Everyone says Israel does a poor job of hasbara, but the question is “what is the job?”
Hasbara is information, propaganda, public diplomacy, clarification of policies, telling the truth about Israel or telling lies. It depends on whom you ask. Folks who don’t like what I write sometimes call me a ‘hasbarist’, which is apparently something like a pederast.
One form of hasbara – defensive hasbara – responds to what Richard Landes likes to call ‘cognitive warfare’. Cognitive warfare is a real thing that nations and ideological activists expend a lot of effort and money on and which can have serious, concrete effects.
Cognitive attacks can be targeted at different populations and intended to produce different effects. It can be aimed at an enemy population to demoralize it, reduce support for its leadership, destroy will to fight, create confusion, or cause the leaders to make mistakes. It can also be aimed at third-party nations, to keep them from supporting the target. Cognitive warfare techniques can also be used to strengthen one’s own population’s identification with particular policies.
Israel’s enemies flood the world’s media and institutions like the UN with descriptions of the IDF’s ‘disproportionate’ use of force, ‘excessive’ civilian casualties, use of prohibited weapons, cruelty and even deliberate targeting of children. Defensive operations are portrayed as unprovoked aggression. These accusations are either exaggerated, presented out of context or made up from whole cloth – sometimes they are based on faked or doctored video, the so-called ‘pallywood’. Documentation is often no more than unsupported statements from Palestinians, laundered via the NGO ‘halo effect’ (“if Human Rights Watch reports it, it must be true”) to give them credibility. Organizations like ‘Breaking the Silence’ spread unsubstantiated allegations of war crimes both in Israel and abroad. A massive quantity of accusations are made in order to overwhelm our capacity to respond.
The campaign gets results: the IDF adopts tactics to reduce collateral damage even further, to the extent that its operational effectiveness and morale of its troops are impacted. Israel is deterred from initiating operations that might result in legal action against its officers and soldiers. Unfriendly regimes in the US are unopposed when they act to turn Israeli military victories into political defeats or cut off deliveries of weapons in wartime. Sympathy for terrorist entities like Hamas and Hezbollah make it possible for them to ‘stay in business’ between conflicts and rearm. Israeli young people may even be influenced by the smear campaign to avoid military service so as not to be involved in what they are told is an immoral enterprise.
The BDS campaign that is being waged all over the world, including Europe, South Africa, Australia and the US, is a major cognitive offensive. While it is doubtful that it can ever amount to more than an economic pinprick against Israel, that isn’t its primary objective. What it has already been successful at doing, whether or not resolutions to boycott, sanction or divest are passed, is to give currency to the idea that Israel’s behavior is so egregious that decent people are expected to shun it. Even where anti-BDS laws or resolutions have been passed, these are spun as a response by ‘Jewish power’ to justified grass-roots outrage.
Defensive hasbara counteracts these sorts of cognitive warfare. Although the sheer volume of false accusations makes it difficult, they must be refuted before they can be turned into concrete legal or diplomatic challenges.
The role of the government and the army in responding to false accusations is key, because only they have the access and authority necessary to find out the truth about incidents that happened in war or in confrontations between soldiers and civilians. The record of the Israeli authorities in this arena has been spotty at best. One of the worst failures was the case of the alleged killing of Mohammed al-Dura in 2000, which almost certainly was a scripted ‘Pallywood production’ in which neither the young al-Dura nor his father were wounded. A map showed that IDF soldiers could not have shot them. Nevertheless, shortly after the incident, the IDF officially apologized for the young al-Dura’s ‘death’!
Defensive hasbara is one piece of the puzzle, a necessary response to cognitive attacks, but in itself not sufficient to win the cognitive war. If all we do is defend ourselves, the result is that we simply help spread the accusations (I’m reminded of an anecdote about Lyndon Johnson advising his PR person to spread the story that an opposing candidate had sex with chickens in order to force him to publicly deny it). We can’t afford to ignore specific accusations, but we also need to ensure that people on our side have access to a correct account of our historical, moral and legal rights to the land of Israel as well as the justification of specific policies.
