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The problem with Hasbara

Israel is a great place, but terrible at explaining why that is

I’ve had enough of people asking me if the Courts stone gay people in Israel.

I’ve also had enough of people asking me how Israelis wash their clothes. And take showers.

Don’t even get me started on trying to explain how not every Israeli citizen is Jewish.

I have a degree in Middle Eastern Studies and Ivrit. I lived in Jerusalem for a year, did ulpan, and can speak Hebrew pretty well. It’s interesting to me, but pretty much unheard of in the part of the UK where I come from. And even weirder, considered that I am neither Jewish, nor an evangelical Zionist.

My parents are Christian, and growing up, Israel was about as far off my radar as it’s possible to be.

(In case you’re wondering, my first name, Imogen, is from Shakespeare, and my family name is from an old mining village in Northern England.)

What all this means is that people hear about my degree and then go on to ask me all the weird little questions they have about anything to do with Israel. Most of these questions are stupid to anyone who’s ever been to Israel, and most of them seem to fixate on a composite picture from a BBC segment, which normally works out as something like Laurence of Arabia meets Fiddler on the Roof meets Yentl meets Fiddler on the Roof.

Nothing like the Israel I know.

As I’m trying not to laugh, something hits me: people are interested in Israel. They want to know what life is like in what they know is the world’s only Jewish state. They want to know if they can still come to Israel, post-Arab Spring, for Christian pilgrimage, to party in Tel Aviv, or just to lie on the beach and get some winter sun.

Problem is: Israel’s not listening.

The Israelis I know are friendly, tolerant, intelligent, and forward-thinking. They perform some of the best medical research in the world. They speak a whole rainbow of languages, have a higher percentage of college graduates than anywhere else, period, and cook some really, really awesome food. They aren’t, however, represented as well as they could be by whoever it is who’s trying to raise Israel’s profile overseas.

The Zionist movement and network here is somewhat homogenous. It’s small, it’s very insular, and it has no idea what my friends and relatives are thinking. It’s trying to work out if people are ‘pro-Israel’, or ‘anti-Israel’, when – from my point of view – people are just ‘curious’. There’s nobody giving them what they need to know. So they ask me.

My vision is of a situation where people are more aware of the diversity and creativity that’s coming out of the Israel that I know. And of course, for the change in attitudes to be a two-way street. For starters, there’s this pervasive mentality in Israel that seems to suggest that people need to be grouped into sectors. And outside of Israel, people don’t seem to think this way. Stop trying to categorise ‘us’ as ‘Christians’ or ‘Muslims’ or ‘LGBT’ or ‘hetereosexual’ or ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’ or even ‘pro-Israel’ or ‘anti-Israel’, because we don’t think of ourselves that way. The battle to improve Israel’s image is never, ever, going to be won by using stereotypes.

(That means you, Naftali Bennett. Martin Schulz’s comments about the allocation of water in Israel were ill-advised, but that has nothing to do with the fact he speaks German. Move on, please. Is this the best and brightest thing you could come up with?)

Youth movements and hasbara and aliyah are central to Jewish life, and to how Israel reacts with its diaspora. Sure. But if Israel is going to thought of in better terms by wider numbers of people, Zionism has to be about more than that. Israel needs a Hasbara 2.0.

About the Author
Imogen is a twentysomething Brit with a degree in Middle Eastern Studies and Hebrew. She speaks Hebrew almost-fluently, and lived and studied in Jerusalem for a year. By day, she does office work, but by night, she dreams of being back in Israel again. She likes fashion magazines, peanut butter sandwiches, and jumping in puddles.