A Dose of Nuance: What if we stopped ‘hasbara’?

"Those who care about Israel and the future of the Jewish people are already in our camp."

Protesters gather in Jerusalem on Saturday night after the Gay Pride Parade stabbings. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Protesters gather in Jerusalem on Saturday night after the Gay Pride Parade stabbings.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 ‘Why can’t Israel tell its story better?” “Why is the hasbara so bad?” Whenever I hear those questions, I never know quite what to say. Could Israel do a better job of making its case? Probably.
Would making its case more effectively make any difference in international opinion? Probably not. So I don’t think about hasbara too much.
These days, though, I have been – and, actually, I have been wondering whether we ought not stop trying to make our case. Not really, of course, but here is why I am tempted.
In the aftermath of the murder of Shira Banki at Jerusalem’s Gay Pride Parade – by a haredi man who had already served jail time for stabbing people at the same parade several years ago, and who had announced without reservation that he would do it again – the Twittersphere went wild with Israelis expressing outrage and collective shame.
The very next day, though, someone threw a firebomb into the home of the Dawabsha family in the West Bank village of Duma. Eighteen-month-old Ali Dawabsha was burned to death, and his father, Saad, died of his wounds several days later. Riham Dawabsha, Ali’s mother, is as of this writing still fighting for her life.
Once again, the Twittersphere erupted, and once again, almost everyone was disgusted. Most everyone, but not all.
A piece that I wrote on the subject elicited no small number of shocking responses. Several pointed out that we do not know for sure that Jews committed the crime. (True, but Israeli security forces assume it was a Jew, the prime minister believes it was Jews – do we know better?) Perhaps Arabs threw the bomb and then spray-painted Hebrew to mislead the cops, some surmised (likely, no?).
Others sent me a tally. Jews killed one Arab teenager last summer and two people this summer, but look how many Jews the Arabs have killed, went the argument. That is our standard – a body count? We are satisfied as long as they are worse than we are? Most respondents, of course, did not make these arguments, but enough did that it was more than a lone voice. So I began to ask myself why otherwise intelligent people, some of whom I know personally, would reduce themselves to such pabulum. In part, I believe, we have all helped inculcate the sense that “real” defense of Israel means never suggesting that Israel can be blemished, never acknowledging that the Jewish state has profound shortcomings.
Consider all those organizations assailing reporters for misrepresenting Israel. Consider all those organizations assisting American Jewish college students as they fight back on campus. Think about the many devoted groups courageously fighting the delegitimization battle, day after day.
These organizations are led by deeply committed, intelligent, caring people who would never utter such absurdities.
Nonetheless, when was the last time that we heard any of these groups say something critical of Israel? It is almost impossible to point to examples.
Why does that matter? It matters because that does not model serious engagement.
Does good parenting mean never telling one’s children that they need to think seriously about the people they are becoming? That, actually, is the definition of horrendous parenting.
Does being a loving spouse mean never telling the person most critical to our life how they could be a better human being? Such conversations actually make manifest the depth of our commitment.
Does being a deeply patriotic citizen of the United States mean never saying that the US makes mistakes? That is absurd; America’s improvement in matters of race and tolerance in a host of areas stems precisely from the fact that some deeply patriotic Americans were willing to speak truth to power. Critique is often a compelling form of love.
So why do we insist that that is not the case with Israel? All of Israel’s leaders, from Naftali Bennett to Benjamin Netanyahu to Yair Lapid to Isaac Herzog, agree that we are “fighting an enemy inside ourselves” (to use Lapid’s language). They concur that Jews were clearly guilty of “terrorism” (a term even Bennett used when he called for capital punishment for terrorists, Jews as well as Arabs).
Why, then, do some of us insist that being a real Zionist means insisting that Jews could simply not have done this, that Israel does not have a racist, xenophobic cancer in its midst that simply needs to be excised? In part, that is too often what we model. When has the leadership of the Zionist world (except for the past two weeks) offered critique of Israel’s actions, whether during peace or in war? To be sure, technology means that anything we write or say can and will be taken out of context. That is a real risk.
But the alternative is worse. For who are the people we are most trying to reach? Those who care about Israel and the future of the Jewish people are already in our camp. Many others, Jews among them, are so deeply committed to a universalist view of the world that they are not likely to ever defend Israel’s right to be or contest its treatment in the court of international opinion.
Over whom are we really battling? We’re battling over that small, middle ground, composed of many young American Jews who, while not entirely hostile to Israel, just don’t care that much. And the “Israel can do no wrong” song turns them off. Nothing else in their lives that truly matters is always right. So they are suspicious of this Israel advocacy world.
What they want is nuance. What they (rightly) demand is a serious engagement with the intellectual and moral issues at the core of Zionism. What they want to know is that Zionism is for smart people, not for robots.
Is that what we model? I fear that too often, it is not. Loving a country, like loving a person, means loving it warts and all – and being willing to demand that the object of our love be better. In these critical days, what is more likely to draw American Jews into serious engagement with Israel? I think we know the answer. The question is whether we have the guts to try.
The writer is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow and chairman of the core curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college. His latest book is Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, the Hebrew edition of which just became an Israeli best-seller. He is now writing a concise history of the State of Israel.