Fundamentally Freund: A bit of hasbara heresy

Why, oh why, can’t Jews do as good a job at selling the Jewish state?

Jerusalem Day celebrations 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem Day celebrations 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Complaining about Israel’s hasbara, or public diplomacy, has become a favorite national pastime of pro-Israel activists.
Whenever I speak to Jewish or Christian audiences in Israel and abroad, there is inevitably someone who feels it necessary to launch into a harangue about just how terrible the Jewish state is at explaining itself.
Jews are among the most successful marketing and public-relations executives worldwide, the questioner might ask, and excel at promoting a variety of consumer products. Why, oh why, can’t Jews do as good a job at selling the Jewish state? Having been involved in hasbara in one form or another for more than two decades, I certainly share the sense of frustration.
I remember well how, in the mid-1990s, when I served as deputy communications director in the Prime Minister’s Office during Binyamin Netanyahu’s first term, we devoted countless hours to tackling just this issue.
Is it the hostility of the media that stands in the way? A lack of appreciation on the part of various government bodies for the importance of PR? Or perhaps it is Israel’s fractious politics, and the mixed messages that often emerge, which truly complicate things.
Whatever the true cause of our troubles, there is no doubt that our standing in the eyes of international public opinion remains a matter of grave concern. Amid rising calls for boycotts and sanctions from radical anti-Israel forces, and the hurling of slurs such as “apartheid,” it seems imperative to redouble our efforts at explaining the justness of Israel’s cause.
Nonetheless, I am beginning to wonder if perhaps our heightened focus on what is wrong has led us to overlook a lot of what is right.
Consider the following. As President Barack Obama prepares to arrive in our region and snarl traffic over the next few days, Israelis received some good news regarding our oft-maligned international public image.
According to a survey conducted by Gallup, US support for Israel is at the highest level seen in nearly a quarter-century, with 64 percent of Americans saying they sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians. A mere 12% said they favor our foes.
The last time the Jewish state enjoyed such levels of support was back in 1991, when Saddam Hussein was firing SCUD missiles at Tel Aviv and the Palestinian intifada was raging.
And in the past decade alone, US backing for Israel has surged by 18 points from its 2003 level of just 46 percent.
The support is also broad-based, cutting across various demographic groups from young to old, men and women, and from the uneducated to those with advanced degrees.
To put this in perspective: a similar Gallup poll taken at the same time found that a majority of Americans, 53% to 40%, hold an unfavorable view of Egypt. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the numbers are even worse: 58% of the US public views the desert kingdom unfavorably versus just 36% with a positive opinion.
So when compared with the two countries which the media often portrays as America’s most important Arab allies in the region, Israel finds itself in a far better public position.
What makes these numbers all the more impressive is the fact that the Jewish state has been on the receiving end of unprecedented media bias and partiality. Just check out the important work being done by groups such as Honest Reporting or CAMERA (the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) to expose and counter anti- Israel slander and you will see how twisted the coverage of our region can often be.
But this raises an important question: if the mainstream media is so profoundly against us, then why are we doing so well in the arena of American public opinion? If the image being conveyed of Israel is so consistently negative, then why do people there seem to like us so much? To be sure, there are a number of possible answers, ranging from the groundswell of evangelical Christian support for Israel to the penetration of the Internet and its ability to circumvent traditional media outlets. Either way, the fact remains that we must be doing something right in how we explain ourselves if our public standing in America is so strong and resilient.
Some may view this as a bit of hasbara heresy, a form of violating the nearly sacred belief that our public diplomacy is simply putrid. But I prefer to think of it as a healthy dose of reality. After all, in order to put together an effective communications strategy, the first thing one must do is assess the playing field and get a good sense of what one’s position is in the eyes of the public.
Telling ourselves that everything stinks, even when it doesn’t, is neither helpful nor truthful.
Yes, we have to roll up our sleeves and keep fighting the good fight to defend Israel and its image.
But in the process, let’s make sure to savor and learn from our successes, rather than downplay and ignore them.