Countering anti-Israelism – needed: a joint Israel-Diaspora strategy

Anti-Israelism is the adoption, deliberately or otherwise, of a posture of demonisation, discrimination or delegitimisation towards the State of Israel through the dissemination of misinformation, distortions, half-truths or spurious allegations about the country. It may arise from ignorance, prejudice or malice (or a combination of these) in relation to Israel, Israelis or Jews. It is usually regarded as somewhat distinct from anti-Semitism though the boundary between the two is ill-defined. Let’s not get hung up about the difference: even if anti-Israelism is not always anti-Semitism, it is nevertheless a form of racism that poses a growing threat to Israelis and Jews.

When Israel was born in 1948, her priority was for people, money and arms. The Jewish communities of the world rose to the challenge and forged a partnership with the new state that delivered those desperately needed means of survival. Later, charitable projects were (and to a large extent remain) the main focus of world Jewry’s assistance – for example supporting universities, building schools and hospitals, aiding immigrant absorption – and these were essential in stabilising the fragile new state in the Middle East. Recently, as international “criticism” of Israel and her policies has grown, Jews (or at least an overwhelming majority of them) have striven to demonstrate solidarity with the homeland through street demonstrations, political lobbying and responding to verbal or written attacks through letter writing, radio phone-ins and challenging hatemongers. Israel, for her part, has taken great strides in improving her diplomatic corps, in training spokespeople for government and the IDF, and in nurturing relations with the world’s media.

But there is a problem. It isn’t working. The propaganda war is being lost, and not just within the liberal commentariat. Surveys of public opinion around the world have found that Israel is more unpopular than ever before in her history. International fora such as the UN, already intrinsically biased, have become unassailable bastions of anti-Israelism, as have most Muslim organisations and many otherwise “neutral” humanitarian NGOs such as Oxfam, Amnesty International, War On Want and Human Rights Watch. Trades unions, academia, professional organisations, political parties and churches are rapidly following suit. The media reflect and reinforce this phenomenon in their resolutely unsympathetic or biased reporting and analysis.

Taken together, these trends represent a formidable danger to Israel. Global public opinion was a key factor in the dismantling of apartheid South Africa, an event that most fair-minded people around the world welcomed. That country’s increasing isolation, brought about through boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), was a major contribution to its downfall. Many anti-Israel activists around the world perceive Israel to be the new “apartheid state” and are undeterred by the totally unfounded basis for that accusation. Moreover, they are determined to ensure that Israel meets the same fate as the old South Africa within their lifetimes. To this end, they are increasingly deploying three key methods: demonisation of Israel’s nature, policies and behaviour; BDS as a means of inflicting economic and political damage on Israel; and “lawfare” or the use of international legal bodies to condemn and delegitimise the Jewish state. All three rely heavily on nurturing, via the mass media, a strongly hostile climate of public opinion towards the country, her history and her people.

It is unclear to what extent Israel’s political class recognises that this ethos of deepening antipathy to their country is not simply undermining Israel’s image but is actually becoming a serious threat to her wellbeing and security. In the past Israel’s priority was to survive physically rather than to court international approval. Today, her unpopularity threatens her survival. That’s because Israel is dependent on good trading and political relations with the rest of the world, given the unremitting hostility within her own region.

Having a strong army is no guarantee of security if that military capacity cannot be deployed. Should global public opinion turn further against Israel, she will rapidly become a virtual pariah state with all that that implies: her economy will deteriorate, tourism will decline, arms’ supplies will become scarcer, the IDF’s qualitative advantage will be eroded, and – arguably most dangerously – the morale of the home front will collapse. Moreover, growing public antipathy to Israel will become a tangible and possibly existential threat to Jews worldwide, with anti-Semitic incidents soaring each time there is a crisis, along with widening internal divisions damaging the cohesion of Jewish communities.

What is the answer? Conventional counter-propaganda (“hasbara”) is no longer sufficient. Merely reacting to strident criticism will rarely win back lost friends as the rebuttal never has the same impact as the accusation. There is no doubt that Israeli spokespersons are, generally speaking, becoming more competent. But pointing to improvements in Israel’s official hasbara is irrelevant: imagine an army asserting that it was steadily building its capacity but admitting it was incapable of winning a war. That’s just not good enough.

A consensus appears to be emerging, both among Israel’s supporters worldwide and within Israel, that a new strategic approach is needed. The war of ideas must be fought pro-actively as well as reactively, and achieve a step change upwards in its impact. This will require focus, resources and organisation. Israel has many brilliant minds but, to be frank, public relations is not a national forte. Just as in the early days of the state, Israel cannot solve all the problems facing her alone. She is clearly failing to wage the propaganda war effectively though some Israeli officials may be reluctant to acknowledge this. Israelis need the help of her (Jewish and non-Jewish) supporters based abroad. The scale of the challenge demands the launching of a joint Diaspora-Israeli enterprise, staffed by committed practitioners with the knowledge, skills and motivation to prosecute it with vigour and effectiveness.

This parallel conflict of ideas needs to be coordinated with the “real” war – they are of course closely interwoven – but it has its own dynamic, time scale and characteristics. It is late and much ground has been ceded but the propaganda war is not yet lost. A strategic alliance between Israel and the Diaspora, working closely with non-denominational pro-Israeli groups, can reverse the trend and achieve victory – but we must get down to work now.

About the Author
Born Glasgow, UK. Worked as epidemiologist, Ben Gurion University, in 1980s. Served in IDF as medical officer 1983-1985. Returned to academe in UK but continued to visit Israel regularly. Currently advising faculty at the new medical school in the Galilee (Bar Ilan University). Affiliation: Emeritus Professor of Paediatric Epidemiology, University of Glasgow, UK.