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My Problems with Hasbara

September 12, 2011 – 10:39 pm10 Comments

Image: hasbarafellowships.org

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.

Ilan Bloch is the Director of Teaching Israel. Visit www.teachingisrael.com An edited version of this article was printed in the Jerusalem Post.

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10 Comments »

  • PETER SM says:

    Actually in the diaspora Jews are confronted on & off campus with mobs of Moslems&Leftists,shouting slogans.
    They have to be ready both at an intellectual level and with one liners.
    That is what goes on in the real world.

  • frosh says:

    Hi Ilan,
    Firstly, it’s highly unfortunate that Israel is subjected to such absurd levels demonization and attempts at delegitimisation (stemming from anti-Semitism) that we as a community even feel the need to run hasbara workshops.
    Having said that, I agree with you on your two main points
    • Hasbara training is not a substitute for critical education.
    • The best hasbara training (to both hasbara specialists and the ‘layperson’) involves teaching alternative perspectives.

    This second point is actually supported by the scientific literature. Teaching people both sides of a debate actually makes them more robust in their beliefs. In accordance with William J. McGuire’s inoculation theory, if we just teach kids the traditional Zionist narrative, they are more at risk of becoming estranged from their support for Israel when they are eventually exposed to the counter arguments in a more nefarious situation.

  • geoff bloch says:

    Hi Ilan,

    Interesting article, but I’m not sure I agree with your final comment, for a reason you perhaps haven’t considered.

    You wrote that you “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 have always believed in the importance of the individual and, given the likelihood that individual students will encounter anti-Israel sentiment once they get to tertiary campuses, such encounters may well pose personal challenges to their own ideology, especially to those who have not been given the intellectual tools necessary to anticipate and meet such sentiments with reasoned argument.

    I am frankly far more interested in the intellectual and emotional well-being of individual Jewish students than in creating a hasbara activist for Israel. That, I think, we can agree upon. But while not every Jewish student needs to aspire to become a hasbara activist for Israel, each individual Jewish student does indeed need to be equipped to advocate Israel’s case, if only to safeguard against their own self-doubt thrown up by these encounters.

    I believe there is a greater role to be played by Jewish secondary schools, as well as the home, in preparing school-age children for the clash of ideologies which awaits them at tertiary institutions. I’m referring not only to anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment, but to their inevitable exposure to secular humanist ideology which is so rife at those institutions. See http://galusaustralis.com/2010/09/3562/how-our-universities-harm-our-children/

    Geoff

  • Rachel SD says:

    Hi Geoff,

    So if I understand correctly, you think that hasbara is a good model of education because it teaches people to do hasbara in their own heads?

    But the argument here (which I agree with) is that actually the counter-arguments to “anti-Israel” claims that are taught in hasbara workshops are shallow and unconvincing. What I think Ilan is saying is that because the “anti-Israel” arguments aren’t explored in enough depth, the “pro-Israel” arguments also cannot be explored in depth.

  • Joe in Australia says:

    Ilan, I was listening to a recording of the pro-BDS protestors outside one of the Max Brenner chocolateries. They were chanting about the hot chocolate being made with blood. So there’s nuance for you: while you’re explaining that Israel isn’t sort-of- not-really Apartheid, they’re resurrecting the blood libel.

    It reminds me of my dad’s cousin, back in Hungary. Jews had been drafted into the Labor Corps, notionally assisting the army, and his unit had been sent to clear a field by digging in the dirt with their hands. One of the Jews explained to the OIC that it would be so much better if they could use sticks to help find the mines. “What,” the OIC replied, “you think we want you Jews to live?” Hasbara has its limits, you see. It needs a dialogue, but you don’t have one.

    You’re pretending that the people shouting “From the river to the sea / Palestine must be free” are motivated by an intellectual pursuit of the truth. In fact their motivation is nothing of the sort: they’re bullies who have learned, as so many have before, that Jews respond patiently and reasonably to their tormentors: “O, let us have a stick so that we may clear your mine field more safely!”

  • geoff bloch says:

    Hi Rachel,

    If you are right that Ilan’s point is that because the “anti-Israel” arguments aren’t explored in enough depth, the “pro-Israel” arguments also cannot be explored in depth, you will get no argument from me. In order to anticipate, meet and refute any argument, it is critical first to understand in some depth what it is you are trying to refute!

    Geoff

  • Seraphya Berrin says:

    Joe: Equating the life on a campus in Australia to the holocaust is ridiculous.

    While no one will get through to the core involved in the BDS activities here in Melbourne, we do need to be able to properly explain to those not directly involved that things are nuanced. Having a sane conversation with someone while the other side is shouting like maniacs really does often have a positive effect. I find the Hasbara promulgated by many of these workshops to be dishonest and won’t help you show why Israel isn’t evil to someone who is somewhat informed.
    A few months ago I sat in on a students for Palestine meeting at university and there was discussion of how some archaeological dig in silwan/ir-david was going to undermine al-aqsa and the cave of the patriarchs. At that point I had to butt in and say that these sites were many kilometres apart and how can you deal with the real issues the Palestinians face when you don’t have this basic understanding of basic West Bank geography. I was told I was being rude by contradicting this report and that was the end of me seeing if this was a group that was serious about doing anything about the plight of the Palestinian people. We have to make sure that we don’t sound as stupid as that, and these hasbara workshops are making us look like that.

