Letter to the Minister of Hasbara

As a former Israeli diplomat with years of experience promoting Israel’s image in international public opinion, I would like to offer you my insights on your role and the subject matter with which you have been entrusted.

Firstly – the term “hasbara” has a negative connotation in the world outside of Israel, as it is often perceived as propaganda. “Hasbara” is a style of communication that characterizes non-democratic countries that “explain” any of the injustices they cause by presenting alternative facts. “Hasbara” excites the already convinced and completely misses the target audience abroad. Naturally, politicians are more inclined to participate in “hasbara” than career diplomats who understand a fundamental truth: change in public opinion is catalyzed by allowing spaces of discussion and dialogue, not by dictating a version of “reality” to be parroted to the other side.

In my years as a diplomat, I learned that the root of Israel’s image problems lies in its policies, not its ability to explain them to the world. A 55-year-long history of controlling another people is inexplicable and indefensible if we do not attempt or plan to change it. There is also no need to explain that we have a historical, cultural, and religious connection between us to the West Bank; The Bible, which is the most widely read book in the world, has already done so successfully. What cannot be explained is why we ignore the connection of the Palestinians to that same area.

What is equally impossible to explain is why our connection to the land is more important than our Zionist vision of being a national and democratic home for the Jewish people – impossible to achieve while our national home governs millions of individuals without rights.

Israel’s central propaganda technique, based on the “blame game,” no longer works. While it was once true to argue that the Arabs first refused peace, and then the Palestinian people followed suit throughout the early years of Israel’s existence, these arguments can no longer be used as a reason for our political inaction and avoidance of devising any long-term plan, vision or initiative to reach a settlement. The idea of Zionism was to take initiative and responsibility for our destiny. Ben Gurion exemplified this ideal when he declared independence despite the partition decision that seemed like an impossible geographical challenge, and the imminent threat of war from all fronts, by all of our neighbors.

Unlike in the past, Israel has recently been plagued by political paralysis and is busy blocking any initiative to change the situation. The result is a continued deterioration of Israel’s public image, which no trick or gimmick by the Ministry of “hasbara can change.

Similarly, the technique of evoking victimhood is no longer effective. The use of anti-Semitism as a defense against criticism is seen in the world as an inability to deal with the essential arguments, constitutes contempt for the concept, and harms the fight against real anti-Semitism. Similarly, attempting to justify our aggression through the pain of the Holocaust is no longer accepted. No one accepts anymore that there is justification for the victim to become the aggressor.

The government you currently represent has declared that it has no intention of ending the occupation. This government is the first to ‘remove the mask’ that for a long time hid the reality MPs and Israelis understood long ago – it intends to turn the occupation from a de facto situation to a de jure one. It may be possible to prefer the removal of the mask over continuing to mislead the public and the world, but the price will be a rapid and painful deterioration in Israel’s international standing before the international community punishes us with sanctions. You will not be able to change that either, Madam Minister of “hasbara”.

Even the efforts of the “wizards” of information and branding to divert attention from the occupation thanks to the amazing achievements of Israeli society, which is indeed one of the most creative in the world, will no longer help. Just as sanctions do not allow the Russians to get away with their aggression in Ukraine because they have Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin and Tchaikovsky or the best classical ballet companies in the world. All of these will not be able to protect Russia’s policy in the world’s public opinion. Even the efforts to divert attention from the occupation with the amazing achievements of Israeli society will no longer work. The success of our high-tech, academia, culture, and art are all at risk as the government undermines the mechanism that made these achievements possible.

The only audiences that Israeli “hasbara” currently convinces are those who are against liberal democracy or who have a distorted view of Israel as an exemplary ethnocracy they would hope to mimic in their own countries. There are those who believe that the “Gog and Magog” war that will arise here will result in the return of the Messiah, who they believe is Jesus Christ.

To reach the relevant target audience of liberal democratic countries and create a meaningful dialogue with them, it is necessary to change policies and entrust communication with the world to career diplomats who understand the target audience’s culture, values, and interests; communication should not be entrusted with divisive politicians, whose messages are aimed at the target audience of the Likud Center and not at improving Israel’s position in the world.

About the Author
Nadav Tamir is the executive director of J Street Israel, a member of the board of the Mitvim think-tank, adviser for international affairs at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, and member of the steering committee of the Geneva Initiative. He was an adviser of President Shimon Peres and served in the Israel embassy in Washington and as consul general to New England.
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