We love Israel and cannot understand why everyone does not share our feelings. While the cliché of two Jews, three opinions has merit, I have found a consensus exists around the belief that Israel has terrible PR and that the reason the world does not share our affection for Israel is simply one of poor messaging. Hence, tremendous resources are invested in trying to do a better job of making the case for Israel. Despite the time and energy devoted to hasbara, we continue to fail because of the belief that the world will bend to our will. It is like deciding we don’t like gravity and just need to work harder to escape it rather than accepting the reality we are earthbound and adapting to that reality.
If Jews cannot all agree, why do we think that everyone else should have the same love for Israel we do? More than 60 percent of Americans in polls for the last several years say they sympathize with Israel, roughly four times the number that sympathize with the Palestinians. Isn’t that good enough? Is there some reason to expect these record high numbers should be even better?
The essence of our concern stems from paranoia and I do not mean this in the pejorative sense. As Henry Kissinger once said, even paranoids have enemies. Given our history, we are genetically conditioned to worry that at any time Jewish lives could be endangered. Any diminution of American support for Israel, we fear, could have potentially catastrophic consequences. Consequently, alarm bells have gone off upon hearing survey results suggesting that support for Israel may be falling among the young, women, liberals, and Democrats.
Many of us believe it should be clear to everyone that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, that it shares our values and interests, that its citizens crave peace and that the Palestinians are as unwilling to compromise today as they were in 1947. Clearly, this is not obvious to all, but the reason is not simply a matter of poor messaging.
Some people, including Israeli officials, have believed the answer to Israel’s image problem is to change the subject from the conflict with the Palestinians, that is, to go “beyond the conflict.” Millions of dollars are spent trying to create a new brand for Israel as if it were a soft drink that simply needs a better slogan to improve sales. You cannot sell Israel the way you sell soap because soap does not have 5,000+ years of history, fight bloody wars with its rivals or get criticized by world leaders. Surveys have found that promoting Yisrael Ha’yafah – beautiful Israel – is not effective in changing public opinion. It is still worth some time and effort to show positive aspects of Israeli technology, culture, tourism and the rest, but our messaging needs to start from the premise that we cannot go beyond conflict as long as there is a conflict. Israel can discover the cure for cancer tomorrow and critics will say, “That’s very nice, but why are you still denying Palestinians their right to self-determination?”
Blaming Israeli PR is unfair. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government officials are doing a good job, and their work has greatly improved over the years. Besides having to operate within the context of the conflict, they are saddled with the burden – one I am glad they have – of representing a democracy. This means that unlike counterparts in a totalitarian state, they do not have control over information. The free press can and will publish stories that highlight the worst aspects of Israeli society. Diplomats can explain policies and put them in context, but there are limits to the effectiveness of responses to reports that allege, for example, an innocent Palestinian child has been shot by soldiers, settlers have defaced a mosque or a humanitarian crisis exists in Gaza.
Blaming the media is not the answer either. Yes, it is important to correct the record when the press gets stories wrong, and to build relationships with journalists and to educate them in the hope they will cover Israel objectively. The media is still demonstratively biased and anyone who thinks that can be changed by better hasbara is engaging in wishful thinking. The anti-Israel media bias is partly related to the ideology and ignorance of reporters, but it is also an outgrowth of Israeli democracy. Reporters are free to report whatever they want in Israel and, since news typically focuses on the negative (“if it bleeds, it leads”), it is unsurprising that Israel is often portrayed unfairly.
On campus, millions of dollars are spent to train activists and develop messages and materials to win the war for the hearts and minds of students who will determine the future of America’s relationship with Israel. This is vital, but we have been fighting this battle for decades and many Jews believe the situation has gotten worse despite the investments. If that is true, it is a sad commentary on our efforts. I don’t believe this assessment is accurate; nevertheless, we continue to face challenges on campus that have less to do with the quality of our arguments than generational changes (notably the shift away from fears of Jewish vulnerability) and the unpopularity of certain Israeli policies (e.g., settlements, “occupation,” and perceived discrimination against non-Jews).
For too long many advocates have behaved as if they can change the playing field. We might believe a football field should be 90 or 110 yards, and have the best arguments in the world for that position, but the length of the field is going to remain 100 yards and that is where we have to play.
The bottom line is that no matter what we do, we will never convince everyone to love Israel. We can be more successful, however, if our hasbara strategy is based on certain premises that until now pro-Israel activists have been reluctant to accept: we cannot change media bias, democracy makes Israel vulnerable to criticism and potential friends may find some government policies objectionable.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including the 2017 edition of Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, The Arab Lobby, and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.