Is Some Hasbara Hurting Israel’s Image?

In the span of the past week, I have witnessed at least three clashes among several prominent members of hasbara/pro-Israel activism circles and between some such activists and other pro-Israel writers.

The disputes were more about said activists’ supersized egos than about any substantive controversy.

That is not uncommon in the activist world, which is why I stay away from identifying myself as an activist. I articulate my views on this subject as I see fit, but trying to join a community where the biggest stars seem to be at least as intent on competing for attention, credit, money, or a general sense of being right as interested in accomplishing their goals does not seem like a worthwhile endeavor.

Childish insults, absurd back and forth about who has the right to opine on this or that subject and who has “standing” to be pro-Israel or Zionist, or whatever, seems counterproductive and more likely than not exposes the Jewish community and some of its friends as every bit as tribalist and petty as some of the people we are trying to counter. Indeed, if we could take back all the hours spent on these superficial flame wars, which have not in any way benefited the cause, we would have had hours spent towards benefiting promoting a positive view of Israel.

It seems that the nature of the game attracts personalities who find Jewish activism or pro-Jewish activism or whatever lucrative enough of a field to not be bothered professionally with anything else. As such, then, this professionalism of hasbara becomes a lifestyle and a mode of survival – if people do not prove themselves superior to other people with similar messages but a different style, they may not get the funding or the article quote or a place in the sun, and may be forced to “retire”.

Do we really need a full-time professional hasbara corps? I have gone back and forth on this subject, because some issues are very complicated and require nearly full time investment of energy. And the PR alone takes resources and devotion to carry out properly. No doubt our enemies employ full time forces; why shouldn’t we? At the same time, there has got to be a way to weed out the opportunists or social media celebrities who get too big for their breeches and forget what’s ultimately important. If only the social media environment wasn’t so conducive to groups of people with too much time on their hands more than willing to feed into the nonsense and get undeserved attention to petty squabbles by engaging in endless egging on and show of “support” in the comments! When pro-Israel activists on or off social media turn away from what they are supposed to be doing and turn to insulting each other and anyone who disagrees with them or criticized their brand, they become no better than any troll. They might as well be Russian bots – they certainly contribute to the same perception with their petty nonsense.

We’ve all seen that time and again, and yet the same people are always there, doing the same thing.

Honestly, the most effective pro-Israel PR moves I have seen had nothing to do with these attention grabbers.

Israel’s humanitarian efforts, such as IsraAid, and its energy investments in the underserved regions, speak for themselves and need little advertising beyond information campaign.

The best thing Israelis and their supporters could be doing is talking directly to people in the outside world about small things, normal life in Israel, building personal relationships, inviting new friends to visit and learn what’s going on for themselves, and explaining how Israel makes people’s lives better in a practical way, contrary to the BDS screeds.  None of it is easy, and of course, some haters are going to hate no matter what. It takes time to overcome decades, and in some cases, centuries of anti-Jewish brainwashing from governments, clergy, the media, and ignoramuses on the street.

The best thing to do is being alert but open-minded, firm but friendly, and setting a positive example with one’s own actions. Israel and her allies in the West have spent untold amounts of money on PR, and yet is that what is ultimately breaking down barriers all over the world? Or maybe, chance encounters, curiosity, personal stories, friendships, and informed well-reasoned responses to natural questions are the way to go. We can spend decades battling the BDS influence on campuses, but I am beginning to think that our energy may be best spent elsewhere. Indeed, we come across so insecure about the future of our young people’s relationship with Israel that we forget that there is a whole world out there, a world hungry for information and hungry for our voices. There is a world out there sick of lies, just as our young people are eager for lies.  Maybe we should not give them quite so much attention that they are craving in so many ways. Maybe the best way to show that we are secure in ourselves and in Israel’s future is to shift the discourse on successful relationship-building with people who are reaching out to us, who want to learn about us – not focusing on people who are trying, in vain, to isolate us.

Western universities don’t want Israeli academics? Well, perhaps Israeli academics can focus on building relationships and strengthening the universities in non-Western schools, where one day in the next few years they might be welcome. I am betting there are Kurdish universities, which may benefit from Israeli expertise and would welcome growing educational partnerships.  I am betting some African universities are more than grateful for Israeli assistance. They may not yet be in a position to vote with Israel at the UN, but they may wan to see strong relationships between their children and Israelis in less formal ways.  Why not apply to those schools and help break down barriers in person instead of trying to push one’s way into environments more obsessed with identity politics than with providing quality education and nurturing critical thinking skills?

