Israel’s Army of Spin-doctors is Doomed to Defeat
By Jonathan Cook
July 07, 2015 "Information
- Nazareth - The Israeli government believes it is locked in an
epic struggle to save Israel from the growing movement calling for an
international boycott. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu warns that Israel must
quickly “rebrand” itself to avoid pariah status.
Ordinary Israelis are therefore being conscripted into an army of spin-doctors
in a campaign termed “hasbara” – Hebrew for “public diplomacy”, or more
In the latest offensive, the education ministry has launched a
compulsory hasbara course for Israeli students travelling abroad. All youth
delegations are now required to learn how to justify to outsiders Israel’s
policies in the occupied territories. According to officials, the students must
challenge those who “seek to delegitimize Israel”.
It is yet more evidence that hasbara has become a national
obsession in Israel – and that the line between support for one’s country and
support for the subjugation of another people has been erased. Some 85 per cent
of Israelis tell pollsters they are keen to become hasbara ambassadors for the
A hasbara ministry already targets the international media
with good news, while cultural events from food fairs to Israeli entries at film
festivals are designed to prove that Israel has another, hidden side.
For years the Israeli government has relied on paid workers –
and thousands of volunteers in Israel and abroad – to surf the net posting
At Israel’s international airport, Israeli holidaymakers are
offered brochures explaining the importance of persuading those they meet that
Israel is misunderstood. Advice suggests emphasising successes such as Israel’s
invention of drip irrigation and popular varieties of the cherry tomato.
And yet the latest hasbara drive is as unlikely to reverse
Israel’s slow slide into ignominy as its predecessors.
The hasbara industry’s chief flaw, as Israeli political
scientist Neve Gordon observes, is its assumption that “the merchandise is fine,
and only the packaging needs to be replaced”.
But rapid developments in information technology mean Israel
has less control over its image than ever before.
First it was 24-hour rolling news, then the internet. Now
cheap smartphones make every Palestinian a potential documentary-maker, ensuring
that moments of cruelty and oppression are captured and available for anyone who
cares to look.
Palestinians post online videos of their everyday abuse: from
demolition of homes to stone-throwers being shot with live ammunition; from
settlers burning crops to children being dragged by soldiers from their beds in
the middle of the night.
Last week 56-year-old Zaki Sabah, a familiar cake vendor in
Jerusalem’s Old City, starred in one such video. Bystanders filmed him being
savagely beaten by Israeli police on a busy road. Denied a permit for many years
by the occupation authorities, Sabah has been repeatedly fined and jailed.
Meanwhile, another video exposed Israel’s deceitful account of
its supposedly peaceful interception of a boat trying to break the Israeli
blockade of Gaza. As more than a dozen passengers were held captive over the
weekend, footage was smuggled out showing that Israeli commandos had
electrocuted some of them with tasers during the takeover.
Troubling imagery is not restricted to the occupied
territories. Film of the charred interior of a historic church next to the Sea
of Galilee highlighted last month the latest hate crime by Jewish extremists
against Israel’s large Palestinian minority.
The futility of trying to staunch the tide of evidence damning
Israel on media old and new was exemplified last week by Moshe Yaalon, the
“There is no humanitarian distress in Gaza,” he averred, while
the media illustrated reports of his speech with pictures of mountains of rubble
and children still homeless a year after Israel’s massive assault on the
Yaalon’s sophistry may placate Israel’s diehard supporters but
the rest of us are more often incensed by such insults to our intelligence.
The hasbara offensive is doomed for another reason.
With the Palestinians’ case substantiated by evidence, rather
than Israel’s, the evangelists of hasbara have only one recourse: to blame the
Critics of Israel, it is implied, are either inveterate dupes
or unabashed anti-semites. Either they have been deceived by the Israel-haters,
or they are haters themselves.
As the hasbara industry moves into overdrive, such slurs are
becoming all too common – including against those Israel most urgently needs to
cultivate as allies.
Judith Nir Mozes, the wife of interior minister Silvan Shalom,
a Netanyahu confidant, possibly reflected high-level thinking in Israel when she
tweeted last month a racist “joke” about President Barack Obama. “Do u know what
Obama Coffee is? Black and weak,” she wrote, ridiculing the leader of Israel’s
most important ally.
Similarly, the Israeli foreign ministry hurried to mock
foreign journalists, even though they are hasbara’s target audience.
In a short animated video, a naďve reporter is shown claiming
that the people of Gaza simply want peace as militants fire rockets just behind
him. Next the reporter misidentifies Hamas’ tunnelling as the “first Palestinian
subway system”. The video ends with a warning: “Open your eyes, terror rules
Michael Oren, Israel’s recently departed ambassador to the US,
has joined the fray too, castigating American Jewish journalists as
“self-haters” for their critical coverage of the Israeli prime minister.
Hasbara’s cartoon version of reality is not only unconvincing
but, in alienating friends as much as foes, self-defeating. Netanyahu may hope
to repackage Israel, but his product – ongoing oppression of Palestinians – is
one few can be persuaded to buy.
Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for
Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq,
Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing
Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is
A version of this article first appeared in the National,