An article in Haaretz, currently going viral on anti-Israel websites, blogs and social media forums, highlights the urgent need to reclaim some sanity in Israel’s political left. The article refers to the first report of a new Israeli think tank known as Molad, ‘the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy’, which is funded by the New Israel Fund, and is staffed by members of the NIF network. The report is highly revealing, but perhaps not in the way the author and his sponsors intended.
The central thesis is that Israel’s Hasbara apparatus has been reshaped since the second Lebanon war (2006) and is now vastly improved. The report provides an analysis and theoretical basis for supporting this assertion, which is a useful scholarly analysis.
The report''s analysis of the pervasive anti-Israel political warfare is, however, exceedingly poor. It shows poor application of the theoretical background of new public diplomacy the report itself ably described. More surprisingly, it discloses a lack of knowledge about the anti-Israel network which Israel faces. Despite adopting the Reut Institute’s definition for anti-Israel activism, the lessons of Reut’s research, including the increased impact of a decentralised network structure, have not been absorbed. Instead of dispassionate independent research, the report’s conclusion appears organized around a pre-determined political conclusion, which is not supported by the evidence and analysis the report itself presents.
The logic of the report’s conclusion runs like this: if Israel’s Hasbara has improved, but there are still anti-Israel sentiments, then the blame for anti-Israel sentiment must rest with Israel. Ergo, all things being equal, it is the policies of the Israeli government that are to blame. This logic ignores the evidence of a concerted propaganda attack based on false claims of human rights violations, war crimes, apartheid, etc. and multiple instances of outright fabrication that were circulated and then retracted by mainstream media. The conclusion is so disconnected from the report that it appears to have been chosen in advance rather than being the natural result of the research process.
The conclusion rests on obviously false assumption that, in the political environment dealing with Israel, "all things are equal", and based on consistent principles and rationality. Why would anyone trained in political science make such a clearly false assumption? How could the author have erased and ignored decades of hatred and rejectionism directed at the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination, which long preceded the 1967 war and "the occupation". What justification exists for assuming no role for ideology, religion and other factors that play a central role in the anti-Israel campaigns, including BDS and demonization? The authors conclusion only follows if one were to assume that with the right policies, and the right explanation, the world would be positively and actively pro-Israel. Even the most optimistic Zionist would consider such a belief delusional. And that would have been before the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.
Israel’s Hasbarah has improved and it is having an impact – a key point which undermines the thesis of the report. For me, the revelation we were making progress came in the form of a Human Rights Watch report. Having spent many months analysis Human Rights Watch, and exposing the systematic bias and double standard in that organisation, I was shocked to see them finally issue a report on Hamas’s violations of Human Rights by targeting civilians. On a level playing field, such a report would be expected. After all, Hamas was quite vocal about their desire to target civilians, they did target civilians, and civilians died. There is, however, no level playing field.
My systematic analysis of Human Rights Watch, work I undertook while working at NGO Monitor in 2008, showed the disproportionate focus the organisation applied to Israel, and in that year also to Egypt. In the case of Egypt, in hindsight, Human Rights Watch was on to something. It also showed Human Rights Watch has in the past called for blockades to be implemented in various conflict zones, yet when Israel imposed a blockade the organisation suddenly started describing blockades as a violation of international law. The hypocrisy was amazing. So in 2012, when Human Rights Watch felt its credibility would be on the line if it remained silent in the face of Hamas’s blatant Human Rights abuses, I felt Israeli Hasbara had made progress. The narrative of NGO bias against Israel, a phenomena which NGO Monitor has been empirically monitoring and reporting on for years, was now mainstream. The world may not be pro-Israel, but at least part of the Israeli narrative was starting to filter through. That is a public diplomacy success.
During the last 3 months of 2012 I was managing an online public diplomacy campaign. The campaign, Joe’s Israel, was designed to strengthen the connection between Jewish college students in the US and Israel. Operation Pillar of Defence occurred in the middle of the campaign. With the infrastructure in place, we used it to share Israel’s story: the success of Iron Dome, the fear of the children under missile attack, and Israel’s need to put an end to this threat. Our involvement, however, started before the conflict. On the 27th of October, over two weeks before Operation Pillars of Defence, we posted a link to an article “My Country is Under Attack. Do You Care?”. The article was in the Huffington Post and was written by Arsen Ostrovsky, an International Human Rights Lawyer. Joe, our campaigns fictional hero Joe posted article with the comment “I care. Why doesn''t the international community care?” It was seen by 770 people, and only three of them liked or shared it. That includes myself.
