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Against 'hasbara': Explaining ourselves to death

The Israeli obsession with showing ‘our side’ of the story not only guzzles financial and human resources — it is a conscious attempt to distract the world from policies of occupation. 

A pro-Israel rally, Washington D.C, July 18, 2014 (photo:  Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

A pro-Israel rally, Washington D.C, July 18, 2014 (photo: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Last week, the CEO of the global French-owned cellular provider Orange made headlines when he told a Cairo press conference that he would like to end his company’s brand-use contract with a local Israeli provider forthwith. Apparently, he felt the profits are hardly worth the resources needed to defend the partnership politically in France.

Within hours the incoming CEO of the Israeli local provider, called “Partner,” had honed his talking points clear and sharp as icicles:

– This is not a problem for Partner alone, it is a national problem.

– We are not a subsidiary of Orange or France Telecom, we are a fully Israeli company, so this will have no impact on our business.

– We have received amazing words of solidarity from government ministers and even our biggest competitors, the other cellphone companies.

At this point, I forgot momentarily about the occupation and trembled in fear that customers too would rally to support the cellphone company whom I will never forgive for years of client abuse.

But most Israelis never thought about Palestinian life in Gaza or the West Bank to begin with. As the country is increasingly abuzz with the growing specter of boycotts, the word “occupation,” or any word about Israeli policy, never comes up. The first-aid response is hasbara, and many Israelis now view it as a solution in itself.

An Orange-branded cellular store in Tel Aviv, June 5, 2015. (Photo by Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

An Orange-branded cellular store in Tel Aviv, June 5, 2015. (Photo by Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

Translated formally as “public diplomacy” or more cynically as “propaganda,” hasbara refers to “explaining” (based on its Hebrew root) in a way that is designed to show Israel’s side. Not my side as an Israeli, but the side the government and most mainstream institutions and individuals want the world to hear.

Public diplomacy, of course, is integral to all governments in the 21st century. The difference between authoritarian societies and democracies lies mainly in the degree of such communication and the freedom to see behind it. It is common to say that in a post-modern media environment, narrative and image are all-powerful. Ironically, post-modernism could have empowered people by exposing hidden narrative and information bias to average news consumers (with apologies for violent reductionism).

Instead, more commonly, it is elites who utilize these lessons. Many seem to believe that images can replace truth altogether. Working in political campaigns, I know it is no use fighting the zeitgiest; “spin” is a reality of modern political communications everywhere.

But Israel has created a monster. The word “narrative” is so now overused that it has almost entirely replaced facts, which people either no longer believe, nor care to seek out. Back in 2000, the Muhammed A-Dura killing and video sparked a trend of hasbara types dissecting all video documentation of injury to Palestinians in order to find evidence that it is doctored. They call such videos “Pallywood,” and use their claims of doctored tapes to fuel the fire of the hasbara. These elaborate efforts have failed to disprove any Israeli abuses, but as +972 Magazine’s Larry Derfner pointed out, they have damaged the credibility of Palestinian grievances among various audiences.

Footage of the Muhammad al-Dura shooting (Screenshot: France 2)

Footage of the Muhammad al-Dura shooting. The controversy over the incident sparked a trend by hasbarists to dissect all video documentation of Palestinians to prove it has been tampered with. (Screenshot: France 2)

And yet when Prime Minister Netanyahu took office again in 2009, he began a diatribe against “delegitimization” of Israel. The charge applied to both criticism of Israeli policy and political activity against it. The Palestinians’ UN statehood bid, for example, a diplomatic action designed to advance political independence, was considered delegitimization. Netanyahu said it so often that this cumbersome English word, tough for Israelis to pronounce, became a household mantra. It was conveyed as a poison – and hasbara was the antidote.

Netanyahu re-established the “Ministry of Hasbara,” which had existed only briefly in 1960s and 70s. In addition, there is a national headquarters for hasbara within the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). In recent years the Foreign Ministry is largely a de facto instrument of hasbara. Add to that the Government Press Office (also part of the PMO) and the IDF spokesperson’s unit, and there at least five separate bodies paid by taxpayers, dealing with the issue. This may not be exhaustive.

Over the last decade-and-a-half, Israeli government hasbara has been matched by massively funded private organizations from abroad. Two of the most prominent are The Israel Project (TIP) which was established in 2003, the height of the second Intifada (and two years after the a-Dura killing), and StandWithUs.

Read: StandWithUs to take cash, messaging from Israeli gov’t

TIP was founded to tell Israel’s story through a sophisticated, high-level strategy. It coddles journalists and provides top-message training to politicians, with elaborate polling data from numerous countries about how to spin Israel. Its current budget is $11 million.