The thrust of Palestinian Arab propaganda – and it indeed is thrust at the world continuously – is that the Jews stole the land from an indigenous Palestinian people and Israel occupies it today (on both sides of the Green Line) as a cruel racist, colonialist oppressor. As long as this story is believed, then there will continue to be pressure for ‘justice’, which usually involves changes to borders and security features (e.g., the elimination of the security barrier or the blockade of Gaza) that will advance the Arab program to destroy the Jewish state and kill or disperse its people.
Just as the Palestinians and their supporters have a logically consistent (but false) narrative of history and current events to justify their demands, we too need to develop and broadcast our (in this case true) narrative. In contrast to defensive hasbara, I’ll call this positive hasbara.
If we were doing this, we would advocate for our narrative in both the inward and outward directions, in our own educational system and also in our informational efforts to the outside world. The narrative would rest on a Zionist philosophical foundation, accurate historical scholarship and solid legal argumentation. All our organs of state – the Prime Minister and government, the Foreign and Defense Ministries, the army, the Broadcasting Authority, and more – would be on the same page when it comes to our basic right to have a Jewish state here, why we must maintain military control of the territories, why Jews have a right to live anywhere in the land of Israel, and why our security measures are justified.
Needless to say, this is not the case today. We tell the world how much we want peace with the Palestinians, how beautiful our beaches are, how gay-friendly we are, how we have a lot of high-tech startups, how our medical technology is the best in the world, how our soldiers are nice to cute Arab kids, and how the terrorists murder us. The world responds by saying that terrorism is our fault because we don’t ‘end the occupation’, ‘stop settlement activity’ and ‘free Palestine’.
The necessary messages are not getting through because they are not being sent. Why is this?
We have a political and social culture that is very tolerant of political diversity. A small percentage of Israelis tend to be extremely, even pathologically, critical of the state, and at the same time sit in key positions in our most important information-related institutions, not to mention the ministries, the courts, even the army. There are academics, media personalities, artists and intellectuals who are anti-Zionist and anti-state. Instead of Naomi Shemer we have Aviv Geffen. University faculties are ludicrously unbalanced toward the Left.
These individuals can directly create roadblocks, but they also foster a lack of confidence on the part of others who don’t share their point of view. In Israel, unabashed Zionists are considered at least naïve and often extremists. Nobody wants to look silly.
Because we don’t project a consistent message that justifies our existence, we should not be surprised that people all over the world don’t bother to sort through the contradictory messages – including many that can only be called suicidal – that emanate from Israel, and instead prefer the simple call for ‘justice for the Palestinian people’.
I don’t have a solution for this problem. We aren’t Yasser Arafat, who created a unitary voice for the Palestinians by murdering anyone who disagreed with him. We aren’t the Soviets, who tightly controlled all means of expression and sent people to the Gulag for illegally using a typewriter. But as long as we don’t unite behind a Zionist ideal, we won’t be able to present a counter-view for the Palestinian narrative. And indeed, we won’t have an answer for the nihilism of the post-Zionist Left among us.
Shimon Peres said that you don’t need hasbara if you have good policy. This is wrong for many reasons, but one of them is that you can’t have good policy if you don’t have a consistent understanding of who you are and what your objectives are. You can’t fight a cognitive war over your legitimacy if you don’t know what the basic arguments for that legitimacy are. You can’t negotiate if you don’t know what you can compromise and what you can’t. Positive hasbara is more than propaganda, it’s also getting our own selves clear about what we ought to do and why.
Cognitive warfare is real and dangerous. Defensive hasbara is the necessary response. We can improve our execution of it by adding money and manpower to the effort to counter the enemy lie machine. It’s difficult, but we know how to do it. And we should.
Positive hasbara, answering the Palestinian narrative with a persuasive one of our own, is a much harder task, because it requires that we have a consistent national narrative that we feel comfortable asserting. And we don’t.
And that’s the answer to the question at the beginning of this post: “the job” we need to do is a political one, not just a PR operation: it is no less than to unite Israel’s Jews under a Zionist ideological banner. Until we are successful at this, the only hasbara game we can play will be the defensive one.