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Israel and Its Daunting Uphill Battle in the Arena of Public Opinion

A sign at the entrance to Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem.
A sign at the entrance to Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. (Sabrina Soffer)

I just received Noa Tishby’s recent book entitled, ISRAEL: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth. I’m eager to dive into its pages, curious about how she stitches together the story of how Israel has incurred this fate. 

Even I can admit being susceptible to misunderstanding. In my essay, On the Footsteps of an Elusive Peace, I relay my experience in Israel this past summer while visiting the Walled-Off Hotel’s museum in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem. Among the many exhibits were short video clips showing IDF soldiers’ heavy-handed conduct towards Palestinians, including purportedly innocent civilians shoved into military vehicles, scenes of civilian housing demolition, and shocking imagery of murdered children and lacerated bodies.

For a moment, I felt myself questioning my identity and unreserved support for Israel. Not until  later in the tour did I realize that it was the artistry of propaganda that had brilliantly painted a one-sided narrative, distorted facts and effectively removed all context from my mind.

The lobby view at the Walled-Off Hotel in Bethlehem. (Sabrina Soffer)

There was no mention of Hamas’ regular attacks on Israeli civilians necessitating a defensive response; there was no mention of the Palestinian Authority’s massive siphoning of world financial aid—same which incentivizes its leaders to perpetuate the daily hardships of innocent Palestinians while condemning Israel for their miserable living conditions. There was no mention of Israel’s persistent efforts to strike a peace agreement since its founding in 1948, then again in 1967, 1991, 2001, 2008 and beyond. Nor was there mention that Palestinians had, time and time again, rejected the notion of two states—Israel and Palestine—peaceably co-existing side-by-side, seeking instead the dismantling of the Jewish state and Israel’s destruction. There was not even a mention of the Holocaust, the centuries of antisemitism, exile and persecution endured by the Jewish people. And there certainly was no mention of the colossal archeological evidence of a continued Jewish presence in the land of Israel for over three millennia. 

Exhibit after exhibit invariably framed Israel as the colonizing villain. The marketing was genius and incredibly convincing. As I exited the museum, I reflected on the dangers presented by this twisted narrative: Bethlehem, home to Christianity’s most sacred sites, welcomes well over a million tourists each year. Many of them, unfamiliar with the context of Middle-East politics and history, are ineluctably inculcated with virulent anti-Israel falsehoods.

A model representation of the old city of Jerusalem showing Israeli troops stationed on every rooftop. (Sabrina Soffer)

Not uncommon are comments of European visitors such as: “Look, the victims have become the oppressors, like the Nazis—they’re war criminals.” The portrayal of Palestinian civilians as pitiable victims at the hands of a brutal oppressor is inherent in most Palestinian propaganda. Tom Hayes’s recent documentary Blue Striped Lines, as an example, has been devoured by a mostly layperson audience. The mass dissemination of concocted news and staged events has been very effective at augmenting this perception throughout Western media. So rampant have been the scenes of Palestinian scripted “news,” that the term “Pallywood”—or Palestinian Hollywood—was coined to describe these artistic productions.

Palestinian propagandist initiatives like the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, BDS, have long painted the narrative of Palestinian victimhood. From beleaguering, evocative imagery, they’ve managed to feed propaganda to an uninformed public compelled to blame Israel for heinous ‘war crimes’ against innocent Palestinians. 

A portion of an exhibit at the museum inside the Walled-Off Hotel. (Sabrina Soffer)

Since 2004, the BDS movement has proliferated globally, most prominently in Europe and the United States. Despite America’s 2019 anti-BDS law and fierce international condemnations for misinformation, BDS remains a propellant of anti-Zionism and antisemitism. French intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy denounced the movement by comparing its apparatus to that of the Nazis, spreading spurious and vicious claims to promote the erasure of Israel.

Palestinian propagandists have had great success in spreading false maps distorting the realities of Israel’s historical borders. In late 2015, MSNBC’s anchor and ‘Middle-East expert,’ Martin Fletcher, aired a news segment featuring the doctored maps and commented on the progression of “Palestinian land…eaten up by Jewish settlements.” It wasn’t until he was later confronted by some of his more educated audience that he came to realize that the maps were fictitious propaganda. His subsequent apology did little to undo the damage.

Major existential challenges aside, Israel faces its most daunting threats from widespread public misinformation that engenders anti-Israel hostility in international forums. For instance, in 1975, the United Nations’ infamous resolution 3379 “determined” that “Zionism is a form racism and racial discrimination.” The resolution entitled “Elimination of all forms of racial discrimination” implied that Zionism and its resulting state of Israel needed to be dismantled— effectively, making “antisemitism international law” as expressed at the time by US ambassador to the UN, Daniel Moynihan. While repealed in 1991, the effort to delegitimize Israel is ubiquitous to this day, manifesting itself as a new virulent form of antisemitism.

A UN report released just last week declared the Israeli occupation of the West Bank illegal under international law, calling on the International Criminal Court to prosecute Israeli officials. The report made no mention of Hamas nor Islamic Jihad’s terrorist activities prompting Israel’s necessary defense. Not unlike resolution 3379, this report sets a dangerous precedent because it bolsters the dissolution of the Jewish state.

“The UN report is biased, false and blatantly subjective…not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic [but] this report was written by antisemites,” wrote Prime Minister Yair Lapid responding to the report in a tweet.