StandWithUs, another North American hasbara NGO, has a budget of about $8 million, and a similar mission. Its members are known for attack-dog argumentation strategy and aggressive social media battles in which they gang up against those who criticize Israel in ways they do not accept. It is a tactic they share with far-right groups such as NGO Monitor. The latter, along with media watchdogs, tracks every word published. They bully authors for critical attitudes, harangue and seek to discredit them over minutia.

The hasbara groups deny that they whitewash Israel’s problems. They openly discuss the conflict, Palestinians, and even Israel’s role and policy. In a way, this deepens the deception. The combination of positive hasbara backed by the dark side of media thought-patrol implicitly says: you are free to talk about any facts – but only in our way.

‘The media is against Israel’

All countries have their national narratives, but lately it feels like Israel’s are ossifying. It can be maddening to hear mantras repeated over and over by a people who are proud of their hyper-developed skills of disagreement. Some of the most common collective notions include:

 “Israel has always wanted peace; the Palestinians have always rejected it.”

“In the present, Israel has tried to negotiate for a two-state solution, but the Palestinians don’t want it.”

“There is no Palestinian partner – they are divided and ruled by corrupt terrorists or Islamist terrorists.”

“The conflict cannot be solved now. We’ll just have to wait for some other time in the future when they’re ready.”

“The status quo is not good but it is better than any other option.”

“The media is against Israel”

“Inadequate hasbara is one of the core reasons our situation is bad – if we improved our communications, the world would stop pressuring us.”

“Hasbara is a national strategic priority (or threat, if not done well).”

“The Palestinians have top-quality hasbara, which functions like a well-oiled machine, and that is how they have hijacked the narrative.”

“If we show the world good things Israel does, they will forgive us for the occupation.”

Those core themes are now axiomatic in Israeli life. They are not debated over dinner but they are the factual starting point for all other discussions.

The national fervor has given rise to numerous hasbara programs designed to train individuals how to think and communicate in a pro-Israel manner. The programs are geared for young people, both Israelis and foreigners, whether they are considering careers in PR or just becoming adults on any path. They are being taught to communicate positively about Israel, to research and process information to support the correct opinion, and how to interact about Israel in ways designed exclusively to convince.

According to StandWithUs, the organization has: “graduated 1,000 Israeli Fellows – students who have completed their IDF service and are trained by StandWithUs to tell Israel’s story from an Israeli perspective.”

The Hasbara Fellowship is another one. It was founded by members of the Aish HaTorah Yeshiva, a long-standing Jewish proselytizing group that seeks to turn secular Jews ultra-Orthodox. In 2008 Jeffrey Goldberg called them “the most fundamentalist movement in Judaism today.”

Its brochure states that Hasbara Fellows are taught about: “Israel’s positive contributions to world, Israel’s free and democratic society, Israel’s strategic threats [against Israel – ds], and incitement in Palestinian schoolbooks and media.”

Fellows are “exposed to a variety of perspectives on the Israeli political spectrum.” But in an article about the program, founder Elliot Mathias explained that students are exposed B’Tselem in order to rebuff its claims: “‘These are arguments that anti-Israel students often use, and it’s important that our students hear it and know how to deal with these situations,’ Mathias wrote.”

A Palestinian B'Tselem volunteer documenting a protest in the south Hebron Hills, June 14, 2008. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)

A Palestinian B’Tselem volunteer documenting a protest in the south Hebron Hills, June 14, 2008. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)

The right-wing outfit Institute for Zionist Strategies (IZS) has aimed even younger, with a proposal to the Ministry of Education for a high school program on public diplomacy based on “Love of Zion” and Zionist values. IZS is the group that has conducted a political-monitoring operation against Israeli academic departments to bolster the attack on academia a few years ago by Im Tirzu. Presumably, the educational hasbara program it proposes will reflect the spirit of its agenda.

It is certainly good for young people to learn communication skills, such as rhetoric and debate. Those skills rest on the ability to analyze arguments from different sides and gather new information. But hasbara teaches people about one side, on one issue. It doesn’t just teach specific opinions – it teaches people how to think.

Uncritical thinking

In hasbara-world, young people are taught to determine right facts about Israel, selectively, and to discredit, then suppress all the other ones. They are taught that there is one right interpretation of facts. Bottom lines can’t be criticized at all, such as Israel’s designation as Zionist.

