A Dose of Nuance: Can we please stop talking about ‘hasbara’?

The problem is not with how Israel tells the story, but with how the Western world has grown tired of Israel.

A man lights a candle at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the October 22 terrorist attack at the Ammunition Hill light rail stop in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A man lights a candle at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the October 22 terrorist attack at the Ammunition Hill light rail stop in Jerusalem.
It’s almost invariably the first question during the Q&A session.
Whether I’m speaking in the US or Australia, Israel or Europe, at a JCC, a book fair, a synagogue or a federation – someone always asks it. At Limmud or a university, too. It makes no difference. Someone invariably asks, “Why does Israel consistently do such a terrible job of telling its own story? You people do so many things so well. Why can’t you do hasbara [public diplomacy]?” In fairness to Israel, I think the Foreign Ministry has, in fact, gotten a bit better at it. We’ve been represented in recent years by several ambassadors to the US, for example, who have done excellent work. During this summer’s war, the IDF was tweeting furiously – at times predictably and foolishly, but at times thoughtfully. At the very minimum, the IDF was at least giving Twitter users who wanted Israel’s side of the story some basic material to work with.
All the progress notwithstanding, though, I often sympathize with those people asking the question. We’re better, but not good enough; despite the justice of our cause, we do at times seem utterly incapable of telling our story compellingly.
Many wonder why. So, too, did I.
But the next time someone asks me that question, I’m going to change my answer. No longer am I going to recount the history of when Israel apparently stopped investing as heavily in hasbara, and no longer am I going to try to explain that our story is a complex one, not readily reduced to sound bites.
Instead, I’m going to remind the questioner of whats happening in Israel, and why, no matter what we do, hasbara is essentially useless and hopeless. It is so utterly useless, in fact, that I think we just ought to drop the concept and the term.
The notion behind hasbara is that if you only tell your story in a sufficiently compelling and powerful way, some people will “get it,” and Israel will no longer be tied to the proverbial whipping post of the international media.
But after what happened on October 22, does anyone still believe that? As is well-known, a Palestinian driver with a terrorist background (he had spent time in Israeli jail for terrorism, and was a family relation of a former head of Hamas’s military wing) plowed into a group of innocent pedestrians at a light rail stop, killing two people (a baby, Chaya Zissel Braun, who died just hours later, and 22-year-old Karen Yemima Mosquera, who succumbed to her wounds after several days) and wounding six others. When the driver tried to escape, he was shot and killed by police.
A horrible story, but a simple one.
Yet how did the international media report it? The initial AP headline, changed following an outcry, was “Israeli police shoot man in east Jerusalem.” Yes, you read that correctly. As far as the headline was concerned, the story was that Israeli police shot a guy. That he had tried to kill people, that he had intentionally run them over and wounded several of them grievously, that he was a known terrorist – all that was apparently irrelevant to the headline. All the initial AP headline chose to note was that “those Israelis” had shot another Palestinian.
Tell me – what good would hasbara have done? The AP eventually relented and revised their headline (amazingly, though, the URL of their post – news.yahoo.com/ israeli-police-shoot-man-east-jerusalem- 153643679.html – retained the original headline for a while, even after they revised the text), but Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch (so hostile to Israel that even its founder, Robert Bernstein, ended up repudiating the very organization he had founded), has not relented. Immediately after the attack, he tweeted: “Palestinian deadly crash into train stop. Israel calls it ‘terrorist attack... typical of Hamas.’” Note the implication behind Roth’s language: Was it a terrorist attack? Well, the Israelis say so.
Days later, when the second victim died, Roth continued in his stance: “Second fatality from Palestinian who drove car into Jerusalem train stop. Police treating it as ‘purposeful attack.’” Those Israelis, again... “treating it” as a “purposeful attack.” What would Mr.
Roth call it? Does anyone imagine that any hasbara would have influenced Roth’s poisonous hatred for Israel? When Karen Yemima Mosquera was buried, The Guardian headline read: “Jerusalem car crash funerals held.”
Car crash? And underlining the headline, The Guardian notes that she was killed “when a car driven by a Palestinian man veered onto a Jerusalem pavement crowded with pedestrians.”
What good would hasbara have done? A memo from the US Consulate in Jerusalem (the consulate has since removed the memo from its website) referred to the attack as a “traffic incident.”
Would hasbara have changed that? Let’s not kid ourselves. Israel makes plenty of mistakes and does many foolish things – just like any other country.
But it is also viciously pilloried in the international press, as the response to last week’s horrific events make clear.
The problem is not with how Israel tells the story, but with how the Western world has grown tired of Israel. There are many reasons for this, but hasbara is not the answer.
No one has explained this phenomenon better than award-winning Israeli journalist Matti Friedman.
“You don’t need to be a history professor, or a psychiatrist, to understand what’s going on. Having rehabilitated themselves against considerable odds in a minute corner of the earth, the descendants of powerless people who were pushed out of Europe and the Islamic Middle East have become what their grandparents were – the pool into which the world spits.”
Precisely. And would hasbara – even the best we might imagine – have any impact on that? Obviously not. So can we please not talk about hasbara anymore? Let’s stop asking why the Israeli government is so incompetent at telling its story, and focus on the question that matters.
Let’s start asking instead: Why has the international community’s moral compass become so utterly dysfunctional?
The writer is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow and chairman of the core curriculum at Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college, in Jerusalem. His latest book, Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, was recently released by NextBook.