Israel keeps winning on Hasbara, losing information warfare battles

As I have suggested now two years ago, Israel has actually been quite successful in Hasbara (the outreach aiming to highlight its positive cultural attributes). Further evidence of the success of these efforts includes unequivocal opinion victory at the Eurovision, the growing number of trade and diplomatic relationships with African and Latin American countries, as well as increasing business ties and even private cultural exchanges, such as a growing number of travelers, with Muslim-majority states.  With respect to information warfare battles, however, Israel continues to lose.

No matter what it does to defend itself, the optics of it are immediately used against its image as a democratic country proud of classical liberal values and freedoms. And whatever other shows of liberalism Israel puts forth, such as its gay pride parades and the successful integration of its transgender citizens, such efforts are immediately dismissed or overlooked by the press. Expulsion of pro-BDS activists and Hamas propaganda and use of human shield inevitably trumps technology, cherry tomatoes, and even wide acceptance for assorted LGBTQ represenatives in the public eye.

The issue, however, is not just losing the young American Jewish audience, who is also under 24/7 anti-Israel pressure from the media, universities, student groups, and the Human Rights Industrial Complex. Just as importantly, Israel is failing to engage its natural allies and partners – Middle Eastern journalists and human rights activists opposed to tyrannical regimes such as the Islamic Republic, and Erdogan’s murderous reign in Turkey. Quite simply, Israel’s information campaign about Hamas attacks on its borders has been aimed at the wrong audience – largely Westerners, with free access to information about Israel’s history and Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Even still Israel has seen impressionable young American college students ignore available books and archival footage about the conflict in favor of emotional sway by compelling presentation of anti-Israel groups on campus. In Europe and in the US, mainstream press, such as BBC and the NY times, has been producing blatantly anti-Israel headlines and an articles, and those who are predisposed to sharing the points of views disseminated by such publications are less likely to question them. In other words, Israel’s focus has been on strengthening the base of the like-minded and to reach truly independent-minded thinkers who are open to being educated. The assumption here is that some people can never be reached, and for that reason are best ignored, marginalized, or strongly repudiated. But when they are ignored, they become dangerous weapons and furthermore, they replicate by spreading disinformation.

Passivity in the face of active opposition is no longer an option, and pro-Israel activists have been advocating starting engagement, education, and skill-building from early childhood to prepare generation of Israel backers for the future of facing opposition. However, not everyone is a full time Israel activists; and in fact, the most effective people to engage on the issue of discussing Israel are not the professional advocates but rather, successful entrepreneurs, humanitarians, and simply great human beings who give a human face to a highly politicized conflict. That said, to the people determined to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the exclusion of everything else, no amount of traditional advocacy will make a difference. But why should Israel supporters even bother trying to build bridges with people who are determined to see Israel as villaineous?

Quite simply, the issue is not black and white. Israel and anti-Iran activists have a common cause in battling Iran proxies including Hamas. Hamas has been as oppressive towards Palestinians, as Iran and her proxies have been to every other nation in the region. At the same time, Hamas, as a scion of the Muslim Brotherhood, has lost the support of Arab states, and has been increasingly brazen about its funding from Iran and close ties to HIzbullah. However, Israel supporters share a fundamental misunderstanding of the perspective of a large chunk of Muslim majority populations which support the Palestinian issue. If they continue to repeat the same mistake in putting forth a one-size-fits-all hasbara type advocacy or righteous shaming against that particular constituency, they are liable to continue making enemies out of potential allies, if not outright friends.

The first misunderstanding is that the Palestinian cause is exclusively a religious issue.

The truth is, it’s a lot more than a nationalism issue (for PLO), a political-religious issue (for Hamas and various non-Arab states), or a pan-Arab issue (for various Arab states). Leaving aside the fact that many governments have successfully used the Palestinian issue to scapegoat Israel and to distract from the internal failings inside those countries. This cause celebre became a way for many people to unify and identify around something that gives them a reason to put aside disagreements and feel human and committed. Until pro-Israel advocates understand that a large chunk of population in the Arab and Muslim world, are genuinely committed to that issue, and not just for the sake of hating Israel, they can never develop an approach to bring these people over to the side.

It is accurate to point out that much of the so-called Palestinian sympathizers only care about the issue to the extent it gives them a reason to hate on Israel. Not much has been said by the same people regarding the lack of access to citizenship by Palestinians in the Arab states where the continue to live as refugees 70 years after Israel was recognized as a state. Indeed, much of the talk about Palestinians and their “nakba” is sheer hypocrisy and pretense on the part of activists who are making money off other people’s misery. But it would be quite untrue to deny that there are activists who sincerely regard the Palestinian cause as a human rights issue on part with other human rights issue, and who also devote their attention to other human rights violations and causes around the world. They are earnest in their dedication, even if one could reasonably argue that their empathy is misplaced.

