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Irina Tsukerman explains why Israel’s Hasbara (PR) has actually been quite successful despite what the critics claim for Israel has succeeded to maintain close ties to the Diaspora, bring in investment, connect with young Jews, and to attract investment and to develop relationships with various groups. She claims that Hasbara is not about winning over the Israel skeptics, undecided individuals and preaching to the choir.
Tourists continue to flock to Israel’s beaches Photo Credit: Channel 2 News
I have been hearing this question, largely rhetorical, for as long as I remember having any awareness of Israel’s existence, which is to say, from quite a young age – and as many frustrated responses as there are Jews and Israelis. Never have I heard a single answer that fully addressed the reason for Israel’s failure in promoting its own image successfully. The closest I have gotten is to hear all the various ways in which Israel is failing to do its job of being its own PR firm. And the basic assumption to all of this is that Jews just don’t get PR, at least not when it comes to their own issues. They can be the best PR agents for everybody else. But they just don’t get what it takes to “sell” Israel. Which, at the end of the day, is what people think Hasbara is – “selling” Israel to the skeptics, the undecideds, and people simply not already preaching to the choir of ardent supporters and advocates.
Let me begin by attacking some assumptions here. First of all, Hasbara is not (or at least originally was not necessarily) about “selling” Israel, and its aim is not necessarily the outside world that the critics believe need to have Israel sold on. (And no, the Foreign Ministry is not paying me to write this post!) Israel’s self promotion was and is aimed at maintaining close ties to the diaspora, connecting with young Jews, attracting tourism, developing relationships with various groups, and bringing in investment. In that, Israel is in no different from any other country on the planet, and in fact, I would say that not only Israel’s efforts at PR not the epic failure so many heartbroken Jews believe it to be, but I would say that it actually is a tremendous success. Israel has successfully developed strong business relationships with many countries; those relationships are growing and deepening; and increasingly, more and more major institutions are viewing Israel as an optimal place to continue developing their business – which is the best advertising of the country as a secure and stable place as can possibly be. Investors, if they know what is good for them, weigh political risks very carefully.
From the perspective of development of relationships with others, Israel has contributed to innovative programs, partnering with various Jewish organizations abroad (such as American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange), which have put the leaders of the country in contact with influencers from many important backgrounds. Birthright Israel has allowed countless young Jews to meet and fall in love with both the land and the country, and although some specific programs could perhaps be managed better, has overall been a wonderful and sustainable way of introducing generations of Jews living outside the country to the infinite beauties and mysteries of Israeli history, culture, accomplishments, nature, and people. The Israeli tourism industry needs no introduction; the outpouring of tourists into the country despite wars, terrorism, and regional tensions has been quite beneficial to both the Israeli economy and to those seeking a taste of an ever-evolving country that incorporates both the ancient and the modern and despite many challenges, rises above factionalism without stopping to look for viable solutions to these issues.
And of course, the relationship with diaspora has consistently remained very strong, despite the fact that it may often come across like a loud and unseemly string of family squabbles to the uninitiated. (I would be lying if I did not admit that there is some truth to this perception). But where overt and vibrant foreign policy ends, ideological battles begin. These ideological battles, illustrated largely by the defense of Israelis and Jews wherever they are, one of the founding principles of the State of Israel, are a tool of warfare and are, in large part, comprised of what is commonly referred to as “psych-ops”. This principle, the defense of Jewry at home, and particularly, abroad as well as creating a particular image of Israel has not traditionally been and should not be a function of the Foreign Ministry. Ideological battles of this type are generally fought behind the scenes and by different agencies, or in Israel’s case, institutes, which have been founded on the overarching principles of involvement in the defense of Jews living abroad. To the extent that they have been adopted as a tool of overt diplomacy, they have indeed been a failure – though, again, not too different from other Western states and for that reason, not as catastrophic as we may presume from the observable outcomes.
Confusion of healthy, normal PR and psych-ops is what ultimately leads to excessive criticism of the first, and the ultimate failure of the second. If we see Foreign Ministry’s job to make Israel and Jews look good before everyone who hates them, then indeed we fail utterly. That, however, is the failure of the outside critics, and not necessarily what Israel has been trying to do all along. On the contrary, it is the critics that are calling for the Foreign Ministry’s greater involvement in resolving all sorts of diaspora-related crises and image-building issues, causing officials with enough problems on their plates, to spread themselves thin in search of effective ways to address additional problems. However, it is ultimately a jurisdictional issue, and diplomats should be building relationships, not fighting wars. As long as the relationship-building and the ideological countering of evil forces are kept separate, Israel can successfully deal with both. When mixed together, these issues create a toxic dilemma from which there is no effective way out. The Foreign Ministry has developed successful formula for addressing common questions about what Israel is and is not. This formula works well for specific types of audiences – people who are curious, open-minded, or at the very least, neutral towards the country. It works on an intellectual level and it works on an emotional level. Investors are convinced by evidence of success; young Jews who are willing to visit are attracted by what they see; tourists get their share of thrills in just about every avenue imaginable, and everyone walks away satisfied.
