Let’s NOT talk about Hasbara.
Hasbara, an outreach focused on promoting a positive image of Israel, works for 1. People who are well-meaning but ignorant – and willing to be educated and informed 2. People who are in the middle or already somewhat pro-Israel or only a little anti-Israel 3. An introduction to people who are neutral and known nothing about the subject.
It does not work at all in countering virulent and consciously self-perpetuating hatred of anything related to “Zionism”. In terms of responding to the corrupting influence of strategic hate pieces and disinformation which dominated the mainstream mass media, and the overwhelming majority of Middle Eastern outlets, the impact of the organized Jewish world has been relatively low. Most of the US public tends to be slightly pro-Israel, but the generations of students raised on undiluted representation of Israel and its role in the region and the world, may very well change that dynamic in the future. Europe’s coverage of Israel is overwhelming negative already, by contrast, and is likely to become even more so in the near future. A few media campaigns have managed to force corrections on record of some major American outlets In addition, organizations such as MEMRI have succeessfully revealed the misrepresentations of ISrael and anti-Semitic rhetoric in the Middle Eastern discourse.
None of that, however, substantially changes the course of the narratives being peddled, tackling each episode as an isolated incident, rather than part of the problem. In other words, the Jewish and pro-Israel response to the media representation of Israel has been poorly suited to the goal and almost wholesale reactionary. Attempts to bring out non-Jewish spokespeople to represent Israel or pro-Israel perspective are likewise not likely to counter virulently hateful messaging from people in a position of authority, rather than confused college activists and social media trendsetters.
With respect to the academic circles and such Israel and some Jewish organizations have gotten better at bringing out Arab, Muslim, Christian, and sexual minority representatives in support of their positions, but the real haters always dismiss such individual cases as attempts at whitewashing and tokenism. And the highlight of Israel’s vast humanitarian efforts throughout the world are generally dismissed with whataboutery concerning Palestinians. These critics, however, remain impervious to accusations of do-nothing activism which consists of bashing Israel on social media, while focusing on the plight of Palestinians to the exclusion of any and all other suffering people in the world.
Clearly, there is a disconnect, between what the pro-Israel activists think needs to be done and the way the hate circles actually function.
One very obvious disconnect is the role of Israeli diplomats in this effort. Many of them are operating on the outdated premises, which simply don’t work. There’s a number of really great diplomatic representatives who are engaging, warm, forward-looking, and highly effective, but overall anyone who’s ever met anyone from the Foreign Ministry knows exactly what I mean. They are not just ineffective, they are literally counterproductive and annoying, and possibly responsible for some of the negative generalizations about Israel on the basis of their own interactions and failure to understand the perspectives of their counterparts and learn to speak the language of other countries, not just whatever they feel like saying because they are, well, Israeli.
However, the issue of poor communications likewise extends to the traditional right-wing circles in the US, which speak loudly and carry hollow blunt sticks everywhere they go. The presence of strident hyperemotional defenders unable or unwilling to modulate their rhetoric to the occasion is not winning the pro-Israel perspective any friends. I am not suggesting compromising on matters of principles – just figuring out a better way of communicating the message, that does not involve hitting people over the head with it. Interestingly, while such advocates make for great TV viewing, rarely are they present when there is time for a real debate. There seems to be a lack in the ability to combine strong, passionate response to nonsensical, hypocritical, or hyperbolic claims with the skills of producing an assertive affirmative message on substance.
Case in point: the Gaza riots. Take a look at most of the commentary from Israel defenders on the subject. All my love goes out to our favorite right-wing columnists and activists, but does anyone think they will manage to blunt the teeth of an Al Jazeera functionary, much less actually convince anyone? Put simply, if a pro-Israel speaker is perceived as a shill unable to engage in nuance or listen to other perspectives, no matter how misinformed and aggravating, the other side automatically scores points. That, by the way, includes potential or growing allies as much as it means adversaries (and some of the new allies are just former adversaries with a newly gained sense of perspective).
The Jewish activist world has been all too quick to embrace pseudosupporters from the Arab and Muslim world who have been willing to make saccharine statements, which everyone likes to hear – but has pushed away friendlier skeptics, who may have significant reservations about various issues, but are interested in having good faith discussions. So what we have here is a weird combination of being “easy” and desperate with manipulators who know our weaknesses, while being extreme and unaccepting to people who have gone on record to start important discussion, under the premise that “these” people are all frauds because they are not spouting the Kool-Aid. So somehow, skeptical but open-minded Arabs, Muslims, and assorted others are all frauds engaging in taqiyya but those who parrot out right-wing talking points are genuine and real friends. This is the paradigm that has colored the entirety of the Jewish world’s (and to some extent, some of the Evangelicals’, too) of interactions with everyone else. And that’s just in response to a possibility of discussions and relationship building.
