Jonathan D. Sarna

Why Israel is fast losing the public relations war

The best PR won't stop the haters. For the rest of the world, Israel should be making its case by pushing two key messages
Palestinians in the West Bank city of Nablus celebrate on October 7, 2023, after Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel from the Gaza Strip and launched a brutal large-scale attack on Israeli towns and cities. (Jaafar ASHTIYEH / AFP)
Palestinians in the West Bank city of Nablus celebrate on October 7, 2023, after Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel from the Gaza Strip and launched a brutal large-scale attack on Israeli towns and cities. (Jaafar ASHTIYEH / AFP)

American media dramatically united behind Israel in the immediate aftermath of the October 7th Hamas attacks. The surprise nature of those attacks, the horrific images transmitted from the scene, the unbearably high number of civilian deaths, and President Biden’s remarkable address on October 10th that described the horrors in graphic terms labeling them “pure unadulterated evil” captured widespread American sympathy. Here was a story that everyone — especially those who recalled the 9/11 attacks and the Boston Marathon bombing — could easily understand: it was the good guys vs. the bad guys, civilization vs. barbarism.

Three weeks later, much of that sympathy has, unfortunately, dissipated. Graphic images of destruction and death from Gaza, and disastrous public relations failures have resulted in the replacement of Israel’s easy-to-understand story with more customary accusations of “disproportionality” and of “the Jewish state’s lack of regard for civilians.” The White House has helped shape the new message too. “The administration,” reports The New York Times,has become more critical of Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks, a shift that US officials attribute to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”

It is all too easy to blame Israel’s weakening media fortunes on familiar villains: Hamas supporters, antisemites, leftist academics, biased reporters, and the like. While they do indeed bear plenty of responsibility, the whole point of a well-crafted media relations strategy in wartime is to anticipate and counter the enemy’s claims.

Here, it seems to me, Israel has made two major mistakes.

First, the goals of the war have been poorly articulated. Is the goal, first and foremost, to get the hostages seized by Hamas back? To “eliminate Hamas” altogether? To punish Hamas and exact retribution? To transform Gaza? To demonstrate that nowadays, unlike in the days of the Shoah, Jews stand up and fight? To make the world better for Jewish “university students scared to wear a Star of David or speak Hebrew,” as minister Benny Gantz suggested earlier this week? Without a clear and well-articulated set of goals, the media war can never be won.

It would be far better, in my view, to endlessly repeat two straightforward goals that can be summarized in just eight words: Release the hostages; Punish Hamas and its enablers. Let every Israeli spokesperson memorize those words. Explain every day’s developments on the basis of those twin goals. Meet every UN ceasefire call with an enthusiastic, “Yes — but only once all hostages are released and Hamas and its enablers are appropriately punished.”

Eight words, of course, will not suffice to satisfy all Israel-haters. But they will at least ensure that Israel’s goals in this war are clear and measurable.

The word “enablers” points to the second major mistake that Israel has made on the PR front. It has failed sufficiently to emphasize that an entire army of accomplices stands behind Hamas. Far from being a “small” terrorist group dwelling among many “innocent” civilians, Hamas actually depends upon tens of thousands of ordinary Gazans who assist it. Just as the Nazi mass murderers depended upon large numbers of local enablers, so too its counterparts in Hamas. In both cases, the enablers subsequently feigned innocence and ignorance. Such claims, however, strain credulity.

In the Gazan case, the smuggling of fuel, concrete, and missiles has depended upon enablers. Positioning weapons amid the civilian population — in or below hospitals, schools, and mosques — likewise depended upon enablers, including sympathetic doctors, educators, imams and construction workers. Family members enabled Hamas. That explains the horrific telephone call by one mass murderer boasting to his mother that “I killed 10 Jews” [note well: “Jews” not “Israelis” or “Zionists”]. On top of this, a great many Gazans donated funds to Hamas — that makes them enablers too. All of these enablers may not have known of Hamas’s precise plans for October 7th, but they assuredly knew that the group planned to murder as many innocent Jewish civilians as it could, someday. That is what Hamas promised to do in its charter and that is what Gazans expected Hamas to do at the earliest opportunity.

Labeling many Gazans as enablers and clarifying that Israel’s war aims are to release the hostages and punish Hamas and its enablers will not overnight transform the way Israel is viewed and treated by the American and world media. But in a long and difficult propaganda war, small victories make all the difference. Speedily rectifying Israel’s two major PR mistakes cannot but help.

About the Author
Jonathan D. Sarna is University Professor and Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. His American Judaism: A History has recently appeared in a second revised edition.
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