By ANDREW SILOW-CARROLL
(JTA) — The first mention in JTA of the Hebrew word “hasbarah” was in 1988, at the height of the first intifada.
The article focused on Israelis and American Jews and their deep concern that the media were distorting the unrest and showing the Israeli military in a bad light.
The answer, interviewees agreed, was better “hasbarah” — a Hebrew word, explained the author (OK, it was me), “whose meaning falls somewhere between information and propaganda.”
“Israel has never actually looked at hasbarah as an integral part of policymaking,” said Dan Pattir, a former press secretary to prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin.
Fast forward 30 years. Writing last week in the Los Angeles Times, Noga Tarnapolsky makes a convincing case that Israel’s public diplomacy efforts are flawed, unprofessional, scattershot and out of touch. Critics tell her that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu relies too much on social-media videos to defend Israel. They say its military spokespeople are ill prepared to answer questions about controversial events, like May’s deadly riots on the border with Gaza.
““There is … no single authority that coordinates and supervises these various activities,” complains Michael Oren, who is (wait for it) Israel’s deputy minister in charge of public diplomacy.
The critics, however, don’t make a convincing case why any of this matters.
Complaints about Israel’s hasbarah efforts are as regular and ritualistic as the Jewish holidays. Without answers from a strong PR campaign, the theory goes, the litany of anti-Israel charges gains traction.
But among whom? Israel remains hugely popular among the American public. According to Gallup, 64 percent of the U.S. population sympathizes with the Israelis over the Palestinians, and only 19 percent say they sympathize more with the Palestinians. Congress remains firmly pro-Israel. Yes, a Pew survey in January showed a wide partisan divide over Israel, with 79 percent of Republicans and only 27 percent of Democratic sympathizing more with Israel than with the Palestinians. But the poll questions forced respondents to choose between Israelis and Palestinians (why not both?), and the results may have reflected only the deeply partisan nature of American politics — not anything you can hasbarah away.
Despite wide publicity and Jewish consternation, the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement hasn’t taken root outside the far left. As of June, 25 states have enacted anti-BDS laws. In fact, the whole point of BDS is that Israel has a positive image that needs to be undermined. You wouldn’t know about BDS if celebrities didn’t regularly include Israel on their world tours.
The charge of “pinkwashing” — that Israel touts its relatively progressive record on LGBT rights to distract the world from the occupation — targets what the BDS folk think is a positive and effective means of hasbarah — otherwise, why would they bother? And paradoxically, every charge of pinkwashing only reminds the casual reader of Israel’s strong LGBT record.
Two kinds of critics, often overlapping, criticize Israel’s hasbarah.
The first is convinced that the media have in it for Israel. Such critics also hold the mistaken notion that the media’s role is to tell a story as they would have it told. Coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is hardly perfect, and examples abound of stories becoming stories only when Palestinians are the victims, or headlines that ignore cause (a terror attack) for effect (the Israelis’ response). In general, however, Palestinians have a point when they complain that the media often shape the narrative according to an Israeli point of view, depicting Palestinian life with an Israeli gaze. If you want to see what coverage of the conflict would look like otherwise, read a pro-Palestinian website like Electronic Intifada or a far-left Israeli site like +972. It’s nothing like the Israel coverage you see in the mainstream media.
The other kind of critic blames unpopular policy on bad hasbarah. Good hasbarah, they insist, could presumably have forestalled the brouhaha over the Israeli nation-state law (a brouhaha, I’d wager, that most Americans never even heard about). That story got legs not because of a bad marketing rollout, but because the law was a policy decision that fed directly into a perception that Israel’s right-wing government was growing less democratic and more nationalistic.
Passage of the law capped a week in which the Knesset allowed the education minister to bar groups critical of government policies from speaking in public schools, made it harder for Palestinians to win land disputes and blocked single men and gay couples from having children through surrogacy. More broadly, Netanyahu’s close ties with President Donald Trump may be understandable and justifiable, as his outreach to European nationalists, but there is a political and PR price to be paid for such embraces.
Netanyahu has good instincts for English-speaking audiences, and sometimes he realizes that a positive pitch can only get you so far. In the past few weeks, left-wing activists have complained that Israeli airport security have detained them and asked specifically about their activism and their political beliefs. On Monday, after the liberal Zionist writer Peter Beinart said he was stopped and interrogated, Netanyahu issued a statement saying it was an “administrative mistake,” adding that “Israel is the only country in the Middle East where people voice their opinions freely and robustly.”
The latter statement is a staple of pro-Israel hasbarah. It’s a terrific policy, as long as it has the added benefit of being true. But when actions prove unpopular, PR won’t save you. The root meaning of hasbarah is “explanation,” not “alchemy.”
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.
Our New Jewish Reality
By HENRY SREBRNIK Since Oct. 7, we Jews have been witnessing an ongoing political and psychological pogrom. True, there have been no deaths (so far), but we’ve seen the very real threat of mobs advocating violence and extensive property damage of Jewish-owned businesses, and all this with little forceful reaction from the authorities.