Responding to hatred has posited a very limited response. First of all, all of the responses to the haters have been reactive. CNN writes a terrible article with a bigoted hatred; generates 100 articles in response. Nothing changes; rinse, repeat. Linda Sarsour appears on an anti-Semitism panel with no real pushback from other panelists; cue in the outrage machine. Sarsour generates much awaited publicity, while the legion of her critics is long since forgotten for lack of originality. What’s missing? The pro-Israel perspective with a seat at the table. Hillel Neuer’s UN Watch managed to carve out a unique role in the diplomatic world by chastising the UNHCR diplomats for their double standards on Israel, and willingness to overlook human rights violations everywhere else. While a longer discussion on whether and what effect that has had on the treatment of Israel in those circles is beyond the scope of this post, the general approach of engaging in firm, informed, and effective confrontations needs to be emulated and refined. There is a difference between fighting the good fight with passion and dedication, and engaging in condescending, hysterical outburst, ironically largely confined to the Jewish PR bubble.
Jewish punditry, too, seems restricted to the choir of the converted.
Rather, what we need more off is “Jewish ambassadors” – not heads of major organizations, but regular people willing to step out of their comfort zones, and enter the domains where they might not be altogether welcome, or at least, will be seen as a novelty.
That also means putting aside the tradition of engaging with other “activists’, whatever that may be and looking to meet and engage, who may have strong political opinions, but who remain in the silent majority behind the scenes. For all we know, many of these people while misinformed and critical of Israel, may view Linda Sarsour as a self-promoting embarrassment to their cause. This may seem like a strange point for bonding, but if we can find at least something of any significance we can agree on, that’s already a start to the conversation. Jews are very active in various professional spheres, and they are overall very active as advocates. But how many combine the two in a way that works in their sphere? When I had to get an ACL surgery, I went to a doctor, who essentially advertised that he gained experience operating on terror victims in Israel. He put his money where his mouth is, and incorporated his position on Israel into his professional practice while engaging with literally anyone who came in through the door, as any good doctor should.
How many academics who are secretly pro-Israel are willing to push boundaries and make their views on Israel an integral part of their identity? Most will fear discrimination and rightfully so. Few are willing to challenge and question hiring practices. The termination of contract for Melissa Landa for her pro-Israel views became a well known incident precisely because it was so rare. A few Jewish pro-Israel journalists are now emerging who are willing to meet rigorous journalistic standards while remaining thorough and objective in their coverage of Israel-related issues. How many of them will get a seat at the table of the MSM journalists and challenge their own colleagues not in personal op-eds for a variety of Jewish media, nor as occasional token “conservativish” columnists for liberal publications, but inside the room before a segment is put out or an article is sent to the publisher? How many are willing to engage with their colleagues in personal time and willing to have these tough discussions and expose them to other perspectives and raise critical questions about their biases? How many will make it past intersectionality?
The media bias persists in part not because there is not enough pushback or interest, but because it’s coming from the wrong places and insufficiently where it matters. The journalists see a great deal of outrage in the Jewish advocacy circles but do not care, because these opinions do not affect their editors or their own jobs. How many of the Jewish advocates are willing to engage with the reporter who wrote a biased article directly? Take him out for a coffee, form a relationship, ask him about the origin of his views? Jewish advocacy is all about relationship building and yet we have utterly failed in building relationships where it matters. We can make real estate deals, bond over legal issues, peacefully share medical offices… but we can’t infiltrate and challenge our industries, professionals, and build the critical mass of changed perspectives that will ally with us in responding to media bias.
We have also failed at targeting the right audiences with our own writings. Endless Jewish navel gazing in the Jewish media (yes, I fully realize the irony of my statement given the content of this article and where it’s published) does nothing to inform everyone who doesn’t already read this media. And there is no motivation for non-Jewish community to read Jewish opinion pieces – unless we take the time to share them with our friends in a non-threatening setting, expressing our concerns on a personal level without sounding like dogmatic table-bangers. We can build new audiences with new communities – if we take the time to start these discussions, because right now, most of the traditional Jewish advocacy concerns of virtue signaling. Also, we pick and choose our allies based on the fad du j our. Today we are with the Latino immigration centers, tomorrow we are with the LGBTQADHFIU:FHFOFDIFJDH FV*D and the day after, we are with the Vegan Coalition Against Climate Change.
But where are the Jewish organizations when, for example, Mayor De Blasio is attacking standards of excellence in competitive public schools in New York, which disproportionally affect the Asian American community, which overall tends not to be anti-Semitic, and shares many similar values with the Jewish community – and for that reason would likely be to at least listen about Israel? Answer, these fair-weather friends are nowhere to be found when it’s an issue that doesn’t affect them directly (and why not? Because Jews have assimilated so well that being competitive no longer seems to be a top priority, shamefully). In any case, the same complicit attitude of not being competitive and giving up the edge w hen it comes to the media representation of our own image and the issues that matter to us is slowly killing our spirit in the Diaspora – and frankly, Israel, despite its significant diplomatic successes, could use more of a pro-active opportunity-seeking attitude as well… just like back in the “good old days” when it had no choice.