Why did it take a military response from Israel before the international community would acknowledge that Hamas’s actions were unacceptable? Why didn’t Human Rights Watch issue their report before they had the opportunity to also issue one condemning Israel? Is Jewish life still so cheap? This is the public diplomacy challenge we still face: action which would be entirely unacceptable against any other country or people on the planet are somehow acceptable when the targets are Jews or Israel. When that happens, Israel’s hasbara effort is nothing less than a fight for universal human rights. I''m proud of the strong personal hasbara effort I saw online from Jewish friends, politically active on the left, from Israel, Australia, the US and the UK. The public diplomacy challenge remains, why was it only the Jews who stood up for Israel?
My work at the Online Hate Prevention Institute brings me into alliance with many on the left around the world. Together we fight racism and discrimination against a wide variety of minority groups. A number of these colleagues stopped being friends with me on the basis I was supporting Israel’s right to self defence. They didn’t care for the policies, they didn’t care for the details. Israel was to them evil incarnate. It’s these people, these human rights activists, who should be at the forefront standing up against Hamas, standing up against Palestinian hate education on TV, standing up again rockets targeting civilians. That’s our public diplomacy challenge. If Jewish human rights activists are willing to call it how it is when they agree Israel is within her rights, why don’t non-Jews? The problem can’t be with hasbara or with policy. The difference is between those who are Zionists, be they on the left right or center, and those who aren’t. Those who aren’t Zionists may not all wish for Israel’s destruction, but neither will they risk the political backlash of standing with Israel, even against injustice, even in the face of rocks raining down on school children. That is Israel’s public diplomacy challenge; a starting position so far back that simply achieving a fair hearing in the court of public opinion is a major victory.
In ignoring the reality of Israel’s situation, the Molad report reaches for a toy solution to a toy problem that has been carefully constructed and bears little resemblance to anything in the real world. The bias against Israel in the global left can’t be ignored. The bias in the media and academia also can’t be ignored. Nor can the deliberate manipulation of the media by terrorist organisations like Hamas, or by political activist journalists, or by NGOs. The role of antisemitism cannot be ignored. The state sponsored hate from Iran, the online activism of Electronic Intifada, and sophisticated slick campaigning approach of Avaaz can’t be ignored.
The report makes much of the centralisation of Israeli government Hasbara, but it fails to recognise that most Hasbara is not done by the Israeli government but by volunteers operating independent. There is nothing to suggest a centralised approach for unofficial hasbara is more effective than a decentralized approach. The Reut report, as mentioned before, suggests the opposite is true. In social media, decentralisation and personal endorsement lends legitimacy that officially sanctioned material without endorsement lacks. We, the public, no longer trust official sources.
It is good to hear Israel’s Hasbara efforts are improving, but the effort to turn this research into a condemnation of Israeli policies – a position supported neither by the research nor the reality on the ground – is demoralising. Israel is fighting to be treated fairly, nothing more, and it has a long way to go. The Israeli left must be reclaimed by those willing to support Israel, it must be reclaimed from those wanting to save Israel from itself at any cost – even at the cost of Israel itself.
The left must face up to the real challenge: how they stand up to the international left and demand equality for Israel in all things. That’s a far scarier challenge than pretending criticism of Israel is just criticism of the Israeli right, and hate of Israel is a result of Israel’s actions. The hatred existed when the left was in control. The hatred existed when the right implemented the policies of the left and Gaza was evacuated. The idea of only giving a little more has been tried, and tried, and tried. When the Palestinians went to the UN and killed Oslo, the right move, the move any country anywhere else in the world would have taken, was to demonstrate that breaching agreements comes with consequences. One side cannot be bound by the condition of a deal the other side has rejected and violated. The left may not like the result, but they can’t blame Israel for it and still expect people’s respect. The left needs to be reclaimed, and a little honesty starting with conclusions that are actually supported by the research would be a great start.
Dr Andre Oboler is an expert in social media and online public diplomacy.