Hasbara

Yonatan Mendel

As a result of mounting anti-semitism in Europe and the generally poor showing of Israeli hasbara there, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education are sending a delegation of 11th-grade students on a hasbara mission to Europe.

Letter to headteachers

Hasbara is the noun form of the Hebrew verb ‘to explain’, in the sense of advocating a position. ‘Propaganda’ might seem the obvious translation but that might not do justice to the intensity of feeling that lies behind it. A Ministry of Hasbara was first created in 1974, with Shimon Peres in charge; in 1975 it was disbanded and hasbara became a multi-ministerial task. Since then, the importance of hasbara has come to the fore every time Israel has been involved in a major conflict – the 1982 war, the 1987 intifada, the 2000 intifada. In March 2009, two months after the invasion of Gaza, Israel re-established the Ministry of Hasbara; the current minister is Yuli Edelstein.

The hasbara aspect of the Gaza operation was put in train several months before the invasion. In May 2008 four French-speaking Israelis were selected by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in conjunction with the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organisation, to visit Switzerland, France and Belgium, where, as the Jewish Agency spokesperson put it, they were to ‘deliver the messages that our official diplomats cannot’. ‘Stick to your personal stories,’ they were told, ‘do not be drawn into political discussions. There will be people who irritate you and say that you are occupiers … do not go there.’ Similar, English-speaking delegations set out for Britain, Ireland, Holland, Denmark and the US. German speakers went to Germany. On arrival, they gave interviews to the local media; they met members of parliament, members of the Jewish community and local bigwigs and spoke, as instructed, of their own experience – the constant shelling, the effects on their families, their businesses, their daily lives.

When the attack on Gaza started, hasbara efforts were intensified. In an interview on Channel 2, broadcast under the title The Hasbara Front, a ministerial spokesman summed up the situation:

We have success in our hasbara efforts in North America … In Eastern Europe the media show that they understand our just cause … Western Europe though is a much tougher hasbara arena … some of the voices that we hear from there correspond to the anti-semitic monster which is hidden under the beautiful tiles of Europe … It is time now to understand that hasbara is not the responsibility of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs alone. Each and every one of us is an envoy of hasbara. Every Israeli and every supporter of Israel wherever they are must play their part in these difficult days when we are fighting for the future of the entire Middle East.

Two weeks into the attack Benjamin Netanyahu, then head of the opposition, addressed an audience of 16-year-old Israeli students in a TV broadcast entitled Hasbara and History: 45 minutes were given over to teaching the students how to explain Israel to the world. ‘We need to learn the technique of our enemies,’ he said: ‘they reverse the outcome and the result; they blame Israel for occupying the territories, even though these territories were originally occupied as a result of their aggression … We need to convince the world that we are right. The real battle is about who is right and who is not.’ He didn’t confine himself to abstractions but put the students through their paces: ‘You have three minutes on French television, what do you say?’

Only the lack of efficient hasbara – and anti-semitism – is allowed to explain the criticism Israel receives. Take the Goldstone Report. Political (and personal) attacks on Goldstone began as soon as the report was published. Shimon Peres said that Goldstone was a ‘small man out to hurt Israel’. Ehud Barak called the report ‘a shameful document’. Netanyahu said it was ‘a distorted report’ written by a ‘distorted committee’. Danny Danon literally tore it up as he was addressing the Knesset. More hasbara was called for. The response to the arrest warrants for war crimes that were recently issued in the UK against Tzipi Livni and others was the same: it was an anti-semitic act – and a failure of hasbara. ‘Arab propaganda has influenced most of Europe,’ Moshe Ya’alon, the deputy prime minister, said, ‘and meanwhile we have neglected our public diplomacy.’

In February this year, the government’s Masbirim website (masbirim: ‘those who explain’) drew up a set of instructions for Israelis travelling abroad. The website, which according to the Ministry of Hasbara had 130,000 hits in its first week, aims to ‘provide information to counter criticism that might be experienced abroad’. It details Israel’s achievements in technology and agriculture, as well as suggesting ways to ‘encourage visits to Israel’, ‘to dispel myths about Israel’ and to deal with political criticism. Visitors to the website are advised, when arguing with ‘people of other cultures’, to ‘maintain eye contact … if you look away it might be seen as lack of attention and your argument will lose its force,’ and ‘to keep generally still … rapid movements can create nervousness and confuse.’ The same advice is being broadcast on Israeli television. Further afield, to ensure that the Israeli tourist is comprehensively brainwashed before landing in London or Rome, the Ministry of Hasbara distributes its brochures to passengers about to board El Al flights, and the TV campaign is beamed to aircrafts’ in-flight entertainment systems. There is no running away.

When Israel sent 200 soldiers to Haiti to set up a field hospital on a football pitch in Port-au-Prince, the Israeli media crowed. ‘What do you think about that, Goldstone?’ was one headline. ‘Israeli Delegation to Haiti Makes All Others Pale,’ said another. ‘Well Done Us,’ said a third. But the most disturbing was: ‘The Haiti Disaster: Bad for Them, Good for the Jews.’