Home inFocus The Theory and Practice of Hasbara

The Theory and Practice of Hasbara

Eric Rozenman

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”

—Andre Gide

Does pro-Israel hasbara (Hebrew for information) matter?

It was early in the first intifada, the 1987-1992 Palestinian “uprising” against Israel. News media coverage featured images of rifle-toting, helmeted and mask-wearing Israeli soldiers fighting stone-throwing Arab teenagers trying to ward off tear gas. The frequent calls went something like this: “I’ve been a supporter of Israel for years. But these pictures! They make us look so bad! How can I criticize the media? What can I tell my children?”

I was editing Near East Report, the weekly newsletter published in conjunction with AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “Tell them the demonstrations aren’t spontaneous but have been taken over by the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] and that terrorists fire from among the children,” I said. “Tell them if this were happening in an Arab country, the security forces would massacre the rioters.” “That’ll just sound like pro-Israel propaganda,” callers lamented.

Having fought the 1975 Soviet-inspired, Arab League-promoted UN General Assembly resolution equating Zionism with racism and lost, Israelis and some American supporters of the Jewish state adopted a “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” approach. They forgot that all war is preceded, accompanied, and followed by psychological warfare. Now, finding objective truth to be an insufficient, even abstract response to subjective, emotion-laded images and their simple but pernicious storyline—Israelis as new Nazis, Palestinian Arabs as new Jews—they sought a hasbara silver bullet.

That none was at hand could be seen in the choice of the winning entry in a 1988 European editorial cartoon contest. It was a simple, obscene inversion of the iconic Holocaust-era photograph showing a frightened, cap-wearing Jewish boy, his hands in the air, a German soldier’s rifle pointing at his back. The cartoonist merely replaced the child’s cap with a kefiyeh and transformed the soldier into an Israeli trooper.

Bingo! The decades’-old Soviet campaign to tar Zionism—Jewish nationalism—as fascist bore fruit among European intelligentsia. When the nationalisms of Nasser, Arafat, and Saddam Hussein with their pan-Arab claims failed and their Kremlin sponsor collapsed, competing versions of Islamic supremacism—sponsored by the Iranian government, wealthy Saudis, and others—seamlessly adopted the Israeli-as-Nazi, Palestinian-as-Jew political pornography. The mold was set for right-thinkers in academia, the media, and even show business to peddle soft-core scenarios with Zionists as imperialists, Jews as colonialists, and Palestinian Arabs as oppressed, indigenous people. This hardened into “the Palestinian narrative,” the media’s default filter.

The Second Intifada

A telling example of how the “words will never hurt me” shortsightedness destructively lingered came in the first days of the second intifada, 2000-2004. Video shot by a Palestinian cameraman for a French television channel purported to show an Arab boy trapped with his father in crossfire between Israel Defense Forces and Palestinian gunmen in the Gaza Strip. He was shot to death, or so it was said. Israel, with no more than a cursory review, conceded that yes, its soldiers might well have killed the child.

Images of the “martyred” youngster, Mohammed al-Dura, traveled across the globe. They turned up as partial, implicit justification in an al-Qaeda montage of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center, in images of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s beheading and in mass marches in European cities that featured “Down with Israel” and “Death to the Jews” banners.

Much later, after independent examinations cast doubt on the French television account and even whether al-Dura had been present during the firefight, an IDF re-enactment concluded that if any bullets struck the child and his father, they quite likely had been fired by Palestinian gunmen. This was far too late; CH Spurgeon’s observation that “a lie will go round the world while the truth is pulling its boots on” (Mark Twain often is credited with the saying, demonstrating among other things the lasting importance of good p.r.) continued to apply to Israeli hasbara failures.

Until perhaps the infamous “Jenin massacre” allegation of 2002. In the spring of 2002, Palestinian spokesmen—including the frequently quoted, rarely reliable Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator—charged Israel had massacred hundreds of Palestinian Arabs at Jenin in the West Bank. Erekat told CNN he knew of 500 dead. Many major news outlets headlined such claims. But not for long; Israeli double-checking confirmed 52 Arab dead, almost all combatants, and 23 IDF killed in house-to-house fighting, and not in the supposedly heavily-damaged city of Jenin but in a few square blocks of an adjacent “refugee camp.” Even the United Nations agreed: No massacre.

Israel’s improving information efforts continued during the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon and three later Gaza Strip incursions against Hamas and its partners. Nearly real-time checks instead of indefinite “we’ll get back to you” handling of press queries; rapid web postings and, more recently, social media releases and prompt high-level briefings—not to mention battlefield video showing the IDF calling off attacks, for example, when civilians were present—became almost routine. Anti-Israel charges, from exaggerations to inventions, were not left uncontroverted to take on lives of their own.

Does Hasbara Matter?