The very day after the carnage, Canadians awoke to the news that the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust had inspired sustained celebrations in its major cities. And they have continued ever since. I’d go so far as to say the Trudeau government has, objectively, been more interested in preventing harm to Gazans than caring about the atrocities against Israelis and their state.
For diaspora Jews, the attacks of Oct. 7 were not distant overseas events and in this country since then they have inspired anti-Semitism, pure and simple, which any Jew can recognize. Even though it happened in Israel, it brought back the centuries-old memories of defenseless Jews being slaughtered in a vicious pogrom by wild anti-Semites.
I think this has shocked, deeply, most Jews, even those completely “secular” and not all that interested in Judaism, Israel or “Zionism.” Jewish parents, especially, now fear for their children in schools and universities. The statements universities are making to Jewish students across the country could not be clearer: We will not protect you, they all but scream. You’re on your own.
But all this has happened before, as we know from Jewish history. Long before Alfred Dreyfus and Theodor Herzl, the 1881 pogroms in tsarist Russia led to an awakening of proto-Zionist activity there, with an emphasis on the land of Israel. There were soon new Jewish settlements in Palestine.
The average Jew in Canada now knows that his or her friend at a university, his co-worker in an office, and the people he or she socializes with, may in fact approve, or at least not disapprove, of what happened that day in Israel. Acquaintances or even close friends may care far more about Israel killing Palestinians in Gaza. Such people may even believe what we may call “Hamas pogrom denial,” already being spread. Many people have now gone so far in accepting the demonization of Israel and Jews that they see no penalty attached to public expressions of Jew-hatred. Indeed, many academics scream their hatred of Israel and Jews as loud as possible.
One example: On Nov. 10, Toronto officers responded to a call at an Indigo bookstore located in the downtown. It had been defaced with red paint splashed on its windows and the sidewalk, and posters plastered to its windows.
The eleven suspects later arrested claimed that Indigo founder Heather Reisman (who is Jewish) was “funding genocide” because of her financial support of the HESEG Foundation for Lone Soldiers, which provides scholarships to foreign nationals who study in Israel after serving in the Israeli armed forces. By this logic, then, most Jewish properties and organizations could be targeted, since the vast majority of Jews are solidly on Israel’s side.
Were these vandals right-wing thugs or people recently arrived from the Middle East? No, those charged were mostly white middle-class professionals. Among them are figures from academia, the legal community, and the public education sector. Four are academics connected to York University (one of them a former chair of the Sociology Department) and a fifth at the University of Toronto; two are elementary school teachers; another a paralegal at a law firm.
Were their students and colleagues dismayed by this behaviour? On the contrary. Some faculty members, staff and students at the university staged a rally in their support. These revelations have triggered discussions about the role and responsibilities of educators, given their influential positions in society.
You’ve heard the term “quiet quitting.” I think many Jews will withdraw from various clubs and organizations and we will begin to see, in a sense like in the 1930s, a reversal of assimilation, at least in the social sphere. (Of course none of this applies to Orthodox Jews, who already live this way.)
Women in various feminist organizations may form their own groups or join already existing Jewish women’s groups. There may be an increase in attendance in K-12 Jewish schools. In universities, “progressive” Jewish students will have to opt out of organizations whose members, including people they considered friends, have been marching to the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and similar eliminationist rhetoric, while waving Palestinian flags.
This will mostly affect Jews on the left, who may be supporters of organizations which have become carriers of anti-Semitism, though ostensibly dealing with “human rights,” “social justice,” and even “climate change.”
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg took part in a demonstration outside the Israeli Embassy in Stockholm on Oct. 22 in which she chanted “crush Zionism” along with hundreds of other anti-Israel protesters. Israel is now unthinkingly condemned as a genocidal apartheid settler-colonialist state, indeed, the single most malevolent country in the world and the root of all evil.
New York Times Columnist Bret Stephens expressed it well in his Nov. 7 article. “Knowing who our friends aren’t isn’t pleasant, particularly after so many Jews have sought to be personal friends and political allies to people and movements that, as we grieved, turned their backs on us. But it’s also clarifying.”
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.
Former Winnipegger Vivian Silver, at first thought to have been taken hostage, has now been confirmed dead
Former Winnipegger and well-known Israeli peace activist Vivian Silver has now been confirmed as having been killed during the massacre of Israelis and foreign nationals perpetrated by Hamas terrorists on October 7. Vivian, a resident of Kibbutz Be’eri was originally thought to be among the more than 1200 individuals who were taken hostage by Hamas.
To read the full story on the CBC website, go to https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/israel-gaza-vivian-silver-1.7027333
Israeli show satirizing students in the US who give blind support to Hamas
If you want to take a break from the tension that comes with following every bit of news associated with Israel’s war on Hamas watch this hilarious video satirizing the stupidity of US college kids who give unqualified support to Hamas: https://twitter.com/LeviYonit/status/1721272323087401428?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1721272323087401428%7Ctwgr%5E833a2a425e6d7029d6ef37b7c9042c1d81dbf8ba%7Ctwcon%5Es1_c10&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.timesofisrael.com%2Fisraeli-satire-shows-mocking-of-us-student-support-for-hamas-goes-viral%2F