week I attended the second day of a conference on “The Media
as a Theater of War, the Blogosphere, and the Global Battle for Civil Society”.
(Unfortunately, I missed the first day, which actually covered a lot of the
stuff I was most interested in. My immune system and assorted pathogens
disagreed with my plans – and the less said about the details of the dispute,
the better.) In the aftermath of the conference (and, indeed, during the
conference itself), a number of my fellow blogger-attendees reacted rather
negatively to much of the conference’s tone and content.
waited to set out my own thoughts on the subject, although I’ve written a bunch
of long comments on Something
Something – Liza wrote a pretty scathing review of the conference there,
and some pointed debate (to put it mildly) followed between the liberal-blogger
set (of which I appear, somehow, to have become an honorary member) and the
rest. Foremost among the defenders of the conference is Richard Landes, who put the whole
thing together and, as far as I’m aware, was principally responsible for
selecting its panelists. Rather than repeat what Liza and Lisa and Yael wrote
about the conference itself, I’ve been trying to figure out what’s really going
on here: why is it that good and sincere people have such radical disagreements
about a topic that – at least at first glance – should be fairly simple?
* * *
is one thing that all of us (or at least all of us involved in this debate) agree
on: Israel’s image in the eyes of the rest of the world is abysmal. Our
response has been to attempt more effective hasbara – literally,
“explanation” but more accurately translated as “public diplomacy”, “public
relations”, or (less delicately) “propaganda”. The problem is that Israeli
public diplomacy has been monumentally unsuccessful of late: the plucky little
underdog of yore is now seen as the big bad wolf, oppressing and occupying the Palestinians,
offending Hezbollah (by existing, basically), insulting Iran by accusing
President Ahmadinejad of all kinds of horrible things, and feeling offensively
sorry for itself every time a walking bomb blows up a bus or café.
seem to have tremendous difficulty understanding why we are perceived so
negatively. Are we not a thriving democracy? Do we not mean well? Okay, we’ve
had to do some rather unpalatable stuff at times, but hey, we live in a rough
neighborhood, and it’s not like we enjoyed knocking all those houses
down! And our adversaries include some genuinely evil people: guys who think
blowing innocent women and children to bits is a good thing, as long as it
happens to us and not them.
hasbara establishment – consisting of certain individuals and agencies
of the Israeli government, along with a bunch of concerned individuals and
private organizations – has responded to the failures of Israeli image-making
by circling the wagons, closing ranks, girding their loins, going for the
jugular, and keeping their powder dry: or, in other words and without the
tortured metaphors, they’ve opted to do pretty much what they’ve been doing all
along, but louder and more forcefully.
of us believe that a more nuanced, diverse, and proactive approach is called
for. For example, rather than simply reacting to events on the ground by trying
to explain or justify them – the approach that is implicit in the use of the
Hebrew word for “explanation” to describe public diplomacy – we believe that
public-relations concerns need to be a major input into policy-making:
Just as politicians get advice from security experts before making decisions
with security implications, they should get advice from people who understand
international journalism and public opinion before making decisions that will
affect how Israel is perceived overseas.
we “hasbara rebels” don’t have an official set of beliefs – we aren’t a
cohesive, organized group, although someone recently accused us of being a
“sorority” and I’ve always wanted to sneak my way into a sorority – a lot of us
seem to believe that current, traditional Israeli hasbara is not only
too reactive, but also too strident, too self-righteous, and too focused on the
evils of our adversaries. I’m not going to repeat all our arguments (and the
counter-arguments) here; go to the
thread at Something Something to see what I’m talking about. (At some point
I should collect everything I wrote there and edit the good parts into
some point early in the debate, I began to realize that the people with whom I
was debating – while sincere, well-meaning, intelligent, and well informed –
nonetheless didn’t get it: No matter how my sorority sisters and I tried
to explain our position, they didn’t understand that we could be enthusiastic
Zionists, eager to see Israel positioned better in world opinion, cognizant of
the genuine problems out there (including some egregious bias in news
reporting, along with an awful lot of simple and not-so-simple cluelessness) –
and yet strongly disagree with their approach to hasbara.
don’t yet entirely understand why traditional hasbara practitioners have
such difficulty understanding the Sorority view – it’s not exactly rocket
science, after all. Since the debate began, I’ve had the refrain from a favorite
song of my youth constantly running
through my brain:
Oh, you know all the words, and you sung all the notes,
But you never quite learned the song.
