Dmitri Shufutinsky

Why and How Hasbara Needs to Evolve

Hasbara is essentially soft-power advocacy for Israel used against anti-Zionists. Traditionally, it paints Israel as a progressive, democratic country in the middle of a turbulent, authoritarian, Islamist, bigoted, and backwards region. In the past, it’s been a successful tool for deflecting the arguments of Neo-Nazis, Arab Imperialists, and Muslim Supremacists. But like all effective and progressive measures of advocacy, it needs to change.

The “typical hasbara” people are familiar with are the following arguments:

“Israel treats women and the LGBT community better than any other Middle Eastern country.”

“Israel isn’t just made up of European Jews; we have ‘Jews of color’ here too!”

“Israel is always one of the first to be on the ground after a natural disaster in another country.”

“Arab Israelis have more rights than Arabs in their own countries!”

All of these arguments are true. However, they have nothing to do with the right of the Jewish people to live in Israel. Likewise, constantly quoting the Bible to justify Israel’s rebirth in 1948 is a legitimate argument in many circles, but shouldn’t be used as hasbara. Our enemies in the debate over Israel aren’t the traditional far-right extremists  any longer, even if they do still exist. Instead, it’s far-left liberals who ignore or deny Jewish history and side with Arab/Muslim chauvinists, lest they be deemed “bigoted”. Many of these liberals do not believe in G-d, or at least don’t take the Bible as the sole reason for a Jewish state existing in the Holy Land. A better argument to refute their double standards would be to bring in the fact that Jerusalem is not mentioned in the Koran, and that the Koran also states that Israel is the land of the Jews, not even mentioning ‘Palestine’. Doing so would immediately expose the hypocrisy of so-called devout Muslims who try, as UNESCO has in recent weeks, to whitewash or erase Jewish (and Christian) history in Jerusalem and paint the Old City as being solely a Muslim heritage site. Typical hasbara that discusses women’s rights and LGBT rights, etc., should not be a reason alone to support Israel. Every country should have equal rights for all of its citizens. While we can continue saying these things with pride, and to point out how much better Israelis have it than Iranians, Saudis, Syrians, or Algerians, these arguments should be secondary to why Israel is more just than “Palestine”.

Redarding the arguments over women’s and LGBT rights in Israel, the radical Left regularly bemoans such arguments as “pinkwashing”–an attempt to overlook the “occupation of Palestine” by pointing out how great Israel is for gay, bisexual, and transgender people, minorities, and women. The ‘Jews of color’ vs Ashkenazim argument feeds into the radical liberal and Arab/Muslim chauvinist argument that Israel is a Western colonial project imposed upon “native” brown Arabs, who’d lived in “peaceful coexistence” with Jews from the region. And Israel’s response to foreign natural disasters — while commendable — has nothing at all to do with the legitimacy of Zionism and Jewish independence. Using these arguments against the anti-Israel movement of the 2010s is a waste of time. The truth is that the anti-Zionist Left could care less about the rights of Palestinians, or else they would be actively condemning their treatment at the hands of their own government, or the Arab governments hosting their “refugees”. So, too, could they care less about LGBT rights, women’s rights, or minority rights — otherwise, they’d be protesting the treatment of women, minorities, gays and transgender people throughout the Islamic World. Heck, they don’t even care about “Middle East peace”; you’ll never see them marching for a free Kurdistan or Western Sahara, and as Malia Bouattia demonstrated several times, they will often never condemn Islamic terrorist organizations without somehow bringing up Israel and “occupation”. These “anti-Zionists” instead decide to solely focus on how Orthodox Judaism treats women, how gays can’t marry in Israel, and the economic disparity faced by Arab Israelis in comparison to Jewish Israelis, which alone demonstrates that their “protest movement” is simply a mask for their racism against the Jewish people.

