My Problems with Hasbara
By Ilan Bloch
For the past eight years, I have worked as a guide and educator, taking groups of students from the Diaspora on Israel programs. Recently, I was more than frustrated after the group that I was guiding during the summer participated in a hasbara (advocacy) workshop. Even though the workshop facilitator was adept at his job, and engaged the audience well, my issues with what had transpired were numerous.
1. I had spent the entire summer trying to develop independent, analytical and critical thinking amongst my chanichim (group participants), without regard for accepted orthodoxies. And then they participated in a workshop that attempted to do the exact opposite. It was clear that the workshop was seeking to give simplistic answers and formulaic responses to complex issues. The facilitator commented afterwards that he had never before come across such resistance amongst a group. I thought that it was only those chanichim who refused to accept his statements as absolute truths who he should want as hasbara activists. The conflation of hasbara with Israel education does not produce educated people or great hasbara activists.
2. The workshop lacked nuance. For example, instead of explaining that any statement which links Israel to apartheid is “anti-Israel” or “anti-Zionist,” I would have liked to see an actual analysis of claims against Israel. In the case of claims of apartheid, chanichim need to be exposed to the argument that there are similarities between the apartheid regime and Israeli rule in the West Bank, which include distinct law enforcement and judicial systems for residents based on ethnicity. To ignore this, or obfuscate reality by claiming that the entire Israel/apartheid analogy is completely false because Israeli Palestinians have full rights as Israeli citizens, does not educate chanichim nor prepare them to be hasbara activists.
3. I do not think that all chanichim need to be trained in hasbara. Advocacy, or lobbying, is a very specialized field. I imagine that almost all my chanichim oppose smoking – some even vehemently – but I also imagine that only a very small fraction of them will ever become anti-smoking lobbyists. With this in mind, my arguments are not against small-scale, selective programs such as Write on for Israel, but rather against “hasbara for the masses” workshops, which are often held because “they’ll be in college soon, come across this sort of stuff, and therefore we have to do something.”
4. Many Jewish organizations tend to argue that almost all students will be exposed to the dangers of anti-Israel activity on campus and therefore almost all students should participate in hasbara training. I am unconvinced that almost all Jewish students are exposed to threatening anti-Israel hasbara (and I deliberately use the term “hasbara”) on campus, notwithstanding some truly nefarious lobbying by some anti-Israel activists. Moreover, an environment is created in which Jewish students believe that any lobbying on the part of pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel activists is, by definition, illegitimate. One former student told me – in horror, mind you – of students on one college campus who set up a fake IDF checkpoint. I responded by saying that it is legitimate political activity, even if it is not nuanced as it ignores the fact that while some checkpoints function for political reasons, many others certainly do function for security reasons. I suggested that students engaging in pro-Israel hasbara on that campus could approach the checkpoint as fake suicide bombers. This would also represent a non-nuanced approach, as it would suggest that the only reason that checkpoints exist is to protect against suicide bombers, and would ignore the fact that suicide bombers never routinely accessed Israel via the checkpoints. Nevertheless, it would certainly be appropriate in the context of the establishment of the fake checkpoint. I am not proposing that hasbara activists engage anti-Israel protestors in nuanced debate; black-and-white hasbara responses to black-and-white anti-Israel campaigns can certainly be suitable, as long as the hasbara activists involved understand the grey of the issues involved.
5. I also think that a focus on hasbara diminishes the importance of other campus-centred Jewish-related activity. Including a hasbara workshop as an integral part of an Israel program, and thereby reinforcing the notion that hasbara is the central component of Jewish college activities, minimizes the significant role played by Jewish campus activists who organize Shabbatonim and shiurim, social events, sporting activities or tikkun olam projects. Not everybody needs to be – or should be – a hasbara activist. There are many other ways for Jewish students to be involved in Jewish campus life.
6. Finally, as somebody who chose to make Israel his home, I do not think that putting Diaspora Jews in the position of having to defend or explain the policies of a foreign government is a productive way of inculcating Zionist – or other patriotic– values. I am not arguing against the activities of AIPAC and J-Street, but rather advocating for a more scaled-back, nuanced, considered and educational approach to hasbara, when dealing with high-school and college students.