(Note: Hasbara is a Hebrew word that is a little difficult to translate. The best translation I’ve seen is “public diplomacy.”)
Whether working as a tour guide or hosting Friday night dinners, countless people have asked me, “How can Israel improve its hasbara?” My answer is always the same, “Start losing.”
As cynical as it sounds, that’s the fact of the matter. For those of those old enough to remember, Israel’s hasbara was at its best during the second Intifada when buses were blowing up and hospitals filled with casualties. As soon as Israel went on offensive and terror attacks started to wane, suddenly our hasbara wasn’t so good.
As for those of you who haven’t been following this conflict let me lay out the current fighting for you in hasbara terms – Hamas launched a terror attack against Israel with over a thousand civilian victims (good hasbara), Israel begins attacking Gaza and restricting supplies entering the Strip (bad hasbara). Hamas’ missiles do little physical damage, while our bombing results in large scale destruction. As the war drags on, more Palestinian civilians will die while Israeli civilians suffer far less, meaning our hasbara will get worse.
Welcome to the kabuki theater of hasbara where the quality of our hasbara is inversely proportional to our success on the battlefield.
Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t bother responding to disinformation you see and hear. For many of us, not responding will just eat you up inside, and reacting is a good way to articulate your own feelings. Just don’t expect that hasbara will have any real significance. I doubt that even the best spokespeople have ever convinced anyone to change their mind about Israel. They can help you feel more secure in supporting Israel but not much more than that.
Perhaps we just need to stop obsessing about hasbara, because right now, power speaks much louder than hasbara.
Looking around at the loud and growing bursts of anti-semitism around the world, we have to ask ourselves, why now? Israel and Hamas have gone after each rather several times before, so what’s different now? Is our hasbara worse?
I would argue no – the current wave of harsh, anti-Israel and even anti-semitic behavior is less connected to Israel’s operations in Gaza than it is to the fact that we suffered such a severe loss on October 7. Israel’s enemies sense weakness and feel it’s time to “go in for the kill”.
This situation is reminiscent of the infamous “Night of the hang gliders,” when a Palestinian gunman entered Israel from Lebanon on a hang glider, managed to penetrate an army camp and kill five IDF soldiers (a sixth was killed before he entered the camp). Several days later the first Intifada erupted in the territories, with some concluding that the IDF’s humiliation at the hands of one gunman was one of the sparks leading to the first Intifada.
There are some early Zionist thinkers who believed that Jews were hated because of their weakness. That establishing our own state would give Jews power and end anti-semitism. This was obviously an oversimplification, but the concept should not be dismissed out of hand.
When I describe Israel’s security situation, I often use the phrase, “An eggshell armed with a hammer.” Yes, we pack a powerful punch, but at the same time are in a very vulnerable situation, with civilian populations living meters away from terrorist bases. This means that we must heavily rely on deterrence – preventing attacks through fear of retaliation. For Israel, at the moment, the number one goal has to be reestablishing this deterrence, no matter what the hasbara cost.