Three days to go until 5780 becomes 5781. Out with the old and in with the new.
So — as I’m particularly fond of airing the more unconventional of my opinions, and what better time of the year than this one? — here’s one such unpopular opinion, and a post, that will probably forever rule me out of getting a job at AIPAC, BICOM, or the Stand With Us.
But it’s also one which I feel like merits a public airing anyway.
I believe that most hasbara, at least as it is conventionally done, is a complete waste of precious time and state resources.
And here are some reasons why.
Hasbara Is Largely Unaccountable
Ever hear about Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs?
How about a front company it set up? (For details, read Noa Landau’s excellent reportage in Haaretz here).
Front companies and cloak and dagger public manipulation campaigns are the kind of thing that hasbarists — and Palestinian propagandists, I hasten to add! — thrive upon. They’re shady, sometimes involve layers of deceit and — most critically — they protect those ultimately involved in the activity of propagandizing for Israel from having to answer difficult questions such as: “can you prove that this activity actually works?”
Israel has dedicated significant resources over the years towards combating various forms of delegitimisation — most notably the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign. Its preferred weapon of choice: hasbara (note: hasbara means, roughly ‘explanation’ rather than ‘propaganda’; public diplomacy is also a reasonably good translation). Favored tactics include speaking tours, newsletters, and very partisan briefings to policymakers.
However, the problem with this tactic is nobody really seems sure about how much the propaganda and explanations are really helping.
What is reasonably clear is that BDS has not had an appreciable effect upon Israel’s export-led economy. What is unknown — and perhaps also unknowable — is to what extent the success of that effort can be attributed to hasbara.
Landau’s piece for Ha’aretz illustrates well why the hasbara industry needs to demonstrate a positive return on investment (ROI). For in many cases — most specifically through the Ministry of Strategic Affairs — it is drawing funds down from the public purse. And — as nobody needs reminding right now, but particularly the country’s small business owners — Israel’s public purse is not as awash with money as some believe it to be.
Publicly funded hasbara, as an organized activity, remains largely unaccountable. Unless it is prepared to do demonstrate effectiveness and submit to a regime that demands accountability, continuing to fund it is simply poor governance on the part of its government backers.
2. Hasbara attempts to control minds
Personally, I enjoy making up my own mind about things.
As an Irish-born Jew, you could say that I was born into a paradigm that primed me to support Israel. We diaspora Jews tend to hear about Israel through a slanted lens, whether it’s from our families, in our synagogues, or on the websites that we frequent.
I’ve attempted to educate myself about the arguments of the other side. And I’ve concluded that, some major grievances with Israeli policy notwithstanding, I’m happy to continue supporting the State of Israel and defending Israel’s right to exist.
Unfortunately much hasbara aims to deny the privilege and joy of independent research to its target audiences around the world.
For instance: the orchrestrators of many hasbara efforts seem to believe that by repeating the same trite talking points endlessly their audiences will be muted into quiet agreement with their points. I think that that methodology is worthy of rejection.
Those of us who live in Israel know that the vast majority of Israel’s separation fence amounts to nothing more than a smart fence and not a wall. We have seen it from our cars and our buses. Those who have received mail circulars from their local Israeli embassy or pro-Israel lobby have undoubtedly been appraised of that fact too, perhaps several hundred times over. Whether or not somebody is willing to accept the truth of that statement ultimately depends upon whether they are rationally motivated or not. And when it comes to Israel — and anti-Semitism needs to be mentioned here — many fall into the latter category. Repeating even a truth endlessly ultimately achieves nothing if people are not prepared or willing to listen. One could argue, in fact, that this tactic only pushes potential friends further away.
3. Hasbara distorts for its own ends
If you’ve been on the circular that I mentioned above, you are undoubtedly aware of the fact that Israel’s Supreme Court once had an Arab-Israeli justice on its panel: Salim Joubran, now retired.
Hasbarists will waste no effort in in, again, appraising anybody who is willing to listen of that fact.
While Joubran did indeed serve on Israel’s Supreme Court, the picture which hasbarists attempt to paint by repetitively highlighting this fact is not an accurate one.
Arab-Israelis ( interjection: I prefer the term ’48 Palestinians) and Jewish Israelis are, for the most part, very poorly integrated. Arab-Israelis have frequently voiced complaints about experiencing racism and discrimination in Israeli society and of hitting a glass ceiling through which they cannot break. Without wishing to assert that those claims are valid, I wish to make this point: Joubran is the exception rather than the rule and to pretend otherwise is to be willfully disingenuous.
Hasbarists — like any organized group with an agenda — will happily highlight outliers and trivalities in order to try to make a point.
Personally, I’m happier with the truth: Arab and Jewish Israelis work side by side but the societies interact to only a very minimal extent. Working relationships excepted, meaningful integration where I live, in Jerusalem, is thin on the ground.