What is a fact, anyway? In this approach, the test is not empirical, but the other way around: if it’s good for Israel, it’s a fact. If not, it must wrong.

brilliant recent article about Armenians who have raised genocide recognition above all other national pursuits explains the danger:

To label 1915 as a genocide…was our highest calling…as an adult, I came to question those orthodoxies, which came from the Armenian summer camps, youth groups and other community activities…I described how such views sometimes seemed inextricable from racism against Turks; and that when it came to intellectual life, we had lost the freedom to ask questions and pursue ideas that were not framed by the political project of genocide recognition.

Hasbara-ists may be exposed to “a range” of political perspectives, but not in order to listen. They speak to B’Tselem prepared only to refute it; how can they possibly encounter Palestinians? They listen in order to not listen.

Hasbara also taints the good: Kavana, or the intention deep in our hearts, is an important concept in Israeli society and in Judaism. What happens to a cultural, scientific, social-improvement pursuit when it is done for some other kavana – when its real goal is to improve Israel’s image rather than the thing itself?

The Armenian author cited above observed that the Armenian obsession to stake out its identity in Soviet Russia began to taint creative pursuits in poetry, architecture, science.

Without realizing it, these people are impoverishing their hearts and souls by ceasing to take any real enjoyment in poetry, architecture and science, seeing in them only a way of establishing their national supremacy.

Israel may not be quite there. But we have become accustomed to sickly-sweet news items about Israeli acheivements. Wan congratulatory articles extol great Israeli technology, cultural or humanitarian achievements in some sad hope that if we convince ourselves that they annul bad policies, the world will believe it too. That way we won’t have to change anything.

Listening to the Israeli media boast about Israel’s superior level of humanitarian aid to Nepal relative to other countries, one wonders how far we are from caring about our image more than the bodies still being counted.

It’s the occupation, stupid

Israelis’ first reaction to boycott-like efforts is defensiveness and backlash. While this raises doubts about the effectiveness of boycott as a tactic, it is reasonable to think Israelis would finally feel the consequences of ongoing occupation.

But the reaction to every negative development is to demand better and better hasbara as a replacement for better policy. During last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, I heard a Tel Aviv hipster in the supermarket telling someone that the real tragedy is that Israel’s side of the story is not being told well. Back around the time of Operation Cast Lead, an academic colleague fumed that Israel’s poor hasbara is a “war crime” in itself.

All countries care about their image. But the hasbara obsession guzzles financial and human resources. It is a conscious distraction from policy debates that only serves to perpetuate terrible policies. And that’s just in the present. In the future, even if Israelis wish to change their minds, think in new ways, or question what isn’t working – they may no longer know how to do so.

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    1. Pedro X

      In a world where Israel and Israelis are subjected to continual demonization by NGOs funded by foreign sources, it is important that we remember that Israel has been assailed in the court of public opinion since its declaration of independence.

      Abba Eban was a powerful advocate for the Jewish State and for the rights of the Jewish People. Eban set the standard for defending Israel in the courts of world opinion. During many difficult periods, his voice was a stirring reminder of the justice of the Zionist cause and Israel’s eternal hope to live in peace with its neighbors. He proved that even though Israel is a small nation, its moral voice can be heard loud and clear across the world.

      Israelis and friends of Israel continue Eban’s legacy and advocacy. To not do so, is to surrender to the many anti-Zionsit voices which seek to harm the Israeli state and its people. To do so is to permit Israel’s moral voice to not be heard. This does not mean that Israelis or friends of Israel ignore that like all other western democracies there are challenges in Israeli society. Israelis themselves are acutely aware of what happens around them. They are among the most educated people in the world and most technologically advanced people. Their universities produce many anti-Zionist voices and narratives. The internet contains non stop criticisms of Israel. That Israelis and friends of Israel should attempt to make their voices heard, as Abba Eban did, is only natural and just in a free and democratic society like Israel.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        So I open the New York Times and what do I see? White cop draws gun on black teen at pool party, New York politician uses state funds for private parties, man held for three years without trial commits suicide, income inequality in U.S. rises, shooting deaths in New York up since last year….no one says that the media “demonizes” America, unless you listen to Fox news. But reporting on the usual abuses of power and racism in Israel brands you as an anti-semite. Israel is just a normal country with some severe human rights problems, and should be treated as such.

