on Cyprus with the Palestinians and the Israelis described in a previous chapter, my friend Jay F. came back with a new project related to the earlier one. Jay was working for the Peres Center for Peace, named for Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shimon Peres, whose executive director was a man named Uri Savir. Uri was Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords, a peace agreement from the early ‘90s between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He was portrayed in the movie “Oslo” as a slender, dashing, charismatic and irreverent diplomat, a characterization of him wildly at odds with the man I got to know on this project. He was in fact smart, irreverent, funny and charismatic. Other qualities in the portrayal in the movie seemed exaggerated for dramatic effect. But that’s another story for another time.

Jay came to me with a project called the Millennium Peace Calendar. It was a large poster-sized calendar that the Peres Center had created with young Israelis and Palestinians from the West Bank who drew pictures about their dreams for peace. Those pictures decorated each of the months in the 12 month calendar. The calendar was signed by the Pope, Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela and other world leaders. It was designed to be a fundraising vehicle that would provide financing for computer centers that the Peres center would establish both in the West Bank and in Israel that would allow young people from each community to communicate with one another and build relationships across the two communities. These relationships would break the chain of hostility by developing a generation of Palestinians and Israelis who had friends on the either side of the Jordan River.

I had been at FleishmanHillard for two years by that time. I was a little more established and so I had a little more ability to get the company to approve this project. Of course, unlike the previous project, this would have been a paying client. But payment was somewhat contingent on the success of the project. In other words, we had to sell calendars. All FH asked was that we don’t LOSE money on it. I only had to break even. In the end, we never came close.

The first meeting with Jay and a woman from the Peres Center was on a Monday in early September of 1999. Since the calendar was for the year 2000, there was no time to waste. Once my general manager at FH approved the project, we had to move quickly. In fact, I had to be in Tel Aviv by the following weekend for a meeting at the Peres Center for Peace that following Monday….with Shimon Peres, the former Prime Minister of Israel. Less than a week away. And, I had to have a plan for the project by then. Yikes.

I wrote a plan in my hotel room in Tel Aviv that forecast that we would raise $10 million dollars from the calendars. We would sell them for $100 a piece. Our chief targets would be the American Jewish community.

I presented the plan to Shimon Peres and the Chairman of the Board of the Peres Center, Dov Lautman, who was the head of the Sara Lee company in Israel. They approved the plan, but before I left the meeting (after getting the picture with Peres below), Lautman pulled me aside and said, “This project HAS to work. The Peres Center is struggling financially right now and if this effort fails, it could destroy the organization.”

Me and Shimon immediately after I told him I was going to raise $10 million for his non-profit with the Peace Calendar.

I went back to the U.S. excited about the project, but daunted by the fact that I had no idea how to sell calendars. Nor did Jay. Our ignorance revealed itself pretty quickly when we contacted Barnes and Noble with the idea of selling the calendars in their bookstores. They chuckled indulgently and said we were about a year too late. They finalize their calendar purchases about a year in advance, not three months, as we were proposing. Not a good start.

Still, we soldiered on. The coolest part of the project was our celebrity outreach, facilitated by the famous friends that Uri had made when he was the head of the Israeli consulate in New York. The two biggies were Kathleen Turner, the actress, and David Stern, the NBA Commissioner. 

We met with Stern and made our pitch that we’d like to sell the calendars at NBA games. We’d set up little pop-up booths in the concession areas and hope that basketball fans would be moved to buy these very large calendars by their deep desire to advance the cause of Middle East peace. We didn’t quite think through the logistics of people buying these oversized calendars at basketball games and either bringing them back to their seats or even buying them on the way out and lugging them home. Nevertheless, Stern listened politely and promised to give it some thought, in deference to his friend Uri.

