Ambassadors for Israel

Never let facts get in the way of a suitable explanation. Which, to be candid, is what 'hasbara' seems to be about.

Tov, after three years I think I’ve earned the right to ask: Can someone please explain to me the point of hasbara? I’m not asking for the definition, mind: I know enough to understand that it derives from the verb lehasbir, to explain. What I’m more interested in is, what exactly is hasbara expected to achieve? And does anyone actually think that it works?
To explain why I ask, I need to go back a bit. A couple of months ago, I invited myself along for an evening hosted by the local Anglo Likud association. Why not, I thought? Even if the evening is as dull as hell, at least there’ll be nice canapés. I settled myself by the refreshments table and waited for proceedings to commence.
The guest for the evening was Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Yuli Edelstein. As it happens, he came across as a pretty thoughtful fellow as he spoke – in temperate and moderate language – about the challenges that the country faces at a difficult time. But not quite everyone was won over by his charm offensive.
“What on earth are you people doing?” someone in the audience chastised him. “You’re sitting on your hands while the hasbara war is being won by others.”
Call me naïve, but I’ve always assumed that the word “war” is somewhat incompatible with the concept of winning hearts and minds... but I digress. Minister Edelstein took the criticisms in good faith; he assured the audience that the ministry was taking this threat seriously. In fact, he assured us, any minute now the ministry will be launching a website and advertising campaign designed to harness the powers of convictions of the good people of Israel* to influence how the country is perceived abroad.
The result – website – was launched last month. But it’s so embarrassing, I’m still not sure where exactly to look.
What first caught my attention was the exhortation on the home page: “Travel abroad? Host people from other countries? You are ambassadors of Israel!”
I see. The Ministry for Hasbara seriously intends to place the job of explaining the country in the hands of the population. The Ministry of Hasbara honestly believes that the citizens of Israel have nothing but good things to say about the country. Next thing, they’ll say that politicians are genuinely in touch with public opinion...
There’s a nice little crib sheet on the home page, citing facts that apparently you guys are supposed to memorize before going abroad. Israelis consume 15 million bags of Bamba a month**. Four million Israelis visit the theater at least once a year. An Israeli invented an electric hair remover that delights women all over the world (how on earth does one work this fact into casual conversation?). And so on. How nice. But the whole set up is so clumsy, so contrived – and incidentally, I assume it’s no mistake that the website is only available in Hebrew – that it immediately prompts more questions than it answers, about the stuff that isn’t mentioned there.
LET’S SEE, where does one start? How does the average citizen of the country explain to an ignorant visitor why Israel has one of the biggest socio-economic gaps between rich and poor in the developed world? Why, in a functional democracy, two people cannot get married in a ceremony of their choice? How, in a parliament of 120 members, there are 30 ministers but still only a deputy minister of health? Come to think of it, while on the topic of deputy ministers... actually, I’m not going down that path, it might start him off again. Let’s just pretend that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs doesn’t exist at the moment, and leave it at that.
And I’m not going to even start on the issues with the next-door neighbors...
I don’t doubt that Israel gets a bum rap – an exceptionally bum rap, in fact – from the outside world at least part of the time. There are all sorts of reasons for this, of course – anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, an instinctive envy of the good people of the State of Israel, and so on. Aside from this, I can empathize with at least one objective of hasbara; I instinctively recoil from the notion of washing one’s dirty linen in public – or abroad. Some arguments need to be had in Israel rather than elsewhere, for them to make any difference at all. But this differs from presuming that Israeli citizens have a duty to say nothing but good about the country. Heaven forbid, foreigners might start to believe that the country is perfect, after all.
There are many kind things that one can say about Israel; perhaps the kindest is that it is still a young country, still finding its way through the challenges and contradictions that all nation states need to unpick at some point in time. Maybe the best first thing to do is to acknowledge that things are not perfect, and that there is still much to learn; hasbara can do all sort of things, but setting things in order for the future isn’t one of them.
I started off by wondering aloud what exactly hasbara means. As is the case with many things, my three year old provided useful illumination – it’s probably something to do with us having a similar mental age and all... Anyway, the other evening, he threw a tantrum about something inconsequential – about Bamba, actually – and decided to wreak vengeance upon a sweet little tea-light holder that he had made in kindergarten a couple of days earlier.
I ignored him – it was his, after all. Eventually, I convinced him to keep the peace. I moved to pick up the dismembered parts of the ex-tea light holder from the floor. He stared at the pieces in shock.
“Who broke it?” he demands.
“You did.” I reply.
“No, no, no...”
I shrug. “So if you didn’t, who did?” The child looks me shamelessly inthe eye. “Me no know...” then he points at me accusingly. “Maybe YOUbroke it!”
Right. Never let facts get in the way of a suitable explanation. Which, to be candid, is what hasbara seems to be about, at least part of the time. Personally, I think Israel can do a whole load better.
*I leave myself out, not being a citizen and all. But for the right price...
**Actually, I consume most of those. So you can strike that out right now.