        Reply to Comment
        • BigCat

          But here are the problems with your response, Bruce:
          a). Israelis are not on the comment section of NYT or any other US website ranting and demonizing the US and US citizens. You Bruce, an American, are here every day posting mostly pure propaganda against the Jewish State. Despite the fact that the United States has more social problems than Israel (as your example show), you do nothing to fix your own country first and help the underprivileged in your own country who are worse off than Israel’s underprivileged, but instead worry too much about fixing Israel (a country you are not allowed into?). That points to a personal problem, Bruce;
          b). Israelis are not on the comment section of British, German, French or any other European website ranting and demonizing Europe and European citizens. Europeans are every day on Israeli and Jewish English-websites, among others, ranting, demonizing and posting pure propaganda against the Jewish State, even as the Jewish State is getting ahead of most European countries in terms of economy, innovation, science and technology (Israel ranks 4th among the world leading nations in science and technology); Europeans are obsessed with us, not we with them!
          c). Most foreigners who post on this site EVERY SINGLE DAY ranting and demonizing Jews and the Jewish State DON’T HAVE A JOB. A perfect example of such persons is the individual who calls himself Brian alias “Ben” alias “MuslimJew”, alias etc.! Their obsession with Jews and Israel is STRONGER than their natural need to have a job, take care of themselves and pay their own bills, instead of e.g. depending on social monies provided to them by the US Government with the taxes paid by the working folks. That’s a problem, Bruce. That’s a big mental problem.

          Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “Israelis and friends of Israel continue Eban’s legacy”

        This actually exposes the problem in a nutshell. Israel used to have no problem doing this and in fact until much more recently enjoyed the good will and good hearted support, and the consistent benefit of the doubt, of the majority of the mainstreams of the western democracies. After 48 years of patient efforts taken for granted and lied to and being used by successive right wing Israeli governments, these same western establishments have now had enough and have pretty much withdrawn the benefit of the doubt and are increasingly withdrawing the good will and support. This degenerative process is in a more advanced stage in Europe than in the U.S. for reasons of internal American politics and higher levels of sheer ignorance and gullibility in the American voting populace, but even there signs are that this is breaking down. As Peter Beinart wrote recently they’ve gone in terms of “pro-Israel” activism successively from an anti-Arafat to an anti-Iran to an anti-BDS platform of justifications. The Iran era is closing and we are entering the age of BDS. It’s a long way from the Eban era. That was two eras ago. The invoking of Eban is faux-continuity. And the fact that Americans and Europeans en masse warmly supported and gave the benefit of the doubt to Israel up and until 48 years of being used, and being used especially and in accelerating fashion in the past 10 of those 48 years, took its toll, gives the lie to the charge that Israel has been singled out unfairly or that more “advocacy” will do the trick.

        …boycott the boycott, punish those calling for a boycott, prohibit free speech about boycotts, send people to jail for exercising free speech, spend billions in casino money on hasbara, form committees of academics, teams of experts….

        On the other hand, why not just end the occupation?

        Reply to Comment
        • BigCat

          Oowh ooh, here is Brian alias “Ben” alias “MuslimJew” alias etc. hyperventilating and hallucinating yet again with his rambling mumbo jumbo! LoL…..I am literarily falling out of my chair rolling on the floor laughing my ass off. Hilarious! Hey, Benny, honestly, finding a job will do you much more good than fixating on- and obsessing about Jews and the Jewish State 24/7, while not looking for a job, but instead depending on food-stamps provided by the United States Government with my tax dollars! I can help you with a job, you know? How about that, Benny, you want a job or not?

          Reply to Comment
        • Gustav

          “On the other hand, why not just end the occupation?”

          Simple isn’t it?

          End it how? Unilaterally? Without a signed peace deal? Remember our unilateral withdrawal from Gaza? How did that work out?

          Or by signing a suicidal peace deal? No thanks Benny, we won’t let up to 4 million Arabs settle in Israel proper.

          Oh, and sign a peace deal with Hamas? They won’t sign one with us. At best, they are willing to sign a 10 year Hudna (cease fire). And what will they do during those 10 years? They will prepare for war against us.

          Next, Benny, let’s hear your next bright idea…

          Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Waiting… waiting…. waiting….

            Still no bright ideas, Benny? You are a bit like a dog who leaves it’s droppings on the side of the road then walks off with it’s tail wagging.

            You drop your pearl of wisdom…

            “On the other hand, why not just end the occupation?”

            But when challenged about it, you have nothing to say. Nu, Benny? Over to you. Say something useful…

            Reply to Comment
          • David

            “Remember our unilateral withdrawal from Gaza?”

            There was no withdrawal from Gaza.

