How Human Rights NGOs became Hasbara Scapegoats

The proposed NGO transparency law passed its first reading in the Knesset on Monday. Advanced by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, the bill is the Israeli Right’s latest tool to curb the activities of local human rights organizations – and an alarming affront to Israeli democracy.

The bill singles out human rights NGOs and those affiliated with the Left by requiring them to highlight their foreign funding and wear identifying tags in the Knesset, but the latter was revoked. Most significantly, the law would distinguish them from NGOs receiving funding from private donors abroad (some affiliated with the Right and less critical of the government), which would not be similarly restricted.

When the bill was first scheduled to be tabled a few weeks ago, Sweden’s Foreign Minister accused Israel of the “extrajudicial” killing of Palestinian attackers. Wallström’s comments show complete disdain for the safety of Israelis, a lack of understanding of terrorism, and unprofessionalism. Yet, they also highlight Israel’s failure to “explain” its case to the world.

What’s the connection between the two events? The campaign by the Israeli Right against human rights organizations is the result of Israel’s failure to effectively spread its message abroad – or execute Hasbara (“explaining” in Hebrew).

Here’s how I came to this conclusion:

Recently, I was listening to the fallout from the Sweden debacle on the radio as I drove to a conference at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center about the way Israel is perceived in the international media. The episode justly caused a storm in Israel, garnering condemnations from across the political spectrum.

It’s true that during the recent “wave of violence,” there have been cases wherein the Palestinian attackers could have been “neutralized” with less force. Yet for Wallström to criticize this as if it were government policy and the norm is absurd and naive. When crazed teens carrying knives prowl the streets, no one can expect Israelis not to defend themselves.

Even our Prime Minister has called repeatedly for citizens not to take the law into their hands.

In Herzliya, the interesting conference discussed different aspects of the international media’s obsession with Israel as well as different facets of Hasbara.

The panelists — who hailed from academia, the media, politics, and PR and branding – agreed that Israel had not sufficiently explained itself to the world. Some of the speakers mentioned that the government doesn’t prioritize Hasbara enough and has spread the task among numerous ministries, making it impossible to diffuse coherent messages. They also deplored Israel’s strategy for being reactive instead of proactive.

This discussion reinforced my mixed feelings about Hasbara.

The world media is indeed biased against Israel, and there is more to this crazy land than incessant violence. Yet, in some ways, we have reached the point of no return. Israel will never be judged fairly, no matter what it does.

Wallström’s comments reinforce that. But it’s not only her. When my Facebook feed is filled with anti-Israel banter (only part of which is true) from so-called liberal friends abroad who have no connection to our country, I wonder what their motives are. Global anti-Semitism is surely to blame- at least in part.

Yet, Hasbara efforts are misplaced. First, there’s a limit to how much you can cover up fundamentally damaging policies. Instead, we should invest our resources in actually making Israel a better place, rather than simply trying to convince people of it. In other words, fewer words, more action.

What’s more, the conference made me realize how defensive the image issue has made Israelis. It’s for this reason that Israelis have such an immediate and harsh backlash when Israel is criticized. This discourse has exacerbated the “us vs. them” and “the whole world is against us” mentality that pervades our national discourse.

Israelis are so defensive that they cannot empathize with the suffering of others – specifically Palestinians – because everyone is against us. We are the only victims, the logic goes, and anyone who dares to criticize government policy is the enemy.

It’s according to this flawed reasoning that the Hasbara crowd has found the perfect scapegoat for its failure: human rights organizations, the very entities who safeguard our democracy.

That brings me back to the NGO bill, which is now closer than ever to becoming enshrined in law.

The government and its Hasbara cronies are making a critical mistake by defaming the heart and soul of Israel’s democracy. Democracy is, after all, our greatest defense against the many threats we face. What’s more, these organizations are the opposite of how their critics portray them. They are not slanderous traitors who are bringing down the country from within, but positive, productive, and enriching forces in Israeli society.

From my knowledge of Israel’s human rights community from the inside and out, I can attest that they try to make themselves heard here in Israel, but few listen. If and when someone does, not enough is done to change Israel’s existential faults – first and foremost, the nearly 50-year-old occupation. So they speak abroad.

We have passed the days of not “hanging our dirty laundry” for the world to see. We need change – now- or else there may not be a country called Israel to defend. It is the same organizations targeted by the NGO bill which work tirelessly to bring about these positive changes.

Therefore, Israel’s Hasbara community, including the government, should take heed: democracy and freedom of expression are good for Israel’s image, ergo these organizations are good for Israel’s image. By contrast, a government that witch-hunts its critics does not look good. Period.

Israel should highlight the work of these organizations for their important contribution to society, instead of blaming them for its failures.

They deserve a medal of honor, not a badge of shame.

About the Author
Born in Canada and living in Israel since 2003, Melanie Takefman writes about life in Israel, herstory and cross-cultural identity. She is currently working on a book about women and migration.