In the highly charged, emotional and biased world of political advocacy,
“logical” is often defined as what makes sense for a few people who sit around a
table and offer judgments about what other people should think – whether or not
they really know anything about those they are trying to convince.
of those who see Israel through a narrow and focused lens often act like
everyone else should as well. When it comes to Israeli hasbara, or public
diplomacy, we see people and organizations whose heart may be in the right
place, but whose logic is governed by what they would like to believe – and not
what is actually supported by acceptable evidence and backed by impartial
research. In fact, it is astounding how many opinions are offered that are
devoid of any real evidence other than “Well, everyone knows that.”
you will hear advocacy organizations consistently “defend” Israel and you will
see hasbara messages that remind us that Israel invented the cellphone and that
gays serve in the military. People will be urged to “tell the truth” and “just
give the facts,” and will even admit that “Israel is not perfect” once in a
while, but they’ll never specify where the imperfection lies. You will see
pictures of beautiful people on a Tel Aviv beach, articles that point out all
the great things that Israel does and emails with the subject line “65 reasons I
love Israel.” And, we are told, these are the logical messages that will tip the
scales of sympathy in Israel's favor.
Well, maybe yes – but most likely
no. That's because what makes sense for some makes absolutely no sense for
others, especially those the advocates are trying to influence.
to the choir is an old practice that makes people feel good, but does not
necessarily have too much effect beyond the choir itself. Sending messages to
friends about the “amazing” things Israel does or the “shameful” things Arabs do
and urging them to circulate it to everyone they know will probably not change
their already set attitudes, and will probably have little effect on people
beyond their circle. That's because most of the people they know already feel
the same way they do, and those who do not will not be persuaded by empty,
self-serving and “root for us” rhetoric that almost never addresses the true
concerns of those who question Israeli policy.
The one question that
needs to be asked, but almost never is in advocacy circles, is: “How do you
know?” How do you know that the approach you are taking, what you are saying,
how you are saying it, is what will change the attitudes of those who feel
differently than you do about Israel? The answer we often hear from practicing
advocates skirts the issue by looking at Israel as a product to be sold and
urging use of clever promotional techniques, much like the tactics a salesperson
uses to get people to buy a product, as if that is what critically thinking
critics of Israel would logically react to.
Science tells us that there
are limits to one’s logic, which is why science also tells us that in order to
be certain, you need to check things out. Checking things out means using
objective means of collecting data and analyzing evidence, and not simply asking
your Facebook friends what they “like.” Checking things out also means admitting
you may be wrong and challenging potential or real donors for whom ideology
rather than evidence guides philanthropy.
Take for example the issue of
“poster wars,” the term applied to campaigns by pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli
groups that take the form of public advertisements, often in commuter rail
When one such poster depicted Israel as responsible for taking
Palestinian land and creating a refugee problem, pro-Israel groups responded
with their own ads. While it is clear that these campaigns cost quite a bit of
money, it is less clear that they did any good for either side.
pro-Palestinian poster appeared last year in New York stations, one pro-Israel
advocacy organization immediately responded by placing their own posters in
these stations, which they claimed would “…make sure that Americans are not
misled and persuaded to support enemies of peace, disguised as supporters of
peace and justice.” That sounds wonderful, but exactly how did they know that a
poster highlighting Israel’s technical achievements or showing the strong
historical connection of the Jewish people to the land would persuade those who
would think otherwise about Israel’s behavior towards the Palestinians? THAT
QUESTION interested Dalia Leibowitz, a science student at MIT and a resident of
one of the communities where the posters appeared.
Leibowitz went about
answering the question in a direct but quite simple manner. She asked people who
commute regularly about their reaction to the posters. Her findings? It appeared
that most people did not even notice the posters and those few that actually did
felt they made no difference in their thinking on the issue of Israel or the
Lack of accountability is not restricted to public
campaigns by pro-Israel organizations.
Some of the more popular advocacy
approaches and material disseminated and presented as educational are checkered
with half-truths alongside misleading and one-sided information, which may
confirm the beliefs of fans of Israel but do little to intelligently deal with
the serious questions others may have.
Despite all the flag-waving,
cheerleading and self-promoting messages in social media, no one really has a
clue if what they are doing has made an impact unless it is independently
measured, confirmed and replicated.
Take for example one such
“educational” booklet that says it “empowers students with the necessary tools
to counter misinformation about Israel.” But what if the booklet itself employs
misinformation? In one example of an inaccurate claim, this much-promoted
teaching tool says, “In 1922, in response to Arab pressure, Britain violated the
Mandate and cut off 77 percent of Palestine, granted it exclusively to the
Hashemites, and forbade Jewish settlement in what became Jordan.” The only
problem is that this is not completely true. While Britain did in fact cut off
the territory as part of the proposed Jewish homeland, and while it may have
been a political move, it was also within their rights at the time to do so.
Article 25 of the Mandate granted that right to Britain and they implemented it
lawfully, passing it with the assent of the League of Nations.
somewhat disingenuous move, the booklet includes Israeli Druse in the definition
of “Arab” when touting Israel’s treatment of minorities. Despite the fact that
Israel recognized the Druse, by law, as a distinct and separate ethnic group,
the impression is given that Druse are in fact “Israeli Arabs,” citing several
Druse who occupy “high-level” positions in Israeli society as examples of the
Jewish state’s enlightened approach to Arabs.
It is abundantly clear that
many pro-Arab propagandists present distorted and misleading information as
facts and make outrageous claims that are patently false. The use of “big lie”
techniques is not without precedent in diplomacy, but basing a serious advocacy
campaign on tendentious presentations may ultimately blunt the credibility of
the sources that do so.
It could be that students themselves are
beginning to see this as well.
In a study of over 100 randomly selected
American students studying in Israel, they were asked to rank the credibility of
a variety of sources related to common Israeli talking points. For example, they
were asked to consider the statement “Israel is in no way an apartheid state,”
and were given a number of different sources for the statement. They were then
asked to rate how credible or believable the statement was, depending on the
source of the information. The results may be surprising, but should be taken to
heart. More than half this group of young, traditional and clearly pro-Israel
students ranked the easily identifiable pro-Israel sources as less than
“somewhat credible,” while ranking possibly dubious sources such as media
organizations and human rights groups closer to “mostly credible.”
is only one “truth” in advocacy, and that is the truth that can be verified.
Until advocacy organizations stop the ritualistic and often juvenile
cheerleading, and incorporate serious and impartial objective research into
their activities, we are likely to continue hearing about Israel's “hasbara
problem,” the “crisis on the campus” and the “need to educate” all those who
think differently than we do, whether it is true or not.
should instead insist upon is data, to demonstrate if there is a problem; if so,
where the problem is; and if their contributions are doing anything other than
making themselves feel good.
In other words, aim before you shoot and
then verify that you hit your target.
So by all means continue to cheer
But make sure you can convince more than your own fans. The
writer directs the Israel-Arab studies program and conducts research in
political psychology at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.