When the scale of the defeat of the Iraqi forces in the Gulf War became apparent, there was a sense of quiet satisfaction in some Jewish quarters that the case for Israel was now fully recognized by the West. The Palestinians in the Territories had frittered away all their hard-won support by their emotional outpourings for Saddam. The PLO leadership abroad had lost all credibility with the White House due to its entrapment and alignment with the Iraqi regime. And in turn, the most right-wing government in Israel’s history showed a highly commendable restraint to the Scud attacks on Tel Aviv and exhibited a rational response to Saddam’s provocative threats. The Allies were thankful that the frontiers of the war had not been extended. Thus the Arab alliance against Saddam held firm and fundamentalist fervour in the Arab world was manageable. A good outcome for Israel and a feeling that there would be a fairer and more positive attitude towards the Jewish state.
Such wishful thinking revealed a mindset which owed more to decades of public relations incantations than to any consideration of the realpolitik in Israel and the Territories. It was not that Israel’s public relations during the past had eventually proved successful, but that Palestinian policy on the Gulf had proved disastrous. It was not that the White House felt so strongly about the attacks on Tel Aviv and the destruction of life and property, but that an Israeli reaction might institute a chain of events which would lead to a fragmentation of the war coalition. In the real world, small peoples can easily be deserted—witness the initial reaction of the Allies to the plight of the fleeing Kurds.
The Gulf War illuminated the transparency of the Middle East public relations industry. It was not that Israel was “wrong” yesterday and “right” today—or vice-versa—but that public relations arguments were ultimately of secondary importance and often irrelevant. And yet there is a highly vocal school of thought that clamours for bigger and better public relations on behalf of Israel. All problems, it is argued, can be solved once the right image has been located and projected. The good and the great would then be on the side of Israel. This is the view of many on Israel’s right, for whom the presentation of Israel has attained the status of a sacred cow. Bibi Netanyahu has been the smoothest and most persistent advocate of this approach. His belief in the centrality of public relations as a sort of diplomacy by other means has great appeal to Diaspora Jews who wish to be active on behalf of Israel—but at a distance.
Clearly, electronic reporting has created the necessity for an instantaneous response, but it is worth asking how did this obsession with public relations evolve? The victory in the Six Day War and the conquest of the Territories coincided with a number of historical watersheds. In Israel, the changing demographic complexion and the coming of age of the post-Independence generation forced a new political direction. By 1977, those changes within Israeli society manifested themselves in the ascendency of Revisionism and the first Begin government. That administration brought with it a psychology rooted in the trauma of the Shoah and the “fighting family” mentality of the Irgun. Not only was the outside world distrusted, but so were the successors of Ben-Gurion who had ruthlessly ostracized them. For three decades, they had been placed outside the pale of respectable political behaviour and the validity of their contribution to the history of Israel belittled and often eradicated. Their retribution took several forms, but one was undoubtedly a heavy emphasis on an effective hasbara (explanation) public relations campaign. They literally had to “explain” themselves to a questioning Jewish world, not only to propagate their worldview but also to dispel their own insecurity.
After 1967, Likud had to react to a new generation of Palestinians who were preaching a sophisticated message to anyone who would care to listen—ironically, this was paid for by large donations from the Gulf states, including Kuwait. This challenge uncovered a fundamental contradiction in Likud thinking—between turning your back on the world and wishing to convince it of the veracity of your case.
The third side of the triangle, the audience, had also changed. The generation which had prised open the gates of Auschwitz was passing on and giving way to children who knew not Hitler. For them, the suffering of the Jews before and during the war was confined to history books, faded images on film and the poignant stories of their parents. Moreover, the lesson of the Shoah was often universalized and sometimes de-judaized. This tendency reached its apogee in Jim Allen’s notorious play Perdition where perfidious Jewry played a guiding role in the implementation of its own mass destruction.
