The power of ‘hasbara’

The battle for Israel’s image is not one between nuanced and ‘simplistic’ narratives. It is a battle between truth and lies

September 7, 2011 21:23
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chairty organization 311 R. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

In his August 29 article, Ilan Bloch posits that not every young adult “needs to, or should be” an activist for Israel, and that hasbara (public diplomacy) training should not be “an integral part of an Israel program,” nor should students be educated in a manner that lends itself to positive conclusions about Israel.

I beg to differ. Hasbara training is an imperative for the Jewish community. Israel and the Jewish people face enormous challenges today, among them existential physical threats, lies about Israel, and anti-Semitism.

What Jewish students need most today is a basic education that conveys the legitimacy and morality of Israel. That is not just good hasbara; it is an educational principle to teach one the basics before exploring the “nuances.” A sound hasbara strategy aims to interest people enough so that they want to become more educated.

Furthermore, Jewish educators have an obligation to teach young adults to take responsibility for the fate of the Jewish people, and the well-being of the global community.

At a time when the Jewish community is seeking ways to maintain Jewish identity, we should recognize the profound opportunity for Jewish engagement and leadership-building that combating anti- Israel sentiment provides.

IF WE believe that the partisans were correct in fighting the Nazis, then we must understand why it is crucial to motivate young adults to advocate against a nuclear Iran today. If we believe that the Jewish people have a right to sovereignty and security in their ancestral homeland, we must teach students to protest the fact that Israel still lacks acceptance as a Jewish state among her Arab neighbors.

If one understands the significance of the challenges Israel faces today, one must acknowledge the formula that has helped the Jewish people survive for so long. The Jewish values of achrayut (responsibility), achdut (unity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world) are not merely abstract concepts to be taught in a classroom, but must be applied today. Can we expect all Jewish students to become mobilized for Israel? No matter what the answer, we have a duty to motivate them.

Bloch shows little familiarity with the methodology or content of most hasbara organizations, which consist of both substantial education and practical training.

Bloch claims that hasbara training is not “independent, analytical and critical.” Perhaps he is unfamiliar with the varied goals, messages and strategies of the 30-plus organizations in the Israel on Campus Coalition. Israel advocates often disagree on the details of Israeli policy, but still come together on the major issues.

And who says you can not facilitate analysis and criticism, while also encouraging students to reach the right conclusions? Yes, Jewish wisdom teaches us to be thoughtful, but Jewish teaching also offers answers.

Bloch believes that on-campus checkpoints are a “legitimate form of political activity, even if they are not nuanced.” But Bloch’s premise is wrong. The battle for Israel’s image is not one between nuanced and “simplistic” narratives. It is a battle between truth and lies. Israel is being libeled on campuses with allegations of apartheid, genocide, colonialism and excessive force. That is why we must first educate students on the basic truths. Those who want to learn more can then explore the “nuances.”

IN 2000, I was an undergraduate student at the University of Florida. One day on campus, I was greeted by an elaborate barbed wire display adorned with pictures of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian children. The organizers of the display were inviting people to have numbers written on the inside of their forearms in black marker. When the passersby would inquire about the meaning of these numbers, the organizers replied, “because in the West Bank, Israeli soldiers are tattooing numbers on Palestinian children.”

Witnessing this display was a transformative moment in my life. I was certain this was a horrific lie. However, I had no facts or strategies to deal with this situation, let alone to prevent similar events from happening.

I felt an unprecedented desire to defend Israel, and to become a leader for the Jewish people.

Since my own training and subsequent student activism, I have met thousands of university students who have had similar experiences. (Bloch is “unconvinced” that this is a common occurrence, but an estimated 150 campuses are host to anti-Israel events each year, just in the US.) Upon being educated and trained in hasbara, many students become passionate Jewish leaders. Pro-Israel activism does not – as Bloch claims – “diminish the importance of other campus-centered, Jewish-related activity.” On the contrary, Israel activism motivates many to become leaders in other areas of Jewish life as well.

Hasbara is both an advocacy tool and a deeply powerful opportunity for young Jewish adults. For some students, Israel is a cornerstone of Jewish identity, and they become activated once they learn they can make a difference. If we don’t offer a basic hasbara education to as many young adults as possible, how will they even know there are opportunities and mechanisms to become more committed activists? And for the many Jews who do not consider Israel to be a fundamental part of their identity, or may even feel antagonistic toward Israel from what they have heard in the media or the classroom, we have a duty to reach out to them as well. Once we educate those students, they can become the strongest advocates.

I recently made aliya, and I am looking forward to the “nuanced” perspective that comes with being Israeli. And I believe that those who seek complex discussions about Israel should have appropriate forums. But not at the expense of combating the existential threats faced by Israel and the Jewish people.

If we allow that, we miss an imperative – and an opportunity.

The writer is the director of education of the Hasbara Fellowships, a project of Aish International which educates, trains and inspires students to stand up for Israel on campus.

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