Kathleen (as a friend, I can call her Kathleen) was all in. Our first meeting was supposed to be with her husband, Jay Weiss, a New York developer. We carried our big calendar down a side street in Manhattan, went into a run down building, climbed the stairs to the second floor and knocked on a door with no identifying sign. It looked like an apartment. When Kathleen Turner opened the door, I gasped and almost fell backwards. She wasn’t the Kathleen Turner of Body Heat, but still a presence. She apologized that her husband Jay was unable to make the meeting, so we’d have to settle for her. 

We met in a non-descript conference room and brainstormed a plan to promote the calendar using the child artists and her star power. She would call her friend, Rosy O’Donnell and get us on The View. She also had a connection at CNN. But we’d have to bring the artists to New York. And that’s what we did. Though there were some bumps along the way.

Our worst moment came when Jay was at Tel Aviv Airport to escort the children from Israel to New York. It was mid-December and I was busy with some personal pre-Christmas tasks. A long distance call came in. I picked up my phone and heard Jay whispering urgently. He said they were about to board the plane. The kids were saying goodby to their parents. The problem was that there was no place to stay when they landed in the U.S. I forget who was supposed to book lodging for the group. It certainly wasn’t me. I imagined the joyful excitement of the kids and their parents. Little did the parents know that their pre-teen children were about to join the ranks of the homeless in New York City.

Jay told me we needed to find hotel rooms for the 6 or 7 kids by the time they landed in New York about 10 hours later. Of course, this was Christmas time and most hotels were booked solid. So, Jay suggested I call Kathleen to see if she could help.

I did and the call did not go well. She was not happy. “What the fuck is wrong with you people?” she bellowed. “You’re bringing these kids over here with no hotel?! Do you realize it’s Christmas time in New York? THERE ARE NO FUCKING HOTEL ROOMS IN NEW YORK!”

After getting that out of her system, she said she’d see what she could do.

I went out to do an errand and I remember pulling into my driveway and seeing my wife, Rita, standing at our door holding the phone with a very anxious look on her face mouthing the words, “It’s Kathleen and she’s pissed!” Kathleen had said to her, “You husband is driving my fucking crazy!”

But she did help. She gave me the name of a French woman to call, who, in turn, gave me the name and number of a hotel that would accommodate the kids. I called and booked the rooms. I then packed to take the train to New York to meet the group.

I met them at Penn Station and we decided to go back to the hotel before going to dinner. They had already checked in. It was walking distance from the station. As we approached the side street where the hotel was located, I heard a crowd chanting and asked Jay what the noise was. He said, “Oh right. I forgot to tell you. There’s a strike at the hotel and the workers are demonstrating outside the entrance.”

That’s why there were rooms available. As a Labor Democrat, I was horrified at the prospect of crossing a picket line to get into the hotel. There was a guy with a bullhorn who was exhorting the chants from the crowd of striking workers, obviously one of the union leaders. I told him about our situation. That we had a group of Palestinian and Israeli young people in the U.S. on a peace program and they were staying at the hotel. I told him I was a supporter of labor, but these kids had nowhere else to stay. Could we get into the hotel without “violating” the picket line.

He said yes. Then turned to the crowd of strikers and yelled through the bullhorn, “Let them through! They are bringing peace to the Middle East and they support us!!”

We did hits on The View and CNN with Kathleen. Showed the calendar and introduced the kids. It was touching. Fellow guests and TV interviewers were so impressed and they showered compliments on the kids. Kathleen was an awesome saleswoman. 

And didn’t sell a single calendar. Not one.

In desperation, I set up a table at my local church during Sunday Masses trying to sell the calendars in my own community. Zippo. Zilch, Nada.

The project was an utter and complete failure. Fortunately, Dov Lautman exaggerated the impact this failure would have. The Peres Center for Peace lives on to this day. 

We did eventually hear back from David Stern at the NBA. He offered a donation of $10,000, but didn’t want any calendars. When he called Jay to offer the donation, he also gave us advice to pass on to Uri Savir, our leader at the Peres Center. It was probably the best epitaph to the project.

He said, “The calendar is too big and it’s too expensive. Tell Uri to get out of retail.”


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