In the conflict with Hamas, there are two narratives fighting a battle:
- Hamas’s actions directed at Israel, and the impact of those actions on Israel and Israelis.
- Israel’s actions directed at Hamas, and the impact of those actions on Gaza and Gazans.
What proportion of global public discourse is focused on each of these two narratives?
My estimate: Global discussions of this issue are focused 90% on Israel’s actions directed at Hamas and Gaza. The most powerful signifier that Israel has lost the battle of narratives is that a very small proportion of global conversation is focused on what Hamas has been doing to Israel, and the threats Israel faces.
The result of this is that the story circulating around the world is that Israel has been brutally attacking civilians, for no good reason. This contributes significantly to delegitimizing Israel.
Why is this happening? To be sure there are many significant factors Israel cannot control, such as the historical bias against Jews, Hamas’s limitations on reporters in Gaza, the sheer number of Moslems in the world criticizing Israel on social media, etc. Since Israel cannot control these factors, let’s focus on factors Israel can control, because there are many.
The biggest communication issue Israel can control: This clever start-up nation, despite all of its achievements in science, technology, medicine, agriculture, defense, etc., is pretty inept when it comes to communicating its story.
Communication is not about sending messages. It is about being understood. Israelis tend to tell a story that makes sense to Israelis, not a story that makes sense to and motivates people hearing the story outside of Israel. Even Bibi, master communicator, isn’t as effective as he could be. I heard him on American TV recently, describing the current war with Hamas with a level of detail that, I’m sure, was beyond the grasp of most listeners; I understood him, but I’m sure my neighbors didn’t. If people don’t understand you, you haven’t communicated.
Much of this Israeli communication ineffectiveness can be traced to the mindset of “hasbara,” the Hebrew word used for public relations. Literally, hasbara means explanation. With the concept of hasbara as a backdrop, Israel sees its main communication task as explaining the situation.
But explanations rarely work. Effective communication happens when someone encounters your message in a way that makes sense to him or her. Without the historical context that most people lack, and in competition with the evocative pictures of a devastated Gaza, is it any wonder that millions of people are not persuaded by the logical, detailed explanations of Israelis?
If Israel wants to communicate a more sympathetic, motivating message, a few strategies need to be employed:
Keep the story simple and clear
- Israeli messages are often overly-complicated and assume a level of knowledge of the Middle East that 99.5% of people in the world don’t have. Most people don’t have the historical background to hear about an Israeli pinpoint operation and understand why Israel is taking the actions it is taking. Israel should learn a lesson from the Palestinians, who mastered the highly-focused message of victimhood years ago. A very simple message about Hamas launching thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians while hiding behind Palestinian civilians could be very effective, as long as it is not cluttered by secondary, yet true, details. Currently, this very compelling message gets lost in the noise.
Focus messages on what Israel’s enemies do to harm Israel
- Think of the two narratives I described at the beginning of this article. Israel needs to focus its messages on the narrative that describes Hamas’s aggression and other sources of Palestinians violence directed at Israel. Realize that most people don’t know about Hamas’s 14,000 rockets and their tunnels, and the long history of Hamas suicide bombings and other forms of terrorist violence. Take control of the narrative and talk about what’s happening to Israel. Every comment on an Israeli response to aggression should be described in the context of the Hamas action that elicited it.
Create a harmony of messages
- Ron Dermer, Bibi Netanyahu, Mark Regev and Michael Oren, to name a few, are all great communicators. But the individual stories of these and other Israeli spokespeople will be most effective if they communicate messages that resonate with and complement the stories of other people speaking on behalf of Israel. If every person communicating Israel’s story in the media could resist the temptation to “freelance,” and could instead communicate a message that harmonizes with the other Israeli messages in the media, the cumulative effect of these messages could be much more powerful. And, as noted above, these messages need to be simple and clear, uncluttered by details.
Israel needs to stop confusing people with complicated explanations that make sense only to Israelis, informed diaspora Jews and history professors. Instead, Israel needs to focus on a few simple, clear, empathy-inducing messages that are delivered in a way that makes it more likely that people will see things from Israel’s point of view.
Will this stop anti-Semitic French bigots from yelling “kill the Jews?” No. But there are many people who could be persuaded by the right messages. Israel and world Jewry need to think seriously about keeping as many of those people as possible on their side.