Jonathan Russo

How Israeli Hasbara Shifted to the Palestinians

I am old enough to remember pre 1967 Israel. I spent two months there in 1964 after my Bar Mitzva. Then it was the land of Egged buses not private cars, donkey carts in cities and young people dancing the Hora. Israel basked in the worlds glow, a plucky upstart, a nation bent on surviving in a hostile neighborhood. A new country determined to make a homeland for the Jewish diaspora, for a people traumatized by the Holocaust. The Arab world had already expelled its Jews by the early nineteen fifties so the ingathering of tribes was complete.

The Arab and Palestinian world was fractured beyond redemption. With no oil embargo as leverage the Palestinians were seen on the world stage as backward and marginalized. Save for a few revolutionary intellectuals there was no cohesive political movement to restore Palestine to its displaced populations. Gamal Abdul Nasser was the biggest threat on the horizon. World Jewry rose to this threat and help fund Israel’s survival via donations and investments.

Over the past fifty plus years I have returned numerous times, visiting family, friends and lately business partners. The changes have been shocking. Modern, affluent, with it, Israel has become a leader in so many areas both economic and cultural that you could say it not only punches above its weight but has successfully knocked out its enemies on both the battlefield and bourse. Except in the success of Hasbara, the term used to define Israel’s ability to put its best foot forward.

The very latest round of war between Israel and Hamas, Israeli the protests in West Bank and the riots between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis has put an end to that Hasbara glow. Truthfully, it has been in decline for a long while. Now it seems the glow is on the other side. The world’s sympathies rest with the Palestinians.

How did Israel lose its Hasbara and transfer it to the Palestinians? I think it happened from four causes.

The first is pure math. There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world 24% of all people on earth. Jews, not so many, some 15 million. So if just 1% of the Muslims who reside in Pakistan, Tangier and Hoboken get on social media and send anti-Zionist tweets or Instagram messages that is 20% more than all the Jews on earth. Now that everyone has a platform and broadcasting your feelings about issues is a daily activity, it is no surprise that Israel is going to be overwhelmed in the court of social media by the Palestinians. Add in a few celebrity influencers like the Hadid sisters and the scales tip against Israel. Not that everyone in the Muslim world is really concerned about the Al-Aqsa mosque but that focus helped make it a pan Islamic struggle. The Israeli’s were not fighting the Palestinians they were fighting Islam. That is highly problematic in a world full of unfiltered images and smart phone photo journalism.

Secondly, the occupation is not cool. I first realized this is 1985 when I went to the West Bank religious city of Jenin on land day with my photojournalist friend. The sight of battle ready clad paratroopers chasing thirteen year old stone throwing boys down the narrow streets was an eye opener for me. No matter what anyone says this did not seem rational or sustainable. Since then I have visited the West Bank several times and it is easy to see why the natural instinct of humanity to identify with the underdog applies to the occupation. There was a time Israel could more or less control the images coming out of the country. Those days are over. The underdog is not the settlers or the border police, it is the Palestinian whose land has been blocked off, whose house cannot be expanded and who has to detour around his own village because of a by-pass road. The settlements do not allow for real authentic pre 1967 Hasbara no matter what the “truth” is. When you are on top you have a real responsibility to behave in a gentle manner to your subjects. John Oliver’s over-the-top and distorted monologue exemplified this when he accused Israel of “acting like an asshole.”

Many Israelis swagger about. They are often bellicose even to their fellow countryman. Who can blame them? They carved out their promised land from hardscrabble earth. They repeatedly defeated numerous armies trying to exterminate them. They have achieved a standard of living equal to many in Europe. World class everything from television to cyber security is exported. However, the flip side is the underdog is now the overdog.

We are now only waking up to the disruptive effects that social media and hidden communication forms like Telegram have. From foreign influencing of domestic elections to outright fraudulent photos of candidates looking ill to absurd QAnon theories, the power of anyone to control the narrative is shrinking. More people get their information from a Facebook feed than network news or daily newspapers. On Israeli media I have watched dozens of Palestinian filmed confrontations with Israeli police. These depressing actions go global in minutes. Images do show reality better than a thousand words and the images coming out of the West Bank are not pretty. America was confronted with the same problem when Republicans tried to spin the January 6 insurrection into something it was not. All you had to do was watch the video to know what they were saying was not true.

There is no way to put the genie of Facebook, Instagram or Telegraph back in the bottle. All Israel can do is to try and understand the effect that each and every military action has and assume it will be show to the world. No one should be shocked if the young Muslims of the worlds authoritarian countries…unable to do anything about their own repression…identify with and use the Palestinian plight as their casus belli.

Lastly, the world has since the birth of Christianity and Islam been at its core anti-Semitic. This reality is baked into both religions. Historically, its virulence ebbs and flows. The displaced Palestinians have now given a new lease on life to this curse. Lines blur between Jews and Israelis between the occupied territories and U.N birthed Israel. There is no legitimate Israel in the minds of many. This too is an aftershock from 1967.

I am not smart or arrogant enough to supply a what to do list to a country I am not a citizen of. My intent as an observer of a land I love is to understand why and how the global image of Israel has changed. Having spent forty years in the advertising, and media industry, what I learned is how hard it is to realize your narrative when so many factors are working against you. However, real word change and progress can be made if there is an understanding and acknowledgement that the world’s reaction to your actions may warrant a revaluation that changes the narrative to your favor once again. This means a completely new way for Israel to relate to the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs on the ground, in the real world. That may be the only way to return to the Hasbara of long ago.

About the Author
Jonathan Russo has been observing Israel and its policies since he first visited in 1966. He is a businessman in New York City.
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