Dealing with the underhanded subterfuge of European NGOs funding radicalized left-wing “human rights” organizations or addressing the monster that Omar Barghouti has created – the notorious BDS movement, flowering and prospering across Western university campuses, is not something the Foreign Ministry is equipped to deal with. It can only offer bureaucratic formulaic and desperate-sounding solutions which have been torn to shreds by all the critics I have mentioned this before. These methods are suitable for dealing with friendly or neutral audiences and relatively apolitical concepts and issues, but they are completely useless against threats. They are not meant to be used in that context and trying to fit what does not creates awkwardness and exacerbates problems. Diplomats are bad at propaganda. They are good at PR. Diplomats are also bad at countering propaganda. They are great at informing, educating, and answering questions. Propaganda, both the creation and the countering of it, is not for the high-minded. It requires a completely different approach, mindset, set of ethics, and frankly, budget. Successful formulas work well in business or tourism contexts. There is no need to go crazy with infinite adjustments and reinventing the wheel.
There is room for diversity of options, but once something works, it generally keeps on working. Propaganda, psych-ops, requires creativity and a set of operational skills that are quite different. It requires setting up of innovative operations, great subtlety, quite a bit of deception (antithetical to what most diplomats do in most in most contexts), and willingness to improvise on the fly, something that is completely contrary to the way good PR works and should work. In most cases, good PR requires careful planning, but requires no recreations on the spot, and in fact, impromptu and unprepared responses can be quite damaging. We are talking about two polar opposite paradigms that clash when we forcibly attempt to synthesize and reconcile them. It is simply not fair of us to expect the Foreign Ministry and its affiliates to do both with equal ease. It cannot be in the business of concocting emotionally appealing graphic propaganda, infiltrating and disrupting adversarial groups, setting up clandestine and covert operations to gather information about the opponents, researching funding, exposing the movements that seek to undermine Israel and to spread anti-Semitism… I could go on and on, but if we just look back at the Cold War, or any other significant ideological battle for principles the West has ever fought with anyone, all of these things have been done before, and not by the State Department or Foreign Ministries. They did not possess the resources, the training, the mindset, or the qualifications for that sort of business, and rightfully focused on doing their actual jobs.
Now that we know what should not be done (forcing the Foreign Ministry and Foreign Ministry-like bureaucratic Jewish non-profits to engage in the industry of generating and countering dirty tricks), what should we actually do and who is the “we” that should be doing the doing? Without giving unsolicited advice to any portion of Israel’s bureaucracy (and the relevant organizations know this issue far better than I do), I will turn to the general body of Jews and strongly advice the young Jews to take the matter into their own hands and create exciting, disruptive initiatives that will change the discourse and force the attackers into defensive position, while giving each other the mentoring, support, and most importantly, the tools to handle all the situations we have discussed – manipulative deceptive imagery and narratives, aggressive attacks, anti-Semitism masquerading as human rights, and so forth. Many groups have already sprung forth doing exactly what I have discussed above – Artists4Israel, Canary Mission, Students Supporting Israel, and other such groups, which aim to change the way Jews think about ourselves, our communities, and our relationship to Israel, while also allowing us to stand up for ourselves, against bullying tactics of our enemies. Ideally, these groups can become self-sustaining, though, as I have suggested elsewhere, sympathetic philanthropists and other interested parties, should literally put money where their mouth is and fund these endeavors rather than engage in endless hand-wringing over our alleged failures to stand up for ourselves. The beauty of private endeavors is that they can develop the skills needed to do the job and diversify greatly. There is no shortage of ideas, no shortage of innovative models for organizations and individuals to follow. Young entrepreneurs take unprecedented risks and are tied down by bureaucratic considerations, outdated worldviews, and interagency turf wars.
What our communities need right now is setting realistic expectations, figuring out to have a balanced practical relationship with Israel and the great web of complicated relationships with respect to creating our own image, not the image others, even others among ourselves seek to impose on us, and learning, growing, and never being quite satisfied with the result.