(from “The Hedgehog’s Song”
by the Incredible String Band)
rather sad, and very frustrating; I wish I could find some way to convince
people who know that their approach isn’t working to think
constructively about why it isn’t working and how it might be made to
On the other hand, the debate has had one happy consequence: I’ve ordered
CD’s of the first three albums of the Incredible String Band – the second of
which includes the old favorite that I’ve had running through my head for the
last week. After almost forty years, it’ll be nice to hear that music again.
At least you aren’t the one working in Hasbara – that is to say, I’m working in hasbara for at least another year and agree with you 100%. They don’t understand how the “persuadables” view Israel and end up talking to themselves and each other (BTW: all these organizations hate each other) instead of trying to sound rational. I suspect this is partly b/c much of hasbara is done by Diaspora Jews to which Israel is perfect and everyone else is evil is their Jewish identity.
(Sorry for posting anon – don’t want to risk losing my job)
richard landes says
qeii look forward to talking this out with you and others. here i’d just briefly say that if you don’t think we get it (whoever we is, but as the organizer of the conference i’ll take responsibility), then my impression is that you don’t understand what’s going on out there and tell yourselves that if it weren’t for the clumsy israeli hasbarah establishment and the american zealots, if you were left to explain to people, then things would go well.
since 2000, the world approach to israel has gone in wild and completely erratic directions, and no amount of rational analysis is going to explain, for example, Durban and the NGOs. the problem is not merely what we say, but also what people out there (want to) hear.
i think we all need to accept that we don’t really know what’s going on, try and understand, and coordinate our efforts. that may take some difficult moments with high passions as passionately held beliefs collide, but for the sake of not only Zion, but civil society and the values of freedom and mutual respect that we all cherish, it’s worth riding this bucking bronco through the storm.
looking forward to meeting with you and others next week.
Don Radlauer says
Let’s say that I think things could certainly be made to go better. Change is made on the margins. I don’t think that any of us could make Robert Fisk into a flag-waving Zionist; but I do think that we could do very much better with the silent (or semi-silent) majority than we do now.
I’ll certainly grant that there are some genuine problems out there; I’m hardly so foolish as to believe that all we have to do is change our approach and everything will be hunky-dory. But even with the NGO’s, I believe that if we approach the situation properly, we can improve things – maybe not 100%, maybe not with every organization, but still enough that it may make a difference. In any case, I don’t see any advantage to continuing our current strategy, which doesn’t seem to be a great success with anyone except those who already like us.
I fully agree with you that coordination and consultation are called for; we have some very fine minds here, and working together I’m sure that we can come up with good ideas and strategies.
I can’t promise you a bucking bronco – my horse does not buck, thank you very much – but she has a lovely fast canter, if you like riding.
See you next week!
Hi Don and hi Richard,
I read all the arguments in the Something-something thread and I think sometimes you have just been talking about different issues.
For example. mu impression is that you have not sufficiently separated between actual Israeli politics, which are or at least should be defined by elected leaders and PR selling the given politics to the world.
Don, there has been an inkling of the feeling that you would want not only to change the way Israeli PR is done but to influence Israeli political actions with your understanding of PR. While PR might be taken into consideration which action to take, they might as well be overridden by other considerations.
Is there any way I could be present at your meeting? I am no blogger so far although I write extensively about Israel in German speaking internet publications and fora.
So, I guess we missed something by not going.
Gorgeous Girl says
I haven’t heard the incredible string band for years.
While agreeing with most of your post, Don, I have to take an exception with this:
“Just as politicians get advice from security experts before making decisions with security implications, they should get advice from people who understand international journalism and public opinion before making decisions that will affect how Israel is perceived overseas.”
Sounds quite OTT to me. A healthy part of that international journalism would like for us nothing more than to wither and die, quietly if possible. I do not quite see the Israeli leaders behaving according to the international public opinion polls like some politicians make their decisions according to this morning newspaper poll. It may be too risky.
Bu re our Hasbara: my purely emotional/instinctive estimate is: shrilly, self-important, provincial, deaf, shallow. And sometimes outright obnoxious.
Oh, and I forgot arrogant, too.
Thing is Palestinians ARE eveywhere. A somewhat opposite result to the expected outcome in the ‘military intelligence’s’ ‘hornets nest’ strategy behind the Islamic State, it becomes harder to forget them and more difficult to remove them.