The Problem with Hasbara

In anticipation of today’s “Stop the Boycott” conference in Jerusalem, I would like to offer several reflections on the status of Israeli Hasbara. That the Hasbara system works around the clock to promote its cause, there is no doubt. However, especially with recent events sweeping the nation, including the soldier firing on the terrorist and the escalation of Arab violence against Israeli citizens in the past several months, the discussions I read online and hear between my non-Israeli non-Jewish acquaintances leave me unconvinced that Israel is recruiting many new members to its side. I hope it is just my personal feeling, however if you are reading this and feel it too, then it’s time to pose the question: are we fighting BDS with the wrong tools? And does Hasbara actually work as well as we hope it does?

For the uninitiated, “Hasbara” is the term used to describe Israeli public diplomacy. It is a derivative of “hesber”, which means “explanation”. There is a Hebrew retort that goes “the answer is in the context of the question”. In the matter of this question – the case will be no different. Once a tool primarily employed by the largest of Jewish organizations and official diplomats, today Hasbara has been outsourced one hundred times over to the many NGOs – some of whom deal in Hasbara exclusively – and even to private individuals. The transition to the internet and social media has given further medium for creativity in fighting anti-Israel disinformation, “Pallywood”, and in general for justifying Israel’s actions during both times of war and times of peace. Classic examples of today’s Hasbara, or organizations participating in it, include the Jewish Agency, StandWithUs, Media in Conflicts Seminar (MICS), the “Israel Under Fire” campaign, the NUIS’s Program to Combat BDS, and that’s just to name a few. Then there are those videos from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, IDF and other official government bodies, showing security video footage of the incident with play-by-play highlights (e.g. highlighting the attacker’s knife with a yellow circle).

But despite the various packages in which Hasbara is delivered, there is one thing that never seems to change: the approach. And that approach is information. As stated, “Hasbara” means “explanation”, and the way that Israeli public diplomacy works is by pumping information into the audience’s various senses until they go numb. Numbers, photographs, recorded audio and video, computer simulations of what the distance between Gaza and Sderot would look like in the five boroughs of New York City, etc. Information, information, information. There may have been a short time in history where that was enough. After all, having only been founded in 1948, it isn’t that there was a wealth of information already available about the country, and foreigners needed at least some official information in addition to what they were reading in the newspapers and hearing from their own governments.

However, 68 years have gone by, and we are now dealing with Generation Y. We live in a society where people are twice as smart and their attention spans are half as long. Individuals are used to being bombarded with so much information that they are practically immune to it. There’s nothing the Hasbara community can tell anyone today that they wouldn’t be able to find on the internet in a fraction of the time. If they wanted to, of course. These are our target audiences, the ones that contain leads which we would like to convert into customers (in business lingo). The appeal to the logos of target audiences, persuasion by way of reason, is no longer useful or effective. Information has become boring and discardable. And, apparently, truth has no longer become ‘fun’. Nor is the appeal to a person’s ethos, persuasion by way of credibility, any more attractive in Israel’s case. If you are explaining Israel to someone directly, and you are yourself Israeli, Jewish, or somehow connected to any one of the two, you are in jeopardy of being discredited even before you open your mouth.

That leaves us with pathos, the appeal to one’s emotions, and herein lies Hasbara’s salvation. Pathos is the chewy nougat center that connects one’s mind to their soul. The sad fact is that the realm of international public diplomacy today is as much of a place to search for truth as a common-day courtroom. And who really goes to court to search for truth? In theory, these are systems where Justice is blind, but in reality, Justice is just as prone to pathos as any other. This may offer somewhat of an explanation why Pallywood is so popular despite it often having no grounds whatsoever in reality. It requires ‘umph’ and the ability to act. Those who have ever seen an Israeli movie or TV show will know to say – acting is one thing that Israelis simply have trouble doing. We can say, then, that Israeli Hasbara, like Israeli acting, is too dichotomous. It’s either completely bland or completely over-the-top. There’s no middle-ground that would make it “Hollywood material” (the exceptions of Oded Fehr and Gal Gadot are debatable).

The solution then would be to refocus efforts in a different way. Training new diplomats in Hasbara? Fire the historians, hire Dustin Hoffman’s character from “Wag the Dog”. One of my favorite examples of someone who “explains” things differently is Dr. Mordechai Kedar, who gained internet popularity for his interview on Al-Jazeera. If you haven’t seen this video yet, you should. There is nothing that Dr. Kedar says which you could not have heard from many other Israelis, or if you are an astute individual, could have learnt yourself. The difference? He does so with gusto! Dr. Kedar’s passion is practically palpable, attacking the issue head-on, but doing so with heart.  His is not just a logical proof justifying his position (though he brings citations to the table), it’s a show, and a hell of a good one. He speaks from the gut. If you’re going to use Hasbara as a tool for public diplomacy or as a weapon to fight BDS – don’t aim for the head, aim for the heart.

Another example, albeit a slight different one, is Crowdmii, headed by CEO Assaf Luxembourg. I was previously familiar with Assaf’s speaking engagements about contemporary Israel. Assaf does not talk about why Israel is right or why Israel is wrong. He talks about Startup Nation. In doing so, he brings his audience emotionally closer to Israel without them knowing it. I investigated what a public diplomacy consultant is now doing running a crowdfunding website and this is what I found. Crowdmii has developed a method in which their very business model becomes a tool for public diplomacy. Campaigns listed on Crowdmii must be by start-ups having some sort of Israeli connection. The current campaign is by Energiya Global, a solar energy company in Jerusalem, who are trying to fund solar panels for a field hospital in South Sudan. After approval, Crowdmii reaches out to organizations and communities around the world who are associated with Israel (Jewish, Christian, on-campus, youth, etc) and teaches them how to use the campaign to connect with target audiences beyond their “usual scope”, on an emotional level. Crowdmii may approach Hillel on a US college campus, and explain to them how they can use the current campaign to connect with, for example, the African or humanitarian student community. Or practically anyone interested in funding solar energy for a South Sudan hospital, regardless of how they feel about Israel. The patrons are left happy because of their contribution to something with which they have an emotional connection, the company is happy because they received their funding, the organization is happy because it managed to connect with new constituents, and Israel should be happy because this is one more community that has inched closer to supporting it, where it otherwise may have not. I need not mention the obvious benefits of this win-win-win-win situation for the community in South Sudan. There is a noticeable difference between how Crowdmii uses Israeli business to bring target audiences closer to Israel on the one hand, and memes listing Israeli products that you should not use in your day-to-day life if you support BDS on the other.

It feels like Hasbara is preaching to the choir, because those who agree with the products of the current model are already convinced, and for all others it falls on deaf ears. Israeli public diplomacy needs to do more than cold calling of hard facts at this point. “Here is our product, this is what it does, take it or leave it”, simply won’t do the trick. In the matter of being politically correct, it should at this point lean far more towards the former than the latter. It’s time to stop ‘explaining’ Israel – and time to start selling it.

About the Author
Elad Yakobowicz is an international business professional and analyst. His experience has included managing the Israeli branch of a German corporation, independent consulting, and investigative capacities for the Israeli public sector as well as private thinktanks. Originally from New York, he holds a BA in Government and has been involved in the founding of several news portals and startups. Elad has lived in Israel since 2006 and is a strong advocate of citizen empowerment and government reform.
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