The diplomatic assault on the Jewish state is focused largely on presenting us as foreigners in our own land, denying our history and heritage, and charging that building houses in Judea and Samaria is the cause of all of the unrest in the Middle East. We see these arguments from the State Department over the building of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, where Josh Earnest uses a condemnation so strong it’s usually reserved for terrorist attacks; from UNESCO, which twice in just two weeks denied Jewish and Christian cultural and historical ties to Jerusalem; from Facebook, which apparently thinks anti-Semitism is acceptable but that Zionism ‘violates community norms”; and even Wikipedia, where a number of editors admit that while the Roma people are racially South Asian due to ancestry (despite having been removed from their homeland for several centuries), that the Jewish people are not  from the Middle East. With such an assault on our very heritage and culture, it’s hard to see how arguing about the treatment of gays is a helpful battle tactic in the war on our origins as a nation.

So what’s the solution? How must we change the focus and the argument? The first thing we must do is make sure the “typical hasbara” facts remain accurate, and improve. Homophobia, sexism, and racism unfortunately does exist in Israel, although certainly not for the majority of its people. On my own trip there over the summer with the Birthright program, one of the striking memories I have is seeing three women — one an Ethiopian Jew, the other a Mizrahi Jew, and an Arab woman with a hijab–laughing and conversing together. These kinds of images do need to make their way more into the mainstream media when Israel is discussed. But we, as Jews, must also live up to our values of equality and tikkun olam, and demand that the Jewish state do more to treat all of its citizens equally, whether they’re gay or straight, Ethiopian or Ashkenazi, Arab or Jewish. This includes fighting for gay marriage, fighting against the economic disparities the Ethiopian, Russian, and Arab communities face compared to wider Israeli society, and supporting the Women of the Wall movement. Doing so will nullify the argument often made by the Left that Israel isn’t as progressive as it makes itself seem.

But an even more immediate move to change and modernize hasbara lies in one argument: “we’re from here”. The outrageous and bigoted Khazar Theory has been debunked by genetic studies that prove that the Jews are Levantine in origin. The archaeology throughout Israel and the Palestinian Territories is even more proof that the Jews are the aboriginal population of the land, having lived and prospered there as a kingdom over 2,000 years before the birth of Mohammed and the beginning of the Arab Islamic Conquests. Given the Western radical-liberal’s love of fighting colonization, imperialism, and religious extremism (although they prefer to criticize the Christian brand more than the Muslim one), we need to be true to our history while also speaking in a language that they’ll understand. It’s doubtful that anti-Semites will admit that they’re wrong and suddenly give up. It will, however, expose their hypocrisy and racist motives behind campaigns like BDS, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and baseless UN resolutions. Furthermore and perhaps more importantly, it will bring “neutral” people, or those who don’t know much on the topic of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, over to our side. We have indisputable scientific and historic evidence that the Land of Israel is our land, and indisputable scientific and historic evidence that the Arabs originated in the Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula before colonizing much of the Old World at the expensive of the indigenous populations.

For too long, pro-Israel activists have allowed ourselves to be on the defense regarding the diplomatic attacks against Israel, the Zionist movement, and our culture. We’ve been using the wrong arguments for far too long, which have had little to no success at stopping racism on college campuses or historically inaccurate UN resolutions. It’s time to turn the tables, and go on the offensive. So the next time someone brings up ‘colonialism’ or ‘occupation’ or ‘indigenous rights’ in regards to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the first words out of our mouths should be:

“How did Egypt and Sudan go from being majority Black to majority Arab?”

“How did Islam reach Iran and the Indian Subcontinent?”

“Why is the Dome on the Rock on top of the Temple Mount if Judaism precedes Islam?”

“When will the unjust, illegal occupations of Kurdistan and Western Sahara end?”

So, my friends and fellow pro-Israel writers, activists, and allies, it’s time to cut to the chase. The simplest answer is sometimes the best one. It’s time to start using it.

About the Author
Dmitri Shufutinsky is a freelance reporter with the Jewish News Syndicate, and a Junior Research Fellow with ISGAP. He made aliyah to Kibbutz Erez through Garin Tzabar in 2019, and served as a Lone Soldier in the IDF. Dmitri is an ardent Zionist and a supporter of indigenous rights, autonomy, solidarity, and sovereignty. He currently lives in Hadera, and a graduate of Arcadia University's Masters program in International Peace & Conflict Resolution.
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