    Since you mentioned the Max Brenner people, here is something I wrote earlier about that:
    I tried to talk to some people involved in the max brenner thing about what they were hoping to accomplish and how what they were doing was probably counter-productive.
    It turns our that according to them:

    Israel needs to be destroyed because they are an outpost of western colonialism and even if they don’t regard themselves that way, it is true. And that like in Zimbabwe, any defective government that doesn’t involve the “white” Israelis is important to fight to the death for. Also the golani and givati brigades had as there mission to kill as many Palestinians as possible especially women and children. Max Brenner’s parent company gave care packages to soldiers and therefore Max Brenner must be brought down. Even if it is counter-productive it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it because it is a weapon at our disposal that we should use because we can.
    I can’t even make this stuff up. That last point is actually a little scary becauuse if they could get thier hands on bombs and even chemical weapons they didn’t rule out the use of them.

    What I don’t get though is why not boycott almost every company in the world the same way, for instance google just gave anyone in the American Armed Services with a .mil e-mail address free calls to the USA. I am sure they don’t support the wars in Iraq and Afganistan either.

    But if your problem is oppression and colonialism, they surely almost every coffee chain has issues, especially since we are talking about coffee beans. Nestle and Starbucks have gotten into trouble over mistreating workers and Gloria Jeans funds homophobic institutions and “rehab facilities” that are fronts for fake treatment with religious doctrine.

  • andrew wirth says:

    Ilan –I agree with some of your sentiments, in particular rejecting the teaching of propaganda in place of critical thinking. But to clarify a little futher… I take it you define hasbara as pro-Israel advocacy which is crass, clumsy, “dumbed-down” and propagandizing in nature. What terminology would you use to describe pro-Israel advocacy that is sophisticated, nuanced and reasoned? You reject hasbara because it is taught in a way that devalues critical thinking. Do you also reject it as a communication tool, even if it is used by sophisticated thinkers, and even if it is effective? Is non-hasbara (ie sophisticated) advocacy always preferred, even if it less effective than hasbara? In the sphere of public communication, how often does balanced, nuanced reasoning neutralise emotive sloganeering?

  • andrew wirth says:

    Reasoned argument:
    The Essendon Football Club has a long and proud history, and under Sheedy’s coaching and Hirdy’s captaincy reached great heights, and possibly will do so again in the future, although this cant be guaranteed, what with the presence of so many other clubs some of which are also likely to perform well from time to time, barring excessive injury or the need to play interstate matches at critical junctures, and not withstanding ill-informed player picks and of course all with an overlay of statistical variability .

    Hasbara:
    Go Bombers!

  • Ilan Bloch says:

    @Peter SM @Joe in Australia @Andrew Wirth @others

    Thank you for your comments. I apologise for not responding earlier; I have been away on tiyul. I would like to stress one of the major points that I wrote in the op-ed:

    “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.”

    I am not against hasbara; I am against conflating it with actual Israel Education, and I am against recruiting rank amateurs as lobbyists, or arguing that it is the duty of Diaspora Jewry (and of every Jewish student) to engage in hasbara. Every cause has a band of professional lobbyists who work to achieve certain goals, and it is totally acceptable for an Israel lobby (or more correctly, Israel lobbies) to exist and work towards achieving particular goals. And, just as there are student arms of AIPAC and J-Street I, of course, believe that there is a place for student hasbara organisations and activities.

    @Peter SM

    You wrote that “they have to be ready both at an intellectual level and with one liners.” My point is that they are not at all ready on an intellectual level, which makes their one liners meaningless.

    @Joe in Australia

    You wrote that “You’re pretending that the people shouting “From the river to the sea / Palestine must be free” are motivated by an intellectual pursuit of the truth.” Although I believe that some of them are, even if none of them are, this is besides the point. Hasbara activists must be intellectually honest to themselves and understand the complexities of the relevant issues, even if in the context of their activity, it is sometimes best that they engage in simple messages, soundbites and one-liners. I am not against protests which do this; I am opposed to protesters who believe that the issues involved are actually as black-and-white as the slogans they shout.

    @Andrew Wirth

    I don’t define hasbara as “pro-Israel advocacy which is crass, clumsy, “dumbed-down” and propagandizing in nature.” That is my definition of bad hasbara training for the masses.

    You asked “What terminology would you use to describe pro-Israel advocacy that is sophisticated, nuanced and reasoned?” I would define such advocacy as excellent hasbara.

    You wrote: “You reject hasbara because it is taught in a way that devalues critical thinking.” I don’t reject hasbara as such, but rather hasbara sessions which are taught it such a way.

    You wrote: “Do you also reject it as a communication tool, even if it is used by sophisticated thinkers, and even if it is effective?” Certainly not; my op-ed is about my problems with hasbara, not against hasbara as a whole.

    You asked: “Is non-hasbara (ie sophisticated) advocacy always preferred, even if it less effective than hasbara? In the sphere of public communication, how often does balanced, nuanced reasoning neutralise emotive sloganeering?”

    Sophisticated advocacy is not always preferred, and as you suggest sometimes emotive sloganeering is the most suitable tool to counter emotive sloganeering. In fact, supporting such a point explicitly in the op-ed, I wrote that “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 want to stress again though that hasbara – even sophisticated hasbara – is not the same as – and not a substitute for – actual Israel Education.

    I hope this clarifies my views.

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