Armchair critics of Israel advocacy organisations love to make out that Israel’s hasbara efforts are failing atrociously. “The Palestinians are winning the global PR war and indoctrinating a generation against the Jewish state” they cry. “Israel’s PR professionals are hopeless, and today’s volunteer activists lack the motivation, skills and bravado of yesteryear”.
At International Political Seminars we run leadership and political tours in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and elsewhere. We work with young non Jewish leaders who come to try and understand the conflict, and with Jewish activists from around the world. Of course, the young non Jewish leaders have been influenced by media portrayals, and by the PR efforts of both sides of this polarized divide.
Contrary to what many pro Israel alarmists think, in my experience, Israel is generally well regarded, with most politically active young non Jews more familiar with its technological prowess and Tel Aviv’s nightlife than the specifics of the conflict, even among those who are greatly interested in international affairs. Moreover, key messages that pro advocates stress do seem to have been absorbed – Israel is a democracy, the only one in the Middle East; Israelis live under constant threat and Israel is a stable state in the midst of chaos. Haters aside, all of this is understood.
Unfortunately however there is one area where understanding is lacking – an appreciation of what Zionism is and why it is necessary. In campus and youth political discourse, the word Zionism has been hijacked. If heard at all, it is most likely a reference to the “Zionist Entity” or the “Zionist colonial project”, both favourite phrases of Israel’s detractors.
Organisations dedicated to defending Israel’s reputation have outstanding skills in portraying Israel as a forward looking state in the here and now, far more practical than their opponents. “Israel wants peace” and “let’s talk about building a better future for the children of Israel and Palestine” are often favourite phrases.
The problem for me, is that while Israel often comes across as reasonable and stately in the here and now, the failure to explain the historic justice of the Zionist movement leaves Palestinian advocates able to claim the tag of historic underdogs, a tag with which comes considerable emotional power – and one in which, after 2000 years of persecution and yearning, Israel should at least have a stake.
If Israeli advocates want others to understand that this is a conflict that involves a Jewish indigenous population as well as a Palestinian one, they need to say that. If they want people to know that Israel is justified historically as well as in the present, they need to make them understand why.
The original Zionist narrative is powerful, as is Israel’s case today. In my view, if Israel’s advocates can draw on the former as effectively as the latter, they will truly make their case.