By David Isaac
In a recent article, Daniel Greenfield (his extraordinarily fine blog appears under the pseudonym “Sultan Knish”) criticizes “the great obsession” of the Israeli government and its defenders with “hasbara,” or PR. They’re caught up with the idea that Israel must do a better job explaining itself to the world, he says. Greenfield argues that such people miss the point.
“Trying to win the PR war in order to be able to fight the terrorists, has been a common mistake in the Israeli paradigm. Dispensing with that paradigm as quickly as possible and winning the fight, is the only way to get the monkey of hate off Israel’s back,” he writes.
There are several weaknesses in Greenfield’s analysis, not least of which is his assertion that the Israeli government is obsessed with hasbara. To understand that Israel is anything but obsessed, one has only to look back at decades of articles written by Shmuel Katz.
Since the 1970s, one hears the same unheeded cry for the establishment of a proper Ministry of Information, one that would wage a concerted effort to counter the Arabs’ “many-faceted campaign of denigration throughout the world, openly aiming at the demonization of Israel as a state and of the Jews as a nation.” But as Shmuel often pointed out, no government, whether right or left, took seriously its obligation of creating an effective machinery for countering Arab propaganda. (Yes, in 2009 Israel established a small, poorly funded Ministry of Information and Diaspora Affairs — not a serious effort.)
But the main point on which Greenfield misses the mark is his argument that Israel must first change reality before hasbara can even matter. Greenfield’s recipe: First win the fight, then kickstart hasbara. But hasbara efforts must be an integral part of winning the fight. Israel has yet to take the propaganda war to its enemies – Shmuel described Israel’s efforts to date as a skiff taking on a battleship – and the result has seriously weakened Israel’s ability to wage traditional war.
It’s not hard to think of examples. Take Israel’s self-limiting response to attack, such as stringent rules of engagement. Recently, Israeli soldiers were told they couldn’t open fire, even in the air, at Arabs who were stoning them. During the flotilla episode, Israeli soldiers boarded with paintball guns.
Such behavior isn’t new. In The Hollow Peace (Dvir, 1981), Shmuel traces how Israel’s failure to make its case led its leaders to forgo a pre-emptive air strike during the Yom Kippur War.
In fact, when the knife was at Israel’s very throat, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence would not permit Elazar to mobilise all the reserves. The reason has been explained over and over again: the government did not want to arouse in the world the impression that Israel was the aggressor. It was therefore decided to allow Egypt and Syria the full advantage of surprise – and hundreds of soldiers on the fronts that collapsed paid with their lives.
In so doing the government in effect admitted to its historic failure in the conduct of foreign policy and in its defence of the Israeli cause. In 1948 the Arabs launched a campaign to exterminate the newly-arisen Israel; in 1967 they made a great fanfare, along with their preparations for war, of their overt intent to annihilate Israel; and now, after all that, in 1973, when it had become perfectly obvious that they were about to pounce yet again, the government of Israel thought the world would believe that the aggressor was Israel and none other. The members of the Cabinet were apparently convinced that the Arabs had succeeded by means of their propaganda in turning the truth inside out, and depicting themselves as the historic victim and Israel as the historic aggressor.
So here we have an example of Israel’s leaders, while obviously not convinced by Arab propaganda, nevertheless convinced of its success, so much so, that they willingly waited to be attacked, a decision which might have cost them the country.
Winston Churchill, Britain’s great wartime leader, understood the importance of fighting on the propaganda front. As Shmuel wrote in “Tinkering With Hasbara” (Aug. 16, 2001):
When Winston Churchill became British prime minister in World War II, he at once tackled the problem of war information – of hasbara. He appointed a minister of information and – over the protest of foreign minister Anthony Eden – a ministry with a worldwide reach was established. Eden did not realize that no Foreign Office is built and specialized and equipped for the very large task of war information. Indeed, no country at war in our time can do without a separate department for information abroad – and Israel least of all.
Churchill’s Ministry of Information became the largest in the country, outside of the war ministry.
Greenfield argues that hasbara won’t be successful “because you can’t argue with people’s prejudices,” adding, “It is always good to know how to answer a bigot, so long as you understand that you will not convince the bigot of anything.” This is an argument that Shmuel encountered in his day.
In “A Crying Need” (Aug. 6, 1982), he writes:
Apologists for the present system point triumphantly to the frightening evidence of an international campaign of distortions, lies and libels, motivated, at least in part, by old-fashioned anti-Semitism. You cannot, they say, break through this wall of hatred, whatever you do. Of course, Israel cannot break through the wall of hatred. But its duty is to arm its friends and well-wishers.
Here Shmuel reveals that hasbara plays many roles, one of which is to supply its friends with “ammunition for speedy and effective response.” Hasbara doesn’t only put the lie to your opponents’ claims, it strengthens those already on your side, reinforcing their belief in the justness of your cause. It provides, in Shmuel’s words, “the whys and the wherefores of our existence, our actions and our beliefs.”
Lastly, when Shmuel talked about a ministry of information, or a “machinery,” as he put it, capable of countering Arab propaganda, he was at the same time talking about the message of that machinery. The two were inseparable in his mind. For Shmuel, that message contained three main pillars: That Jewish rights to the Land of Israel were indisputable, that the Arabs were not interested in peace but rather bent on Israel’s destruction, and that the “Palestinian people” were a “monstrous fiction” – “perhaps the greatest hoax of the 20th century.”
For an information policy to be successful, it must be based on a principled policy. If the prime minister one day rejects a Palestinian State and then the next day embraces it, an information policy has no hope of success.
If hasbara is to be built, it must be built on bedrock.