My problems with hasbara

Not everybody needs to – or should – be a hasbara activist. There are many other ways for Jewish students to be involved in Jewish campus life.

August 28, 2011 22:35
4 minute read.
Protester wrapped in Israeli flag [illustrative]

Protester wrapped in Israeli flag 311 R. (photo credit: Reuters)


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Iwas more than frustrated after a group I was guiding during the summer participated in a hasbara (advocacy) workshop. Even though the workshop facilitator was adept, and engaged the audience well, my issues with what transpired were numerous.

I had spent the entire summer trying to develop independent, analytical and critical thinking among my hanihim (group participants), without regard for accepted orthodoxies. And then they participated in a workshop which attempted to do the exact opposite. It was clear that the workshop was seeking to give simplistic answers. The facilitator commented afterward that he had never before come across such resistance. I thought it was only those chanichim who refused to accept his statements as absolute truths who he should want as hasbara activists. The conflation of hasbara with Israel Education does not produce educated people or great hasbara activists.

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THE WORKSHOP lacked nuance. For example, instead of explaining that any statement linking Israel to apartheid is “anti-Israel” or “anti-Zionist,” I would have liked to see an actual analysis of claims against Israel. Hanihim need to be exposed to the argument that there are similarities between the apartheid regime and Israeli rule in the West Bank, which include distinct law enforcement and judicial systems for residents based on ethnicity. To ignore this, or to obfuscate reality by claiming that the entire Israel/apartheid analogy is false because Israeli Palestinians have full rights as Israeli citizens does not educate hanihim nor prepare them to be hasbara activists.

I do not think all hanihim need to be trained in hasbara. Advocacy, or lobbying, is a very specialized field. I imagine that almost all my hanihim oppose smoking – some even vehemently – but I also imagine that only a small fraction of them will ever become antismoking lobbyists. With this in mind, my arguments are not against small-scale, selective programs such as Write on for Israel, but rather against “hasbara for the masses” workshops, which are often held because “they’ll be in college soon, will come across this sort of stuff, and therefore we have to do something.”

Many Jewish organizations tend to argue that almost all students will be exposed to anti-Israel activity on campus, and therefore almost all students should participate in hasbara training. I am unconvinced that almost all Jewish students are exposed to anti-Israel hasbara (and I deliberately use the term “hasbara”) on campus, notwithstanding some truly nefarious lobbying by anti-Israel activists. Moreover, an environment is created in which Jewish students believe that any lobbying by pro-Palestinian or anti- Israel activists is, by definition, illegitimate. One former student told me – in horror, mind you – of students on one college campus who had set up a fake IDF checkpoint.

I responded by saying that it is legitimate political activity, even if it is not nuanced, as it ignores the fact that while some checkpoints function for political reasons, many others certainly do function for security reasons.

I suggested that students engaging in pro-Israel hasbara on that campus approach the checkpoint as fake suicide bombers. This would also represent a nonnuanced approach, as it would suggest that the only reason checkpoints exist is to protect against suicide bombers, and would ignore the fact that suicide bombers never routinely access Israel via the checkpoints.


Nevertheless, it would certainly be appropriate in the context. I am not proposing that hasbara activists engage anti-Israel protesters in nuanced debate; blackand- white hasbara responses to black-and-white anti- Israel campaigns can certainly be suitable, as long as the activists involved understand the grey of the issues. I also think that a focus on hasbara diminishes the importance of other campus-centered, Jewish-related activity. Including a hasbara workshop as an integral part of an Israel program, and thereby reinforcing the notion that hasbara is the central component of Jewish college activities, minimizes the role played by Jewish activists who organize Shabbatonim and shiurim, social events, sporting activities or tikkun olam projects. Not everybody needs to – or should – be a hasbara activist. There are many other ways for Jewish students to be involved in Jewish campus life.

Finally, as somebody who has chosen to make Israel his home, I don’t think putting Diaspora Jews in the position of having to defend the policies of a foreign government is a productive way of inculcating Zionist – or patriotic American – values. I am not arguing against the activities of AIPAC and J-Street, but rather advocating for a more scaled-back, nuanced, considered and educational approach to hasbara, when dealing with students.

The writer is director of Teaching Israel.

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