Make Baklava, Not War

Is there hope for Israeli Hasbara?

Selavan’s unit in action, Gaza 2014. Credit: Col. R’, Armored Corps

July 2014. A whole tank battalion held its fire – orders from above. A viral social media clip of a hospital fired-upon created pressure on international decision makers, who allowed for Israel’s defensive battle, but demanded answers. The footage was later proved fake, but the damage was done. The operations officer who received and passed on a restraining order to all front-line tanks was me.

Nearly seven years later, another Gaza campaign ended. The UN Human Rights Council is investigating Operation Guardian of the Walls.

With both sides presenting military and strategic successes, who actually won will take the perspective of time. Yet the broad consensus is that Israel lost (again) in the public diplomacy battlefield of perception.

A few days ago, in an online discussion, a U.S college campus group leader rejected my feelings of failure – “Considering we are outnumbered, with only 15 million Jews in the world, we did well.” Other voices say public opinion doesn’t matter; give up on that lost cause, it has no impact. Yet as I shared above, in the 2014 Protective Edge Operation, my soldiers and I were directly affected.

Conditions were better than ever this time for a positive outcome: Hamas opened fire first; recent years added a wide-range of Jewish and Christian advocates; and we are post-pandemic, with a world in awe of Start-up Nation’s incredible vaccination operation which led us (G-d willing) back to life.

With these conditions, facing a radical, racist, murderous, homophobic, dictatorial terrorist organization, that throws Arabs (political opponents, people who dare to express an opinion, or just gays) from rooftops and stole humanitarian monies to make tunnels and bombs – we could have done better.

Our national security relies on various diplomatic and financial connections that are affected by public opinion. In the 21st Century battlefield, public diplomacy is an absolute necessity, a crucial battleground.

So, what can be done differently?

  1. Terminology – First of all, end the apologetic term ‘Hasbara; (‘Explanations’). Mind-shift from defense to offense, and do public diplomacy like all countries.
  2. Technology – Start-Up Nation can overcome numbers – monitoring fake news and crucial posts, and then – just imagine an army of bots responding to every oblivious post from the likes of Gigi Hadid.
  3. Central Command:

During the first COVID-19 lockdown, the IDF Homefront Command established a national control center for all army, government and civilian players to gather data, provide help, information and more. Make one for the public diplomacy battlefield.

Homefront Command National Control Center. Photo credit: Major Rivka Cohen

A Central Media War Room would merge the 4(!) Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Strategic Affairs, Diaspora, Regional Cooperation, together with the IDF Spokesperson and the (director-less) Prime Minister’s Office Communications and Public Diplomacy Division. They will coordinate with NGO players (e.g., Jewish Federations of North America, Christians United For Israel) and the private sector: leading social media figures, and tourist agencies communicating with and bringing millions of tourists to Israel.

Joint thinking will produce messages tailored to each target audience, and a systematic distribution of clips designed for traditional and social media.

  1. Reservists on Duty – IDF Spokesperson Proxies

In the absence of a central command, the IDF Spokesperson Unit became the main face in the public diplomacy arena. Restricted to military affairs and not representing government policy, the unit must adhere to a rigid politically-correct etiquette.

The IDF has a unique tool – reserve-duty soldiers, especially officers, who even in civilian life retain a military connection and understanding.

Some messages are more powerful delivered by a face in uniform, and some by a civilian voice. IDF reservists can be proxies – to gather and employ data in aggressive, creative, and less-politically correct ways – and the IDF Spokesperson doesn’t have to take responsibility for what is said.

  1. “Tell me a story!”

While facts are a necessary weapon against ignorance, the 21st Century prefers storytelling. One of the strongest forms of communication in every culture, anywhere, anytime – a good story penetrates consciousness, moves people, connects to the heart and mind, and eventually motivates action.

A ten-year old girl‘s story from the Gaza Envelope community proved more effective than charting how many rockets Hamas shot.

American Israeli technology blogger Hillel Fuld. Credit: Hillel Fuld

Try changing “Hamas uses its people as human shields” to stories of the Gaza children and civilians killed by 700 Hamas rockets. Have hi-tech social media figures such as Hillel Fuld presenting stories of life-saving Israeli innovation, ending with the Iron Dome that saves innocent Israeli lives. John Oliver’s “unproportionable” claim would then look as pathetic as…well, everything else he said.

A good story transports the audience into the scene. The common Israeli argument, “What would you do if missiles were shot at your city?” is not conceivable to the average Chicago or Johannesburg resident.

I was shocked two years ago when I saw armed soldiers patrolling Brussels. Europeans do suffer from radical Islam terror in their own cities, which can partially explain why European pressure on Israel was almost non-existent.

Al Qaeda/ ISIS attacks on Western democracies, from 9/11 on, provide enough specific imagery for our storytellers to connect their audiences. This also makes the valuable parallel between Hamas and Al Qaeda and ISIS for viewers to understand we are fighting the same evil.

Back to the headline: a story about Baklava, the delicious Middle-Eastern pastry, was my action tool. As a reservist officer I made a point official channels could never say, but its power lies from my speaking in uniform at the end of a day on duty. Israeli advocates used it widely via WhatsApp, and you can see for yourself:

Make #baklava not #war – thoughts from the #gaza Border 5/20/21#guardianofthewalls

Posted by Slingshot Israel on Sunday, May 30, 2021

Let an army of creative independent reservists innovate and see the results!

I’ll conclude with words of appreciation and gratitude to tens of thousands of pro-Israel activists worldwide. You definitely made an impact. My purpose is systemic improvement, and supporting our public and private spokespeople – we can do even better!

About the Author
Major (Res.) Yaakov Selavan is a strategic affairs expert and IDF motivational speaker for soldiers and draftees. A Golan resident and an IDF Tactical Command College alumnus, Major (Res.) Selavan is a popular speaker in Israel and abroad and a leading Golan international spokesperson. Following a decade of service as an Armored Corps Combat Commander, he founded Slingshot Israel, which draws upon our military experience to instill values and encourage social action.
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