I believe that honesty is the best policy and that it would be better — for us and for the world — if we started being honest about what realities on the ground are here.
4. Hasbara detracts from legitimate goals
It’s become almost a rite of passage for many American Jews to join a hasbara organization on campus in order to defend Israel from the many lies and mistruths to which it is subjected.
Personally — although I also dabbled in the hasbara world during that time in my life — defending Israel for free from mobs of haters sounds like a terrible waste of one’s college years to me.
There are many things about Israel that need improvement and which I have highlighted previously in this blog.
For one, our cost of living is too high for our average salaries which results in Israel’s middle class living far closer to working class levels of GDP per capita than is the case in other OECD nations.
There is a lack of cohesion between various groups in our society — notably haredim and the secular. Amazingly, Israel’s education system, particularly in STEM subjects, needs improvement. The pandemic is currently raging through our society. Environmentalism in Israel is in its early stages and Tel Aviv’s beaches are the third most polluted in the Mediterranean.
Need me to go on?
My point is that I believe that — if we rack our brains hard enough — we all, as friends and builders of Israel, can find much better things to do than to spend time engaging in online flame wars about why the kites carrying incendiary devices from Gaza are a serious threat to the welfare and lives of residents of the embattled South. They are. But perhaps not everybody on the internet needs to know about that.
As an oleh — like many — I see part of my mission by living and paying taxes here as working, with other Israelis, to make the country a better place for this and coming generations.
I see positive change happening at a dazzling pace and almost infinite places in which olims’ talents can be put to good use.
Duplicating resources by making the same endless point (Israel is right) just detracts from necessary alternative effort in my view.
5. Hasbara puts us on the defensive
Once, while a student at University College Cork (UCC) in Ireland, I won myself a free ticket to a gig by interjecting with what the college’s debating society viewed as the best audience interjection of that evening.
I made the simple point that Israel is not a soccer team and that there’s no need to behave as if it is. Years later, I make the same point. And unfortunately, I see this as the most entrenched part of the significantly entrenched conflict in this part of the Middle East.
Supporters of Israel and the Palestinian cause both tend to behave as if they are supporting soccer clubs or rivals in a talent contest.
In this construct of the conflict, no misdeed can be conceded — and no positive deed met with anything but the highest form of adulation and praise. Either side has to be always right; apologizing is seen as a weakness; strength, and wavering commitment to the party line, is seen as a virtue. Sadly, to a large extent, this belief system has become subsumed into Israel’s early culture.
The above is why, in my opinion, we end up with slogans such as the IDF being “the most moral army in the world.” To which I ask: have we really assessed the moral standing of every other nation’s armed forces to make that comparison? And is subjecting a population of millions to military rule supremely moral? In this framework, we are left with each side trying to repetitively make the case that everything their preferred “team” does is perfect.
Irish filmmaker Nicky Larkin, a few years ago, created a documentary called ‘Forty Shades of Grey’. In media interviews, Larkin has told of how he went from being a card-carrying member of the Irish opposition to Israel to being largely undecided about the conflict and seeing instead that a lot of wrong (and right) was being done by each side.
Larkin’s process, to an extent, parallels my own with the exception that I have gone from being relatively right wing to relatively left wing to (now) feeling rather confused by the whole thing. There isn’t one narrative or one truth. Both viewpoints have some merit and factual basis.
If you can survive hearing both side’s opinion long enough and not go crazy during the process, I believe that many will be left with the unsatisfying conclusion that the true answer to “who’s right here?” is “it’s very complicated.”
Would we be better off without it?
The above points together represent my main grievances with hasbara.
I could include others — for instance the simple fact that much of the activity falls on deaf ears — but the main points are well captured in the above.
Lest the above has suggested otherwise — and not that this stands a remote possibility of happening — I should make clear that I do not endorse the view that all hasbara must be immediately terminated and its leading organizations wound up.
Rather, I endorse the opinion that it perhaps time that we began a more frank conversation about whether hasbara actually achieves its objectives and merits the public and charitable funding that a lot of its leading organizations receive.
Poring over hasbara and Friends of Israel organizations with the fine toothed comb of an auditor would, I suspect, reveal countless instances of needless duplication of resources. Rationalization is in order too. But I believe that it’s time we took hasbara’s indefinite continuance off the list of things that we collectively think must be continued no matter what.
Israel has a right to defend itself against the egregious lies to which it is often subjected on the international stage — this I agree with and affirm.
Yet, in large part, I believe that work should remain the purview of Israel’s professional diplomats rather than unpaid amateurs — and that we should begin asking why the budget of the latter has been so systematically eroded over the years?
At the very least, I think it’s time that we began a new conversation about hasbara.
With newly minted bilateral ties with the UAE and Bahrain in its stride, Israel is no longer the poor victimized puppy of the Middle East.
Perhaps it is time that we began amending our behavior to reflect that.