Waltz with Sisyphus: Israel's impossible propaganda war

We think our tears will win sympathy. In fact, they encourage our enemies and confuse our supporters.

sderot shock victim 248.88 (photo credit: GPO)
sderot shock victim 248.88
(photo credit: GPO)
Israel's supporters mostly agree that the country has an image problem. To solve it, they look to ways of improving hasbara. The telling Hebrew expression literally means "explanation," and its ideal is the revelation of the nation's dreams and pain to the world. Its creed might be rendered "the better we are known, the more we will be understood and supported." As domestic news coverage of Operation Cast Lead made clear, hasbara philosophy has deep roots. During the operation, the public was subjected to endless footage of frightened women and children in the South. It reminded the public why it was at war. The Israeli people doesn't like to make sacrifices based on long-term necessity or cold calculation. When it reluctantly gives battle, it prefers to be in dire straits. And for many, the suffering face of the South explained the much greater suffering of the Palestinians. In large part, the foreign hasbara effort relied on the same formula, focusing on making the South's face known. Especially in Europe, the explanation was dismissed as "disproportional." Israel might have chosen instead to spend more words on Hamas's intractability and its genocidal philosophy. The goals of the war might have been more clearly stated, or Iranian ambitions in Gaza exposed. But Israel explained the war to the world the same way it explained it to itself, in terms of its own immediate suffering. It demanded direct empathy from people, asking, "How would you react?" ISRAEL'S IMPULSIVENESS, its sensitivities and its unique moral symbolism run deep. For many, the face of captive Gilad Schalit explains the need to release hundreds of terrorists from jail. To understand the phenomenon, one must certainly understand the country's specific character. But it is another thing entirely to expect the rest of the world to share it. The film Waltz with Bashir, like Beaufort before it, is an Oscar-nominated antiwar film with a documentary feel. Its animated sequences recount the stories of several aging veterans of the First Lebanon War. They suffer flashbacks from their experiences and try to come to terms with their moral wounds. As the film progresses, a universal message of the senselessness of war is interwoven with direct and specific attacks on politicians and generals, and the IDF's culpability for the Sabra and Shatila massacres is strongly implied. The film's director, Ari Folman, revealingly commented that his work was not geared specifically toward Israelis. He also admitted that two government funds had paid for the film to represent Israel at international film festivals, adding, "I think that they think that the film does good propaganda in the sense that it shows Israel is a very tolerant country that can deal with issues of the past that are hidden in many ways." Nor were the government and Folman the only ones to think so. Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, whose conviction of the country's essential wickedness is unassailable, criticized it on the same grounds. "It is an act of fraud and deceit, intended to allow us to pat ourselves on the back, to tell us and the world how lovely we are," he wrote. The expression "we shoot and weep," ridiculed by Levy, describes the moral pride of middle Israel forced into war. Waltz with Bashir is a beautifully choreographed pageant of shooting and weeping, with perhaps more weeping than shooting. Political messages aside, the film shows the very human face of IDF soldiers sent to war. It explains. The one thing it is not does not explain, however, is the justice and necessity of Israel's ways. This hardly makes for successful propaganda. ISRAEL'S CASE for existing is strong. It is not evident that its moral tears, however genuine, make that case stronger in the eyes of the world. Its self-doubts, encouraged by world condemnation, only remind the West of its own self-doubts and historical episodes it has chosen to reject. Direct empathy and identification, as terrorists and insurgents around the world have learned, is the longest path to the heart of the West. Outside of America, few Western nations identify with Israel. For them, to be Western is above all to be charged with not inflicting suffering. Israel shares the West's repulsion with suffering. Perhaps it thinks for this reason that its tears will win sympathy. In fact, they encourage its enemies and confuse its supporters. The bitter truth is that hasbara is not propaganda at all, so much as a moral need particular to the Israeli psyche. And Israel's need to be known, warts and all, does not convince Westerners of justice of its cause. In many laudable ways Israel tries to be a light unto the nations. They can all be accomplished in the absence of unlimited self-revelation. The writer is a public relations professional and freelance writer based in Jerusalem.