Billboards for bombs or inspiration for the nation? Let’s break down the “doublespeak,” slogans, and hashtags of the war so far.
Propaganda, phrases and slogans are vital weapons in warfare. Remember the “War on Terror” and “WMDs”? These were used to simplify and justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s nearly 110 years since Lord Kitchener’s 1914 poster called for Britons to recruit with the cry, “Your country needs you!” Today, Israel in 2023 is awash with slogans trying to pull people’s heartstrings and get a nation to support, without question, their wartime government. The Ayalon highway that runs through Tel Aviv has huge blue-and-white billboard screens at every junction saying, “Together, We Will Win” in Hebrew. These slogans are also found at bus stops, on office buildings, radio and TV ads, car stickers, and more. So let’s take a closer look at the messages behind these messages.
1. Together, We Will Win – ביחד ננצח
This has become the main tagline of Israel’s war effort. A country divided only a few months ago, has seemingly become “unified” against the common enemy. But look deeper and you’ll see Israelis are still greatly divided politically — roughly into two camps. Camp 1 believes Netanyahu and his cronies are right and can lead Israel to victory over Hamas. Camp 2 believes Netanyahu and his cronies have led Israel down the path to an unsafe situation, but have no other choice but to support the soldiers right now. And what does winning look like? Some say victory is defeating Hamas forever. Others say victory is bringing all the hostages home, and that’s it. Very few people are clear what will happen after the war. Even if Hamas is defeated, it is likely there will be more splinter groups like Islamic Jihad. It is widely known that Hamas leaders are shielded in Qatar and backed by Iran. A whole generation of Palestinians is watching the war play out and will not forget or forgive easily. Outside of Israel, a global movement is rising against Israelis and Jews. So, this “victory,” like the last, is unclear, unsustainable, and unstable. Perhaps a more appropriate slogan for Israel would be to not only “Defeat Hamas, But Defeat Bibi.”
2. Negligence – מחדל
This brings us to a less familiar poster that usually shows Netanyahu’s face and the word “Neglect” in Hebrew. As Israel is still in shock and at war, it hasn’t even begun the investigations into the gross or willful negligence of October 7th. Yes, there were awful atrocities perpetrated by Hamas, but there are already reports that intelligence failed to heed warnings and drills of a large, planned attack. October 7th was also a security failure to protect a border with a known terrorist threat and a military failure to respond in time — some reports say it took until late afternoon until troops arrived. Israelis in the south and center were awoken at 6:30 a.m. by sirens, and many were aware of what was happening by 8 a.m. Netanyahu only arrived at the Kirya military base at 11 a.m.
Itamar Ben Gvir, the so-called national security minister, was also culpable. Since taking office, Ben Gvir has provoked and stoked the fires of hatred, deliberately enraged Muslims by walking around the Temple Mount three times, and his party has supported Israeli settlers who rioted in Huwara, the last time just days before October 7th. Negligence is a failure to perform an action that is necessary, but this government not only failed to secure Israel, but arguably also made it a far more dangerous place.
3. No More Right or Left – אין ימין-שמאל
A real grassroots message that says political divides no longer apply or a cynical move by the government to kill public dissent? I’d go with the latter. Netanyahu, the great opportunist, will clearly benefit from a nationalist atmosphere where the opposition is quieted. “No right or left” means basically “Stop the internal dialogue,” or “Bibi, all is forgiven.” Yet right up until October 7th, there was a huge divide. The judicial reform tore the nation in two, but there’s another divide under the surface. For nearly 15 years, the right-wing, religious coalitions have continually refused to even consider a peace process with the Palestinians. Instead, Netanyahu allowed and even helped fund Hamas via Qatar to keep the Palestinians divided. In short, he chose perpetual war over an uneasy peace. He chose Hamas over Abbas. Many of the victims of October 7th were left-wing — some ran NGOs, some were peace activists. So it is too simplistic to say “no left or right.” The left and the kibbutzim have been killed over the years by right-wing policies, leaving only the right or extreme right. However, the sentiment to unite and put aside differences is noble, albeit misleading.
4. Bring Them Home
Bringing the kidnapped home is the one thing all Israelis can agree on — whether on the right or left. Everyone wants to see the children, women, and men back at home. After all, these are innocent people, who were in their homes or at a party and were taken away by force. It is a national and international injustice. But although we want to “Bring them all home now,” the deeper question is — how? Now that most of the women and children have been released, there remain over 130 people still in captivity in Gaza. As the war machine rages once more, negotiations may become more complex. The families of the hostages said they did not receive any information about their loved ones until the moment they were released. There are many questions here too, such as: Did Israel need to move faster? Could they have done a prisoner swap earlier? And what will happen to those who are left?
Immediately after the massacre, it was clear that this was a carefully planned attack by psychopathic killers, believed by some to be on drugs such as Captagon. This drug and the atrocities, which I don’t want to mention, bore the hallmark of ISIS. This hashtag highlights that this terrorism is a global problem. It says Hamas is not just Israel’s problem; it is a common enemy of the West. Indeed, ISIS is a Sunni militia like Hamas. Yet, like everything else in the Middle East, there is more than meets the eye. Hamas is also backed by Iran, which is 90 percent Shia. And leading up to October 7th, Israel was in normalization talks with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s Sunni enemy state. Then, if we zoom out further, Iran and Syria are backed by Russia, while Israel and Saudi Arabia are backed by the US. So, yes HamasIsIsis, but it is also Iran, Hezbollah, Assad, Iran, Yemen’s Houthi, and Qatar. Yes, Qatar, the last World Cup hosts! Anyway, that’s enough geopolitical hyperbole.
6. From the River to the Sea
A popular, almost childlike chant in the Free Palestine marches in London and elsewhere — “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” – is highly controversial. For Israelis, “From the river to the sea” sounds almost like a Borat-type threat to “push the Jews into the sea.” That is because it refers to the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, which basically means wiping Israel off the map of the world. It means creating a Palestinian state and destroying Israel. At these protests, Israel is often portrayed as an imperial state, while the Palestinians are freedom fighters. Indeed, Palestinians have been denied the right to self-determination and that was a historical mistake of the British. Yet, Israel was a tiny country created as a safe haven for all Jews just a few years after the Holocaust – the worst genocide in human history. Some people chanting this in London probably don’t understand the geography or history of the Middle East and what this chant really means. This slogan undermines the two-state solution that many think is the only way to bring about some kind of peace in this region.
There are many more slogans in this war and many more to come. Israel has a vibrant advertising industry that knows how to polish campaigns. Even old phrases like “Am Israel Chai” (meaning “the Jewish people live”) can be juxtaposed with lions roaring over the Star of David. While these posters are supposed to stir nationalism and pride, the posters of the kidnapped remind us of the pain. And the slogans of 2023 before October – “Democracy,” “Crime Minister,” “Go!” (!לך), “Shame!” (!בושה), and “You landed on the wrong generation” (נפלתם על הדור הלא נכון) — seem like a long, distant memory.
So how can we combat this sensory overload of propaganda and sloganism? One method is to nurture and remember our own, alternative phrases and quotes. Personally, I find solace in lyrics like “Lean on me” (Bill Withers), “Work for peace” (Gil Scott Heron), and “Love is stronger than death” (The The). I also find that books by Buddhist master Thich Nath Hahn, Christian minister Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and Sufi poet Rumi, all share a similar wisdom and faith that is still relevant. In short, the best way to counter loud, misleading messages from outside is to search for quiet, deeper ones inside.