            To wit:

            As the respected human rights organization Human Rights Watch declared in 2005: “…Israel will continue to be an Occupying Power [of the Gaza Strip] under international law and bound by the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention because it will retain effective control over the territory and over crucial aspects of civilian life. Israel will not be withdrawing and handing power over to a sovereign authority – indeed, the word ‘withdrawal’ does not appear in the [2005 disengagement] document at all… The IDF will retain control over Gaza’s borders, coastline, and airspace, and will reserve the right to enter Gaza at will. According to the Hague Regulations, ‘A territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army. The occupation extends only to the territory where such authority has been established and can be exercised’. International jurisprudence has clarified that the mere repositioning of troops is not sufficient to relieve an occupier of its responsibilities if it retains its overall authority and the ability to reassert direct control at will.”

            The International Committee of the Red Cross: “The whole of Gaza’s civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility. The closure therefore constitutes a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, ratified by Israel, bans collective punishment of a civilian population.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            …yeah right, Sharon uprooted 10,000 settlers from Gaza.

            …what did we get in return? 10,000 rockets fired from Gaza onto the heads of innocent Israeli civilians, day in day out for years.

            …and when do those rockets stop? At least temporarily? When we send in the IDF and give them a dose of their own medicine…

            …all those propagandists like David teach us is that unilateral gestures, like the withdrawal of 10,000 settlers, does not work. Only counter violence works…

            Reply to Comment
    2. Eliza

      Dahlia states ‘Israel’s first reaction to boycott-like efforts is defensiveness and backlash. While this raises doubts about the effectiveness of boycott as a tactic, it is reasonable to think Israelis would finally feel the consequences of an on-going occupation.’

      BDS does not exist to directly mold Israeli public opinion. I doubt very much that the movers behind BDS even see Israel (or most Israelis and/or Zionists) as being capable of contributing much to a just resolution of the I/P conflict until they have no other choice. The real work of BDS is not to convince Israelis that their control over millions of non-Jews is detrimental to both the Palestinians and themselves, but to influence international public opinion and to extract a price from Israel for their behaviour.

      There is no reason for Israel to ever end its occupation/control over Palestinians unless it starts to experience some pain – and its not a question of companies going broke; a fall in the bottom line will get the attention of their directors and shareholders. Equally, its not expecting BDS to completely isolate all Israeli cultural/academic/sporting activities; just enough to force Israelis to question whether the benefits of occupation exceed the pain of boycott.

      One thing is certain. the impetus for change will not spontaneously arise within Israel.

      I wouldn’t be too concerned at the hasbara or its long term effect upon Israelis. Those being lulled into its rhetoric are not the next generation of thinkers – and in a way it really doesn’t matter what they think now or in the future.

      In any event, we all surprise ourselves when we finally get mugged by reality. We do find a way of discarding old certainties once its clear it is was all a crock of shit.

      Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        “In any event, we all surprise ourselves when we finally get mugged by reality. We do find a way of discarding old certainties once its clear it is was all a crock of shit.”

        Does that include the likes of you Eliza? I mean will you too be willing to discard old certainties once its clear it is was all a crock of shit? Or does your delicate pearl of wisdom apples only to us, the great unwashed?

        Reply to Comment
    3. David

      Israel is an historical anachronism, 67 years of trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. Zionists: Short term smart, long term stupid, real stupid.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Margot Dunne

      I am scared of Hasbara. It is infecting the world like an unpleasant virus. It distorts justice. I see it constantly displayed by comments here. I see it displayed in the Australian media. I am not Jewish: then shut up, your commentators will say, it is not your business. But it is my business – I was brought up to love the Holy Land, & I have strong ties there, historical & actual. The Holy Land is planetary business. OK, I have been attacked with hysterical Hasbara before, & I now wilfully open myself to it again. I think I will be even more scared, & more hopeless.

      Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        Margot you are scared of Hasbarah? No! You and your kind dish out propaganda against us and we respond by trying to explain what we are up against. But that scares you?

        Also, Margot, I recall you and I having a civilized conversation about our differences. We even complimented each other about it. But now you tell me that we are all abusive?

        I think I wasted my time with you. Oh well, what a surprise. That’s the international extreme left for you. Leopards don’t change their spots. No one to talk to when it comes to them…

        Reply to Comment
    5. ROWAN

      Interesting and brave article….gosh there’s a lot of nutters out there on both sides (both? as if there’s only two)…put your head above the parapet and there’s a great deal of shit and rotten fruit thrown but thank …whoever’s up there or not… that its just eggs and brain-born fecal matter being tossed -at least there’s still free speech in Israel …if you wrote this in the US or UK people would be screaming ‘anti-semite’ or if you’re Jewish …well you know the rest.
      anyway..the points are well made…can we agree on that ?

      Reply to Comment