Israeli propaganda is both intelligent and necessary

By David Admon

Just as the some make conversation about the weather, here in Israel people talk about ‘hasbara’, efforts to explain and justify Israel’s policies to the rest of the world. Operation Cast Lead, the Goldstone report, the delegation to Haiti and International Holocaust Remembrance Day have all been jumbled into the debate over Israel’s PR efforts. It seem everyone has what to say about it, whether in the media, in the Knesset corridors or at gatherings of friends on a Friday evening. And everyone, so it seems, shares the sense that as always – we’ve failed at hasbara.

Indeed, Israel’s governments have always preferred to sweep the hasbara problem under the rug. Most of them were opposed to establishing an official and professional hasbara bureau.

I recall that many years ago, when I served as director of the celebrations for Israel’s 30th Independence Day, between the visit by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and the Camp David summit, members of Peace Now were organizing stormy demonstrations.

In response, then prime minister Menachem Begin called me in for a conversation (before the 1977 elections I served as Likud spokesman) and said: “We have to get the Likud hasbara headquarters going again.”

“Mr. prime minister, sir, get the central hasbara machine going again – it’s in your hands,” I said to him.

“Heaven forbid. The government doesn’t do hasbara – here we will not have Goebbelsism!” replied Begin, referring to the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, and said no more.

I believe that this story explains the meaning of our traditional skittishness toward hasbara: the memory of the propaganda in dark regimes and a sense that it isn’t clear where hasbara ends and propaganda begins. This reluctance is so acute that some people even refrained from marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day and complained about “the Holocaust survivor used for Israeli propaganda.”

Yet it is imperative to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This is not only in order to deal with Holocaust deniers but also to stress the state of Israel’s importance for the continued existence of the Jewish people.

I have also heard criticism of the Israeli delegations to Port-au-Prince and about how Israel made use of the Haitians’ tragedy for “propaganda.”

What is the alternative? To remain indifferent? There is room for taking part and it is proper to cast light on the humanitarian activities of Israelis. For domestic consumption, too, this is useful: The glorification of the mission makes role models of the members of the delegations.

What is hasbara? Hasbara is visiting the inhabitants of Sderot while Qassam rockets rain down on them; Hasbara is a Nobel Prize awarded to an Israeli woman; Hasbara is the celebratory Gay Pride parade in open Tel Aviv; Hasbara is also an interview with Jewish settlers evacuated from the Gaza Strip, some of whom still live under the shadow of the trauma and have not recovered.

The confusion with respect to hasbara must be solved by centralizing it. It is necessary to establish a body with authority and money, backed by large budgets and headed by a cabinet minister. This ministry will establish professional committees specializing in various areas of hasbara. An inter-ministerial committee on hasbara should also be instated to coordinate with all the government ministries.

But first of all, a research department should be established to try to learn from the failures of the past and examine why Israel’s existence is not taken as a given in many places around the world, and why we are perceived as aliens who have just chosen to live in the Middle East.

The “Hasbara Ministry” should also examine and update the tools that can be used. Here in fact, we can learn from terror organizations, which are intelligently using electronic media to spread their propaganda around the globe.

Not long ago, when I was serving as Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, I was invited to a discussion about Jerusalem on Hungarian television, along with the “ambassador of Palestine.”

I managed to surprise even him when I quoted from a Thomas Cook guidebook from 1900, indisputably a reliable source, to the effect that 100 years ago there were about 75,000 people living in the city, of whom about 40,000 were Jews and only 6,000 Muslims (mostly from Africa).

Afterward, heads of the Jewish community complained to me that they weren’t receiving similar hasbara materials from Israel. It is not surprising, then, that most people around the world believe that Jerusalem used to be the capital of an Arab Palestine and therefore it must once again become capital of that same country, which supposedly preceded the occupier Israel.

The anti-Semitism report submitted to the government on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day noted that in 2009 there were more anti-Semitic incidents than in any of the past 20 years. Israel is increasingly perceived abroad as “the bad guy.”

It is possible to hazard many possible reasons for why Israel is so hated and it is also possible to imagine the consequences of delving into this, but precisely for that reason I repeat that it is necessary to employ hasbara professionals.

It is necessary to see that a “tool box” is provided to every Israeli ambassador and “flack” suited to the task with which he has been charged. Before I set out on my mission in Hungary I bought more than 100 copies of the book “The Case for Israel,” written by American lawyer Alan Dershowitz. I gave it out there to people in the administration, academics and ambassadors. The well-reasoned, fact-based book gave them an opportunity to understand the Israeli side better and to admire the State of Israel.

If we continue to tread water, take an apologetic stance, stammer and shoot from the hip, we shouldn’t be surprised if a lot more Goldstone reports await us; if our leaders are unable to travel abroad without having the threat of arrest warrants hanging over their heads; and if in international institutions we are condemned and boycotted.

In the long run the peace process will not benefit from this either. The obvious conclusion: an Israeli hasbara army must be established immediately. {} {} {}

The author was Israel’s ambassador to Hungary and chairman of the Israel Advertising Association.

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