Step out of the Echo Chamber

The news of the deplorable abduction of three teenagers on their way back from Yeshiva was a sad reminder of the threats Israel continues to face day to day from extremist groups who threaten the country. Israelis have rightly reacted with indignation to this cowardly targeting of civilian children. The pro-Israel community in the United States, in Europe, and around the world, has joined in condemning the kidnapping.

While we all hope for the safe return of the children, one cannot help but be struck by what the reaction to their disappearance tells us about the state of hasbarah. As someone who committed much of their undergraduate career to pro-Israel work both on campus and elsewhere, I am always interested to see what tactics advocates for Israel are using.

To respond to this abduction, someone has had the idea of creating a hashtag, ‘#BringBackOurBoys’, an adaptation of the campaign to release the hundreds of girls kidnapped in Nigeria. Whoever had this idea should never work in hasbarah again.

Anyone who spends any amount of time with people who (1) do not follow Israel-news from day to day, and (2) are not already supportive of Israel, would have been able to tell you that such a campaign was deeply misguided. To a newcomer to the situation the hashtag symbolizes a pro-Israel community jumping on the band-wagon, trying to make a hashtag which represents the oppression of women by religious fanatics into a rhetorical weapon in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It leads one to believe that Israel is completely out of touch with what the #BringBackOurGirls movement is all about.

Of course such assumptions are wrong. Israel has lived with terrorism for decades. It has faced the onslaught brought about by religious extremism, and remains strong. That is not the perception, however, that the great silent majority will take away from such a campaign.

Unfortunately, this was far from an isolated example of Israel advocates being utterly tone deaf when trying to drum up support among an uncommitted audience. Whenever I attend Israel related events, I am almost constantly staggered at the inability of those advocating for Israel to consider to whom they are speaking.

Some of this used to be endearing. For example, why do nearly all Israel-advocates always refer to ‘the State of Israel’ as opposed to just ‘Israel’? The answer is that they take their cues from Israelis themselves. The reason why Israelis always include the word ‘state’ is because they are translating directly from ‘Medinat Israel’ to distinguish from ‘Eretz Israel’. This is an important distinction, but one that is completely lost on anyone who is not already extremely well-informed about the conflict and likely supportive of the Israeli cause. To the rest of the world, the inclusion of ‘state’ is just weird.

Why is it that pro-Israel advocates who are overwhelmingly non-Israeli have never stopped to think about it? Welcome to the echo chamber.

The reality is that most pro-Israel advocacy being done is not being targeted at the undecided, but rather at the apathetic. Think about the pictures showing rockets firing and ‘God Bless the IDF’ scrawled across it, or posters of former Israeli Prime Ministers with inspirational quotes, or scriptural references. None of these are intelligible to those who do not already have some background knowledge of Israel. They are designed to cajole those who Israelis feel should have their backs anyway. A diaspora which is sometimes not Zionist enough for Israelis.

The conversation about how to persuade the diaspora to be more engaged with Israel is one that has been happening since Independence, and one I am largely unsuited to comment on seeing as I am neither Israeli nor Jewish. I come to this issue as a Gentile, Left-of-Center, Brit who loves Israel and is hugely proud to call himself a Zionist. Let us be very clear, I was not persuaded to support Israel thanks to campaigns designed to engage people who are already receptive.

The world of hasbarah is filled with some hugely impressive people, who give up more lucrative and glamorous pursuits to stand up and be counted for a cause they believe in. Unfortunately, it is also filled with many wannabe-politicos who are incapable of speaking persuasively to any audience that is not already on-side. They parrot the lines of Netanyahu about ‘the one and only Jewish state’ and talk about God-given land to a public that is at best puzzled and at worst utterly ignorant to what they are referring to.

Why do seemingly intelligent people do this?

It is because today if you send out ‘May the IDF destroy Hamas!!!’ you may be retweeted by a couple dozen people and get some ‘likes’ on Facebook and feel like you have achieved something. The echo chamber responds to you as the same thing is reposted and comes back to you via an e-mail update.

In reality, of course, anyone who understands what IDF stands for, knows what Hamas are, and agrees with the sentiment, did not need you to persuade them of the righteousness of the Israeli cause. None of that matters in the echo chamber.

Hasbarah has become about being seen to do something rather than actually doing anything. So much of it has become a parody of itself that one could make a hilarious film about it in the style of the Will Ferrell movie The Campaign. Perhaps that would be a better use of time for those of us who want hasbarah to be about reaching beyond the obvious constituencies and telling the wonderful story of Israel, rather than simply being a siren in the echo chamber.

I do not want that to be the case. I want more people within hasbarah to wake up and realize that there is another way of doing things. I want them to get results to match their passion. That will only happen, however, when they step out of the echo chamber.

About the Author
Philip-Anthony Gardner is a graduate student at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. He was born and raised in London, and enjoys soccer, ballet and debating in foreign languages.
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