After all, few such people call out Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas on their own human rights violations. It would strengthen their point to criticize Israel for not being creative or flexible in dealing with their neighbors, while also holding the Palestinian leadership accountable for perpetuating terrorism incitement, violence, corruption, and doing nothing to build the infrastructure or improve living conditions for their people. The worse it is for the Palestinians, the more their leaders can point to Israel and blame it for all ills. And yet all international aid that goes to improving humanitarian condition ends up being stolen and misused, and anyone who does call out either party is either arrested and tortured by the tyrannical leadership or accused of being an Israel collaborator and shot. No internal reform or pressure to play a part in leading Palestinian society on a true path towards self-determination stands a chance. Yet supposedly pro-Palestinian groups fail to acknowledge these facts, and fail to engage in a meaningful conversation that would seek to bring all stakeholders to the table. It becomes a political issue, rather than a human rights issue, with the goal being not to solve the problem, but to attack Israel.

And yet, that is the only perspective which has been allowed, for decades, to persist throughout the MENA regions and other Muslim-majority countries. Even the most well meaning human rights activists are either forced by rote to excoriate Israel in public in order to retain their own credibility or genuinely do not realize that Israel is not their enemy, and could even be a partner to the Palestinians should there be any sense of partnership. First, they do not separate between the Israeli government and Israelis as human beings, assuming that all Israelis are the same and that they hate Palestinians as competition. Having seen Israel demonized on TV all their lives, not just by their enemies, but by their friends, these journalists, activists, and other influencers have been conditioned to believe that there has to be a serious issue if everyone they know are so sure about it. The other problem is that Israel’s own sources are not considered trustworthy, so no amount of linkage to JPost, Times of Israel, or Arutz Sheva, will convince those who are already deeply suspicious of anything that comes of Israel to take this information about Hamas and others into consideration. Therefore, the real outreach to the Arab and Muslim world should be in their own languages with their own sources.

Second, we must take into consideration that old habits die hard. The cognitive dissonance between the realization that Hamas lies and that everything they’ve been taught to believe about Israel has been a gross misrepresentation of material facts is not something most people will be ready to accept.  Not because they are evil. But because they believe they are good and that everythign they do comes out of place of trying to relate to other victims of abuse of power as they have been raised to believe. That is why merely moving to a Western country or even being raised in a Western country with free press will not shift paradigms overnight. Every day, these journalists and activists are exposed to perspectives that reinforce their existing points of view – family members, their own press, many of the Western outlets, European politicians. It’s best then, not to accuse them of being useful tools of propaganda, nor of being supporters of terrorists – but rather to raise questions that will cause them to come into doubt. That’s not easy, because the instinct is to try to find an explanation that will somehow support the long-held and comfortable views. By the way, coming to an agreement that Hamas and Abbas are evil, will not necessarily bring them any closer to believe that Israel, albeit imperfect, is ultimately the “good guy” here. Even taking that first step may be a barely surmountable obstacle.

But this demographic is crucial, because increasingly, these human rights activists and journalists have credibility with their own communities, sickened by state and non-state oppression and warfare. If many of them have lived in violence and were raised in families with strong proclivities towards the Palestinian cause, the issue may be one of habit and comfort, not just ideological fervor. It has become a platform around which entire communities have been built and grown and to disassociate from it, they need a path towards figuring out what role they can now play in a world where until now they have been largely powerless against far stronger forces, and identifying with another oppressed people, they thought, was the only permissible way of self-expression. Intellectual honesty would demand putting aside prejudices and responding to truthful information that speaks for itself. One would think that the moment these people are finally exposed to Hamas’ own statements about the infiltration of Israeli borders, the campaign of deception, and its terrorist aims, they would immediately realize the delusion of their past ways, issue mea culpas, and acknowledge the reality.

Nothing could be further from the truth; the best one can hope for is that they will put aside the issue and refocus on something else. More likely, at least a portion of such activists, will continue by rote to repeat their condemnations of Israel, even as they struggle internally with the realization of having been duped and with the resentment of those who have seen them at their weakest, being duped.  Expect reactionary outlashes, and a continuation of the same tired old talking points. But that does not mean that the issue is dead and any further interaction is hopeless. The best way is to continue to engage them on issues everyone can agree on: countering Iran’s aggression around the world in whatever form. However, Israelis should contribute to developing a proactive vision for coexistence with Palestinians beyond Hamas. Right now, no such discussion is even forthcoming, and for that reason, for those, who may be one day wiling to join in countering  Hamas, there is no reason to join ranks. There is no promise, and nothing in the discourse lends support that Israel and these Middle Easterners are fighting on the same side, not only against the same enemies, but towards an integrated future, where everyone has a positive role to play.

My suggestion is that Israelis and their friends should step out of the defensive bubbles, which have grown into such comfortable safe spaces from most of the world which is neither here and there, and dare to expand their vision of partnership towards the very people they have been conditioned to think of as part of the problem. These very people can and will actually be a very important part of the solution – if we can figure out how to let them.

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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