BICOM alert: now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of Israel
Telling tales of Israel
Richard Kuper, JfJfP
Disagreement about how political issues are framed is normal. Different actors have different visions, issues of concern on which they wish to focus. It’s all part of the natural cut and thrust of politics and one can generally recognize the point of view of others, even where one’s own concerns are different.
The line between legitimately partisan presentation of an issue and propaganda is hard to draw and the aim of any successful propaganda campaign is to blur this line. Israeli hasbara (propaganda) provides many good examples of the conscious attempt by its practitioners to blur the line.
The Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre (Bicom) has recently produced a Toolkit, intended, in Bicom’s words “to give pro-Israel campaigners the essential information and advice needed to campaign for Israel both all-year-round and in the event of a crisis when Israel hits the headlines.” Strangely, you can’t find it on the Bicom website but, thanks to the net, it is available.
The reason for the concern is obvious: the Israeli narrative is not playing well among the wider public in the face of a series of own goals scored by Israel in recent years. These range from its war on Gaza three years ago now, to the massacre on the Mavi Marmara; from the almost daily reports of violence against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, to the increased hostility towards and discrimination against the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the erosion of Israeli democracy even for its dissident Jewish citizens. The advertising campaign in the US last autumn to persuade Israeli Jews to ‘come home’ America is no place for a Jew: that’s official was disastrous and had to be hastily stopped. And in recent weeks we have had the obscenity of the ultra-orthodox presenting themselves as ‘holocaust’ victims and spitting on an 8-year old girl on her way to school because of her immodest dress.
For Bicom the war on the Palestinians, the continued land grab in the West Bank, the casual violence of the occupation or the drift towards right-wing authoritarianism and fundamentalism in Israel are all secondary. The task is to divert attention from these developments by stressing other things, cases where Israel can be shown up in a good light and its enemies (i.e. its critics) in a bad one.
What is to be done? Turn the Jewish community in Britain into an organised advocate for Israel. “Although the Jewish community in the UK has over 2,000 national organisations,” says Bicom, “it lacks a grassroots network advocating for Israel.” Anyone who ‘confuses’ what Israel as ‘the Jewish state’ does with what Jews elsewhere think is often accused of making illegitimate or even antisemitic elisions. But it’s fine if Jews in the diaspora (or anyone else for that matter) wish to support Israel. And Bicom has stepped in with a hasbara (propaganda) guide: who to lobby, how to lobby and to communicate, how to organise locally, in political parties, unions, on campus and much more besides.
The truth is that, once you accept the premises, it’s not stupid. Much of what the Toolkit outlines is what anyone engaged in political argument and communication needs to know and while some of the arguments deployed may make you seethe with rage it is important to read and learn from them. It is, essentially a handbook of how to divert attention from what people are talking about (human rights, illegal settlement, occupation, humiliation, segregation) by talking about other things – Israel as a democracy, Hamas (terrorist), Judge Goldstone (he retracted), the holocaust (Palestinian leaders were Nazi supporters), Israel’s long commitment to ‘the two-state solution’ and its ‘long legacy of accepting territorial compromise as the way to solve its disputes in the region’. And so on.
Of course this Bicom publication is only one is a long list of similar interventions. In recent years the Israeli government has recognized that it is losing the battle for public opinion. (see the report in July 2010 Israeli propaganda not working so well in the US and New Israeli embassy propaganda project in which Barak Ravid reported in Ha’aretz (31 May 2010) that “The Foreign Ministry is planning to use front groups to transmit hasbara (public relations ) messages in order to influence senior politicians, opinion shapers and journalists in Europe, ministry sources said.”) A year earlier The Israel Project in the US produced its fancifully named Global Language Directory. It is a massive 116-page hasbara project, clearly marked “Property of The Israel Project. Not for distribution or publication. 2009”.
Fortunately again, there is the net. The document was leaked to Newsweek online and while it can no longer be found on that site, it is available elsewhere, currently at the location given above. In 2009 Richard Silverstein, who runs the Tikun Olam blogsite, published an article about it under the title The Israel Project’s Secret Hasbara Handbook Exposed. In it he claimed that “The first thing to say is that the entire document is a pathetic piece of propaganda.” It isn’t, unfortunately. Propaganda, maybe, but Silverstein ignores how and why propaganda works. The presentations given are generally quite sophisticated, the communication techniques they teach quite effective. You have to know in order to be able to refute their arguments. Silverstein knows; but he ignores how many don’t and for whom the selective presentation of partial aspects of the reality on the ground is either convincing, or sufficiently confusing to raise doubts and uncertainties.
Of course, you can view the organised Zionist movement as one big hasbara campaign. There is nothing particularly new about Bicom or the Israel Project campaigns. A particularly interesting earlier example is the The Hasbara Handbook: Promoting Israel on Campus published in 2002 by the World Union of Jewish Students and sponsored by the Education Department of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the US charity the Joint Distribution Committee. With its “neutralizing negativity” and “pushing positivity” approach it tries to teach its audience how to set the agenda, “how to score points while avoiding debate” and much else besides. It’s all good, cynical stuff taking its lead from marketing strategies and experience where cynical manipulation has been developed to a fine art, particularly in the US.