It is no secret that Israel has a severe problem with getting its message across to the world, what is known in Hebrew as “hasbara” (literally, “explanation” but more commonly translated as “advocacy” or “public diplomacy”).
Before 1967, Israel was viewed by the Western world as a scrappy underdog, a nation whose very creation was a testimony to justice and perseverance, an island of democratic values in a sea of hostile Arab dictatorships, a real-life David surviving and thriving despite the constant threats and attacks of Goliath.
Americans, in particular, found many similarities between the Jewish quest to build a new version of the Promised Land and American history. Both were founded as a result of religious persecution, both struggled to build a free nation against all odds, and Israel was viewed as a Jewish nation that embodied the Protestant work ethic that turned America into a superpower. The Pilgrims regarded themselves as a new type of Jew and America as the Promised Land, and one can find hundreds of towns in America today that have biblical names that reflect that thinking. This affinity with the Jewish people carried over to the idea of supporting Jewish statehood and return to the historic and spiritual home of Judaism.
This love of Israel carried over into popular culture. Exodus, Leon Uris’ blockbuster story dramatizing Israel’s rebirth, was the biggest selling American novel since Gone With the Wind. The movie version starred, improbably, Paul Newman — the ideal American — as the Sabra hero, Ari Ben-Canaan.
The Six-Day War was the high point of Western infatuation with Israel, as the tiny country astonished the world with its lightning victory over the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
From a hasbara perspective, however, it was mostly downhill from there.
Now, the word “Zionist” is an insult in much of the world and on college campuses in the US. The news media automatically assumes the worst about Israel. The Jewish state is now considered, in much of the Western world, synonymous with oppression and even apartheid.
All of this flies against easily verifiable facts about Israel and her neighbors.
Part of the change came from a well-orchestrated campaign started by the PLO after the Six-Day War. The plan can be seen in the Palestine National Assembly Political Resolutions of July 17, 1968.
This document is eerie in its description of what must be done to take down Israel, and the language it uses indicates that it was almost certainly created with a lot of help from the USSR, then acting as a patron for Yasser Arafat. Here is an excerpt from this published plan:
3. The enemy consists of three interdependent forces:
b) World Zionism.
c) World imperialism, under the direction of the United States of America.
Moreover, it is incontestable that world imperialism makes use of the forces of reaction linked with colonialism.
If we are to achieve victory and gain our objectives, we shall have to strike at the enemy wherever he may be, and at the nerve centres of his power. This is to be achieved through the use of military, political and economic weapons and information media, as part of a unified and comprehensive plan designed to sap his strength, scatter his forces, destroy the links between them and undermine their common objectives.
4. A long-drawn out battle has the advantage of allowing us to expose world Zionism, its activities, conspiracies, and its complicity with world imperialism and to point out the damage and complications it causes to the interests and the security of many countries, and the threat it constitutes to world peace. This will eventually unmask it, bringing to light the grotesque facts of its true nature, and will isolate it from the centres of power and establish safeguards against its ever reaching them…
5. An information campaign must be launched that will throw light on the following facts:
a) The true nature of the Palestinian war is that of a battle between a small people, which is the Palestinian people, and Israel, which has the backing of world Zionism and world imperialism.
b) This war will have its effect on the interests of any country that supports Israel or world Zionism.
c) The hallmark of the Palestinian Arab people is resistance, struggle and liberation, that of the enemy, aggression, usurpation and the disavowal of all values governing decent human relations.
As we see today, this plan has been executed brilliantly.
While Israel is still surrounded by a hostile Arab world, the media now presents the conflict the way Arafat framed it in 1968: as a huge world Zionist power against a tiny “Palestinian” people — a people who were literally fiction before 1920 and who have been used for decades specifically to act as pawns to destroy Israel.
At the head of the anti-Israel protests today in the West one will not see as many Arabs as socialists; organized by groups like ANSWER which was formed by leaders of the Workers World Party. This is not a coincidence; the 1968 plan has been consciously adopted by the world socialist movement to create a set of memes that are familiar to us today as standard anti-Zionism.
They use liberal keywords to tar Israel, the most liberal state in the region, as imperialist and bigoted. This repeated use of terms like “racist” and “apartheid” have slowly but surely become the normative discourse when discussing Israel in the liberal-leaning media.
As we have seen, over the past forty years, the Jewish state has been slowly but surely transformed in the public eye from a tiny nation proudly defending itself from annihilation into a state that is perceived as an oppressor, a human rights violator, and — to many of its detractors — one of the most evil regimes on the planet.
Most knowledgeable people and supporters of Israel who follow the news know how absurd these characterizations are. We know that Arabs in Israel have more rights than in any Arab state. (One need only to look at the recent riots in Egypt, as well as Tunisia, Jordan and elsewhere, to see how oppressed Arabs are in their own nations.) We know that Israel is being held to an impossibly high standard for the purposes of its demonization by its haters. We know that Israel has real freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of the press — freedoms that its neighbors can only dream of.
Yet we also know that Israel is, to put it charitably, inconsistent in getting its message across properly to the world. While the anti-Israel message is consistent, constant and overwhelming, the pro-Israel messages are fragmented, non-centralized and, too often, incompetent.
Obviously, it is up to Israel itself to do the bulk of hasbara. Unfortunately, the state has fallen short. There are some reasons for this — it takes a lot less time to create a lie than it does to disprove it — but it still leaves Israel in a position where she is constantly on the defensive and often unaware of how her reactions appear on the world stage.
We can complain about it until we are blue in the face, but it is a lot more rewarding to actually do something about it.
Every supporter of Israel can help Israel — today. There are concrete actions that we need to be doing to maximize our impact and help Israel get its message out as effectively as possible. Most of these actions can be done with little investment of time and money. You already know how to do many of them — tweeting, Facebook, blogs, social networking tools — but we will be dissecting why some things work and why some don’t. We will also look at how to make the most effective use of our time and our own individual talents. Are you good at art? Writing? Organizing? Networking? Research? History? Programming? Are you a polyglot? Even if your main talent is to get under other people’s skins, there are things you could do to help Israel today.
Over the coming weeks, in these pages, I will be examining hasbara — what works, what doesn’t, and why. Once we get the basic outline of what is effective, we will be in a much better position to actually make a difference.