Does it matter? That seems to depend on who the audience is. Despite improved official Israeli hasbara, media still often reflexively squint through “the Palestinian narrative.” Hence the misplaced emphasis on Arab fatalities during the 50-day Israel-Hamas war in the summer of 2014.

UN figures put Palestinian deaths at more than 2,100. Those statistics came primarily from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry, an important fact news outlets noted inconsistently at best. That the Hamas Information Ministry, early in the war, instructed Gazans to identify all casualties as innocent civilians went largely unreported.

Major media frequently cited Palestinian and Israeli deaths—73 among the latter—noting the disparity in absolute numbers and found a “disproportion.” Few of the Israelis were non-combatants but many Arabs—often described as “the majority” or “large majority”—were said to be civilians, “including hundreds of women and children.”

However, during and after the fighting, organizations like my own, CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), and Israeli sources analyzed Palestinian fatalities by name, age, and sex. My colleague Steven Stotsky posted his study, “How Hamas Wields Gaza Casualty Figures as Propaganda” on TIME Magazine’s website. For the first three weeks of fighting, it showed a pattern that would remain relatively consistent: more than 50 percent of the Palestinian dead were fighting-age males aged 17-39, although this group comprised only one-sixth of Gaza’s population. Adult women accounted for 10 percent of the fatalities but one-fourth of the Strip’s total population.

In the end, combatant-to-noncombatant Palestinian deaths were roughly one-to-one. Media rarely compared this ratio to those in Afghanistan and Iraq resulting from attacks by U.S. and coalition forces, one-to-three and one-to-four, according to U.N. estimates. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional committee that Israel went out of its way to minimize non-combatant deaths. Rather than “disproportionately high” civilian fatalities during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, they appear to have been “disproportionately low.” But the weight of the Palestinian narrative is such that Dempsey’s comment caused barely a media ripple.

Beyond media lies another audience, one hasbara, no matter how compelling, is unlikely to reach. This large and apparently growing group needs to believe the worst about Israel and, often, about Jews. Anti-Zionism helps anchor its members’ theological and/or ideological catechism. They passionately embrace what others call antisemitic prejudices as righteous responses to a racist Jewish state and its supporters.

Never mind that public relations efforts can transmit positive images of Israel with relative ease because, on balance and by comparison with any other nation-state, the democratic, innovative, prosperous, tolerant reality of Israel is positive. The anti-Zionist, even antisemitic audience remains impregnable. In fact, its members use the term hasbara as a sarcastic conversation stopper. In their intensity and hostility, they confirm Eric Hofer’s insight that “propaganda does not deceive people; it merely helps them to deceive themselves.”

A recent example that’s more like an epitome:

This February 23, Al-Jazeera, the Qatari-owned, Muslim Brotherhood-friendly satellite and cable television network, reported that widespread flooding in the Gaza Strip resulted from Israel opening “without warning” dams in the southern part of the country. CAMERA, pointing out there were no dams in southern Israel capable of being opened to flood the Strip, called for a correction. Two days later Al-Jazeera retracted the story.

For some on the network’s comment site, the retraction was disgraceful. It proved that “hasbara swarms” and “hasbara worms” successfully had pressured the broadcaster. Dams or no dams, Israel was stealing Palestinian water (Israel provides the Palestinian Authority more water than required in Israeli-Palestinian agreements); Gaza floods because Israel prevents rebuilding of infrastructure it damaged in war (Hamas’ insistence on rearming and rebuilding infiltration tunnels cripples reconstruction); and, whatever, Israel’s an illegitimate state that should not exist so what’s the point in arguing over whose fault floods in Gaza are?

Who is Hasbara Really For?

So who is hasbara for?

First, for supporters of the Jewish state. At a minimum, it’s vital to prevent demoralization. Positively, it informs and encourages.

Second, for the undecided. Without a constant, sophisticated information effort—always factual and appropriately targeted—many originally in the “I don’t know” category may succumb to delegitimization campaigns.

Only third come news and other communications media, from encyclopedia and textbook publishers through Hollywood to specialty outlets dealing with everything from religion to travel and fashion. Information that puts Israel and its enemies in context, that provides essential background, often meets resistance. And why not? It causes cognitive dissonance. But without it, Americans would end up with European-style media such as Britain’s The Guardian and Independent, self-righteous in their hostility, eager enlistees in the anti-Israel psych war. And it not infrequently triumphs, as in the case of Al Jazeera’s “flood libel.”

Finally, there is a fourth, dual audience that makes hasbara obligatory. It is the past and the future. As George Orwell wrote in 1984 about the Party’s compulsion to revise history, tossing inconvenient truths down the memory hole: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

Those who hope to prevent the delegitimization and destruction of Israel and intellectual-political reghettoization of its supporters have no choice but to insist on an accurate description of the present, over and over, as long as necessary.

Eric Rozenman is Washington director of CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. CAMERA does not lobby media for pro-Israel coverage but rather holds them accountable according to traditional journalism standards including accuracy, objectivity, balance, and context.