Swastikas graffitied on a wall inside the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. (Sabrina Soffer)

Newer generations, swept by contemporary progressivism, have increasingly inherited a novel wave of antisemitism creatively disguised as anti-Zionism. It takes the form of anti-Israel defamation through the use of old antisemitic tropes. A sign on display during a Students For Justice in Palestine protest this past Janurary at the George Washington University, read “GW is a Zionist Propoganda Machine”—a clever blend of anti-Zionism and traditional antisemitism inferring that ‘Jews control the media.’ This among other messaging tools have enabled the BDS and SJP-like organizations to burgeon in scale and amass public influence. 

A PEW poll this past March showed that 56% of Americans aged 18-29 view Israel unfavorably, and a Bertelsmann Stiftung survey found that a mere 20% of Europeans displayed a positive attitude toward Israel. More disturbingly, an overwhelming number of Europeans believe that Israel is pursuing a deliberate extermination campaign against Palestinians. No matter the facts, each time conflict erupts, Israel ends up as the bad guy. 

Graffiti on the security fence showing Israel’s desecration of Palestinian homes. (Sabrina Soffer)

Over many years, hasbara—Hebrew for ‘explanation’— has been Israel’s primary public relations vehicle dealing with the onslaught of Palestinian propaganda. Its advocacy efforts focus on education while justifying Israel’s actions and policies. Alas, these old-fashioned hasbara strategies have largely failed; Israel has long been fighting a losing battle for public opinion abroad. 

In an interview by Ben Caspit for an Al-Monitor podcast in late summer, international spokeswoman to Prime Minister Yair Lapid Lapid, major Keren Hajioff, warns against Israel’s “passive-aggressive approach to the media.” Having served in the IDF for 12 years, she headed the IDF’s diplomacy and social media team.

“There’s warfare taking place on social media, and just like when you have a war, it’s all about the opening battle […] you need to make sure that at the beginning, you start strong and make sure that you win the first battle […] and frame it in the right way,” said Hajioff. 

Hajioff tells the success story of her IDF unit’s social media strategy during Operation ‘Breaking Dawn,’ a few days after my visit in Bethlehem. This was Israel’s three-day clash with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group based in Gaza. The foreign press, quick to jump on the story, claimed that Israel’s military assault had targeted heavily populated areas, inflicting many civilian casualties.

The Palestinian flag waving alongside Fatah’s flags in front of the security barrier in Bethlehem. (Sabrina Soffer)

The press ignored, however, that some 20 percent of PIJ’s rockets had fallen within Gaza’s boundaries, killing many innocent civilians. Moreover, the Hamas Interior Ministry ordered sweeping restrictions on foreign journalists in Gaza. It forbade reporting on misfires of rockets killing Palestinians and instructed locals to accompany foreign media personnel telling them to blame Israel: “Defend the Palestinian narrative and reject the foreigners’ bias to the Israeli narrative.”

Hajioff and her team immediately took to the foreign press and social media channels to preempt the spread of mass disinformation. With unprecedented speed and coordination with Israeli intelligence, her team had corroborated evidence and produced an informative Twitter thread including captivating videos and creative captions. The facts may not have reached a large foreign audience, but the impeccable timing and artistry of the message had nonetheless contained the circulation of lies. 

This past summer, Israel’s cabinet approved a program to revamp its obsolete hasbara strategies. A new venture, dubbed Voices of Israel, is a governmental-philanthropic joint initiative charged with the mission to “Enhance the image of Israel in the global arena…combat hate speech and incitement against the State of Israel worldwide…creating a partnership platform that empowers and promotes the work of the pro-Israel community.” The program has coalesced a diversity of organizations domestically and internationally, from Hasbara fellowships for college students to the Israeli-American Friendship League and Conexion, a delegation between Mexican-Jewish leaders and Israeli innovators

With cards dealt against Israel in the forum of world opinion, VOI faces a daunting uphill battle. While Israel may have truth, evidence, and logic on its side, it must hone a sharp understanding of social media to emerge as a powerful contender and successfully rebrand its image. As Hajioff explained, gaining the hearts and minds of the masses is less about truth and more about the speed, creativity, and at times, audacity in its presentation. The success of the revamped hasbara ultimately hinges upon the vigorous mobilization and sophisticated use of social media tools to the likes of Instagram reels, TikTok videos, and catchy Tweets.

As VOI’s initiative takes flight, it must pursue an entirely different approach: More offensive and proactive as opposed to the defensive and reactionary practices of the old hasbara. “The winning strategy can be summed up as fact-checking, speed, and working in a coordinated manner,” said Hajioff about winning the battle of the narrative on social media. “Fingers on the keys are as important as having your hands on a weapon.” 

About the Author
Sabrina Soffer is a student at the George Washington University planning to major in Philosophy and Public Affairs with a minor in Journalism. She is a co-president of Chabad GW at her school and is in the University's Honors program. She has also recently published her first book, My Mother's Mirror: A Generational Story of Purpose, Resilience, & Self-Discovery. Sabrina is inspired by the cross-cultural interplay as related to self development, human rights, policy making, and how that impacts public opinion on Israel. The Jewish principle of Tikkun Olam, or self-repair to repair the world, continues to inspire Sabrina’s character, work, daily life, and aspirations.
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