Setting the Scene: the Hasbara (propaganda) war

Page last updated 25 Oct 2015


In 2011 Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre (Bicom)  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”. A second edition appeared in 2013 under the We Believe in Israel imprint.

The reason for the concern is obvious: the Israeli narrative has not been 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 three wars on Gaza since 2008, 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 in 2011 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.

Similarly, Netanyahu’s 2015 appeal in Paris at the time of the Charlie Hebdo and supermarket killings did not go down well when he said: “This wave of terror attacks can be expected to continue, including antisemitic and murderous attacks. We say to the Jews, to our brothers and sisters, Israel is your home and that of every Jew. Israel is waiting for you with open arms”. Rabbi Menachem Margolin, head of the European Jewish Association responded: “This is an unacceptable call. I criticised the Israeli government for this call after the Paris attack. I think that by saying ‘come to Israel’ you basically say: ‘There is no way to protect you where you are, so please come to Israel.'”

For Bicom, We Believe in Israel, and others, 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 hasbara 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. “Facilitate and support a grassroots network of supporters of Israel in the UK”, as We Believe in Israel puts it, and arm them with a hasbara (propaganda) guide: whom 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, this is a smart strategy. 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 infuriate, 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 Toolkit is only one of 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 the 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, there is the internet. 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, it is possible to 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 takes its lead from marketing strategies and experience where cynical manipulation has been developed to a fine art, particularly in the US.

The articles listed below include a few links in addition to those cited above and some progressive approaches to communicating alternatives.


A: Additional links

1. The UK’s pro-Israel lobby in context
Tom Mills, Hilary Aked, Tom Griffin, & David Miller, Open Democracy, 2 Dec 2013

The pro-Israel lobby is not only important in the US, but is a transnational phenomenon, fostered by transnational organisations – many headquartered in Israel – and funded in large part by transnational corporate actors…
A very useful history of the Zionist lobby in Britain from its origins until today.


2. For the first time in history, Jews can take part in war from home
Noam Sheizaf, +972, 21 Jul 2015

Avi Benayahu, who served as IDF Spokesperson during both Operation Cast Lead and the Mavi Marmara incident, explains his worldview and tactics in a lecture obtained by +972 Magazine, including how he sent army officers pretending to be civilians onto foreign television news:
“In every war, all the Jewish communities around the world identify with the IDF. They raise money and send us packages. They hold rallies in support of the army. [Now], for the first time in history, they can actually take part in the war from their homes. With the tip of their fingers, they can make an enormous contribution to Israel’s hasbara.”


3. Israel’s new strategy: “sabotage” and “attack” the global justice movement
Ali Abunimah, Electronic Intifada, 16 Feb 2010

A discussion of Israel’s influential Reut Institute, and its belief that what it calls “resisters” and “delegitimisers” are the new threat facing Israel as elaborated in its publication “The Delegitimization Challenge: Creating a Political Firewall”, Reut Institute, 14 Feb 2010.


4. Delegitimization” of Israel: The New Buzzword of Pro-Israel Activism
Allan C. Brownfeld, Media Monitors’ Network, JfJfP 29 Jul 2010

“The charge of ‘delegitimization,’ it is clear, is simply a well-coordinated campaign to avoid a real discussion of the Israeli policies which have led to a rift with the U.S. and are contrary to any movement toward real peace. Just as the repeated charge of ‘anti-Semitism’ has failed to silence critics, so will the robotic use of the term ‘delegitimization.’ The stakes are too high–for the U.S., for the Palestinians, for the real best interests of Israel–to permit any such effort to stifle free and open discussion to succeed.”


5. Israeli communications priorities, 2003
The Luntz Research Companies and the Israel Project, Electronic Intifada, April 2003

An extremely interesting analysis of how to ‘sell’ support for Israel in political lobbying in the US in the context of the Road Map. Its cynicism (realism?) as to what sells and how is breathtaking.

You will have your work cut out for you… The essential conclusion is to remain focussed on your communications priorities from this point forward. Terrorism ends first. A willing peace partner emerges second. The roadmap is executed last. And throughout it all you exhibit humility and reaffirm that the Palestinian people deserve better.


6. The ‘Israel lobby’: US aid to and support for Israel

A separate web page (under ‘International Politics’) is devoted to the Israel lobby in the States.


7. Michael Oren vs. The New York Times

In Michael Oren’s forthcoming book, “Ally”, Cohler-Esses begins, “Israel’s former ambassador to Washington relates numerous surprising displays of hostility toward Israel by American government officials, media figures and others from whom one might expect something different”. Among these is some outrageous behaviour reported against the editor of the New York Times opinion page, Andrew Rosenthal. Cohler-Esses investigates these and finds the major charge simply false.


B: Progressive approaches

1. The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Challenging Slogans through Critical Reframing 
Jeff Halper, Jimmy Johnson and Emily Schaeffer, The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), 2009

“When it comes to resolving conflicts such as that pitting Israeli Jews against Palestinian Arabs, framing is as important as the facts. All Israeli governments, be they Labor, Likud or Kadima, have successfully promoted a framing based solely on security.”

A reframing of the debate on the Israel-Palestine conflict


2. Framing 101

A Man of His Words
George Lakoff, AlterNet, 7 Sep 2004

In this excerpt from his new book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” George Lakoff talks about how transforming the language of politics can help win the good fight.


Contents of this section


a) Setting the scene: the hasbara (propaganda) war
b) Is criticism of Israel antisemitic?

Singling out Israel
Is Israel an apartheid society?
BDS and antisemitism

c) Can you have a Jewish and democratic state?
d) What is Zionism today?

e) The nature of the nakba
f) One state or two?
g) Is Hamas to blame? Is Gaza still occupied?
h) Right of return and law of return
i) The role of the JNF


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