Unlike many, I embrace globalization, in particular, the globalized exchange of ideas made possible by increased contemporary connectivity. We use it to bash each other about minutiae, but we could also be growing and strengthening our networks related to common concerns that go beyond politics.  While our governments and dedicated professionals work to cut off funding to the enemies that are financing lies and bad ideas, we each, without the help of big-mouthed activists, can do our personal part in creating better connections through personal contacts.  We can spend a lot of money on training leaders – but to lead, one needs only to think out of the box, take initiative, and create opportunities that further one’s goals. Half my newsfeed is taken up by various groups arguing about 1. Trump and 2. anti-Semites and Israel.  We can spend all day calling out anti-Semites, or we can spend the same time strengthening our friends.

I’ve been “in the trenches” on various matters with people who had nothing at all to do with Israel or Jewish communities, but for whom my willingness to share in their concerns and priorities humanized me on an individual level, and in some cases raised questions and doubts about the disinformation they have been fed all their lives. I get that it hurts that pro-Israeli professors do not feel free to be themselves on campus, and pro-Israeli students feel intimidated by peer pressure. I have long since been a vocal advocate of ignoring and strongly fighting any attempts to intimidate anyone, and bringing all this to the surface, but there is also a different, perhaps a complimentary response: forget about trying to score some points with people who do not even see you as a human being. Cultivate contacts, relationships, and friendships with people who are willing to take you as you are and are open-minded to engage in meaningful and substantive discussions.

You know why my posts and social media comments are uncensored? Because I am not afraid of losing friends or followers over my opinion. For every person who is so turned off by my views that he cannot participate in the conversation any longer, there will be someone curious enough to stop by at least for a while. People who let politics triumph over friendships are not and never have been real friends. Values matter, and values transcend the convenient of circumstantial acquaintances of convenience. If we are not walking the same path, I may wish you peace on your journey and move right along. I will not spend time worrying how this person may react to my political views or how my former companions can become hostile. IF they do not value me as a human being, why should I worry them? I can make new friends, hopefully better ones.

For that reason., social media wars among pro-Israel activists are perplexing to me. Do we not have enough enemies that we need ideological purity tests in our interactions before we can deem to engage in polite discussions or reasonable disagreements?

I posit that Hasbara for the sake of hasbara, not for the sake of good and joy and a creation of a positive inspiring impact, is damaging, rather than simply unhelpful.

One pro-Israel megastar spouting bile at his or her rivals can be more of a turn off to potential allies than if such people with similar reach did not exist at all. This infighting should be discouraged and punished with exclusion from added attention rather than promoted. Just being pro-Israel is not enough to make a positive impact. It needs to be done that reaches hearts and minds rather than alienates supporters.  Defensive, aggressive behavior is likewise not very welcoming to the conversation. I get that our community has suffered a lot, is suspicious, and has a chip on its shoulder. But why should anyone waste his time figuring that out? Our first impressions in engaging others whether for business, mutual defense, or simply a conversation should be positive and attractive.  The macho arrogance of many of these megastars works to wow other Jews and other activist. An average person from the outside who has nothing to do with this world will just find it easier to walk away.

Confidence is attractive. Arrogance is repulsive and may more likely earn us enemies rather than friends.

It’s a thin line, but we are lacking the basic self-awareness to even notice it, it seems, these days.

Unforgiving of even the smallest mistakes, we come down full hammer on those who are deemed less “holy” than our perceived ideals.

At the end of the day, the English speaking Hasbara world is as much of a bubble as anything else. We may reach some well intentions students somewhere, but how often do we go into other communities and bring them in to see us as people rather than as political symbols?

These days, I am less interested in hearing about what Israelis think about the latest move by Bibi or what should be done about Gaza than about how they spend their free times, where they make friends, what kind of people they talk to when they go on vacation somewhere abroad. The most interesting stories are not the glamorous symbols of success of Jewish-Muslim or Israeli-Arab dialogue, but imperceptible friendly interactions between neighbors.

Life is more often about passing the salt than attending the presidential inauguration.

We seem to have lost track of the priorities, which is creating a sense of normalcy, rather than developing and perpetuating a state of drama.

Normalcy is where we worship, what we had for dinner, how we perceive our daily hassles – including but not limited to whatever is related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Trump, but certainly much more than that. Our favorite books. Great art. Silly movies.

I do not want to spend all my life feeling like an obsessive revolutionary with only one goal in which everything else in life, all sparks of joy, and small talk and deep discussions, must be made subservient or sacrificed.

Hasbara is not a separate life.

Defending Israel is just part of normalcy. Make it into an act of creation that adds to your and everyone else’s life in general, and not a black hole where reason and friendships go to die.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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