The Six Day War marked the demise of the Old Left and the rise of the New. The latter was imbued with the struggle of the Third World against imperialism and colonialism and thereby could easily identify with the Palestinian cause. If Israel was classified as the oppressor of the Palestinians, it was also certain that this generation had little knowledge of the Jewish problem and indeed was often indifferent to it. After all, the struggle against anti-Semitism and understanding the reasons for the establishment of the State of Israel had not been part of their personal struggle. It belonged to another time.
In addition, the espousal of anti-Zionism as a legitimate ideological approach manifested itself differently. As Robert Wistrich comments:
No one familiar with the older anti-Zionist texts could, for example, mistake the fact that they were motivated by a pro-Jewish attitude or, rather, sympathy for the Jews as the object of persecution through the centuries; that in opposing Jewish nationalism, socialists believed in all sincerity that they were serving the best interests of the Jews, whose salvation, so they thought, depended on the creation of a classless society in which all differences of race, religion, ethnicity and caste would become irrelevant. This anti-anti-Semitic anti-Zionism may still exist in some quarters on the left, but it is hardly the dominant mode of discourse. For the extreme left in western societies not only denigrates Israel and Zionism in a systematic manner, but its irrational hostility frequently spills over into contempt and antipathy towards Jews and Judaism as such.
The development of such phenomena after 1967 propelled many Jews to engage in dialogue with the left. An extension of this was the desire to explain Israel to a more inquisitive, but less informed general public. Yet this determined effort to essentially reverse a historical tide lost its way. What originally commenced as a worthy exercise to educate became a slick selective presentation of facts. The image-makers displaced the information-providers. Reality—warts and all—was not always reflected. Hasbara (explanation) became confused with ta’amula (propaganda).
The most dangerous aspect of this transformation arose from the fact that no distinction was made between Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. With the heightened selectivity of Israeli explanations, what was given out as propaganda to non-Jews was regarded as information by Jews. The confusion which arose during the war in Lebanon symbolized Diaspora Jewry’s addiction to and dependency on public relations imagery. In 1982, the Jewish media became an important channel for a propaganda effort by the Begin government, directed solely at Diaspora Jews. In 1987, Yoel Cohen of Bar-Ilan University conducted a survey of twenty-five editors of Jewish newspapers from different parts of the world regarding their Israeli news coverage during the war in Lebanon. When asked whether the information received from Israeli diplomats in 1982 was comprehensive—of those who responded to the questions—ten editors replied negatively, four positively and four were unsure. Asked whether the information supplied was accurate, eight replied negatively, five positively and four were unsure.
The lack of consensus in Israel itself was similarly never recognized by the domestic practitioners of public relations. They did not differentiate between pro-Israeli hasbara and pro-Israeli government hasbara. The greatest international hasbara success—the huge demonstration of Israelis in Tel Aviv after the Phalangist massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatilla—was passed over in total silence by those engaged in public relations work.
After Lebanon, many came to see the public relations machines which operated from both the Israeli and Palestinian camps as instruments encouraging mistrust and hostility rather than emphasizing reconciliation and dialogue. The approach was to accentuate the negative and to eliminate the positive in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Differences were highlighted. Similarities and common interests were glossed over. Indeed, public relations had no vested interest in achieving peace for its own operation would thereby become redundant. It would have no raison d’être. The task of hasbara is not to inform, but to maintain the rigidity of defined official positions in the public eye.
Therefore, does hasbara have any real value—especially in view of the financial investment? Has it become a fools’ gold, an easy substitute for the harsh reality of sitting down with the enemy? Would not the cause of peace be better served if both the Israeli and Palestinian public relations machines were to be dismantled? While there is still a need to supply accurate and unbiased information about Israel and Zionism to an ill-informed wider public, there is also a case for an effort on both sides to systematically downgrade their public relations campaigns. This would not please those who espouse hard-line Israeli and Palestinian official positions, but it would certainly lead to a more relaxed environment where reality might intervene and dialogue could begin.
Jewish Quarterly Summer 1991