Setting the Scene: the Hasbara (propaganda) war


Page last updated 15 March 2019

Hasbara

Hasbara is the Hebrew word for propaganda. It ranges across a variety of forms, from “better marketing” to mobilisation of large number of foot-soldiers to bombard Facebook pages, to discrediting its opponents to actual dirty trick and the funding of secret operations to bolster Israel and discredit its critics.

In Britain the Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre (Bicom) is in the forefront of the propaganda war but Israeli NGOs are also involved worldwide, particularly the Reut Institute. Not only that: the Israeli government has also got itself heavily implicated setting up a “Ministry of Hasbara” as well as a Ministry of Strategic Affairs headed by Gilad Erdan with a substantial budget [$37m (£27m) reported in December 2017] to combat the BDS movement (see section 2 below).

1: The more benign end of hasbara

In 2011 Bicom produced a Toolkit, intended, in its 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 now including its shocking killing of 156 protestors during the course of the 2018 March of Return, 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.’”

Jewish Voice for Peace in the States sums it up well in its interventions at major rallies where the BDS movement and others are accused of delegitimising Israel, by simply pointing out: “Israel delegitimises itself,” “The occupation delegitimises 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, the Jewish nation state bill’s discrimination in law against a fifth of its citizens, 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 (great on gay rights!), 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.

In the states it is of course all much bigger business. Two of the most prominent organisations are The Israel Project (TIP) and StandWithUs.

The lavishly funded The Israel Project produced its fancifully named Global Language Directory in 2009. This is a massive 116-page hasbara project, clearly marked “Property of The Israel Project. Not for distribution or publication. 2009”. TIP was founded to tell Israel’s story through a sophisticated, high-level communication strategy. It is a major marketing company providing information and training to top-level decision-makers and makes use of with elaborate polling information on what works and what doesn’t. Its 2012 budget was $11 million and it employed nearly 70 people in Washington and Jerusalem.

Dahlia Scheindlin describes StandWithUs as “another North American hasbara NGO, [with] a budget of about $8 million, [$10m by 2016] and a similar mission. Its members are known for attack-dog argumentation strategy and aggressive social media battles in which they gang up against those who criticize Israel in ways they do not accept. It is a tactic they share with far-right groups such as NGO Monitor. The latter, along with media watchdogs, tracks every word published. They bully authors for critical attitudes, harangue and seek to discredit them over minutia.”

According to StandWithUs, “Our office in Israel has graduated over 1,000 Israeli Fellows – students who have completed their IDF service and are trained by StandWithUs to tell Israel’s story from an Israeli perspective. They bring the world to Israel through annual programs and conferences, and many of them travel abroad to America, the UK, Canada, and South Africa to share their personal experiences on campuses and in communities.” It has a Facebook page with over 1 million followers and has recently opened a legal department which has over 140 pro bono attorneys…

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 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.

Richard Silverstein, who runs the very important Tikun Olam blogsite, has published a good article The Israel Project’s Secret Hasbara Handbook Exposed. In it, however, he claimed that “The first thing to say is that the entire document is a pathetic piece of propaganda”. That is to grossly underestimate it. 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 things 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.

Then there is the Tel Aviv-based Reut Institute, founded in 2010. It has been arguing that the UK has become the centre of a systematic assault on Israel’s right to exist that unites Middle East resistance networks with allies on the liberal-left in Europe, in what it calls a red-green alliance. It claims to supply its services pro-bono to people in positions of leadership, authority, and influence in Israel’s public sphere.” In 2010 it published its study The Assault on Israel’s Legitimacy: London as a Case Study with “London stand[ing] out as a hub of delegitimization.”

Its last published Annual Report was 2015. There it suggests a substantial branching out into social media with a report on “the first ever Firewall Israel Legitimacy Hackathon, designed to harness Israeli and Jewish technological innovation to address the needs of activists fighting Israel’s delegitimization in communities and on campuses across the world. More than 100 participants – aged between 15 and 64, from six countries, including pro-Israel activists, Jewish and pro-Israel professionals, PR and marketing experts and cyber and tech developers – produced more than a dozen prototypes of tools for those fighting on the front lines against the BDS and delegitimization campaigns… Reut’s ongoing commitment includes generating crowd-sourced design, development, installation and scaling of technological tools to aid in combating the delegitimization campaign against Israel. In 2015 we created a secure website to serve the developer community and as a platform for the various applications, databases, browser add-ons, data-mining crawlers and other web tools under development.”

But let us now turn from hasbara as simple if extraordinarily well-financed how-to-win-the-argument propaganda, to something rather more sinister

2. Israeli government hasbara – a different order

In recent years the Israeli government has recognized that it is losing the battle for public opinion What we have seen is a more concerted effort by the Israeli government to involve substantial state resources in campaigns in the US, Britain and elsewhere both in the kind of hasbara activities outlined in section 1 above and in other ways. By its very nature a lot of this is hidden from view, but we are offered tantalising glimpses from time to time.

It is clear that there are many government/state bodies, paid for by the Israeli taxpayer, involved: the “Ministry of Hasbara”; a hasbara office within the Prime Minister’s Office; the Foreign Ministry; the Government Press Office; the IDF spokesperson’s unit; and the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. Even some of the universities collaborate. Back in 2012, for example both Tel Aviv and Haifa universities were reported as offering “programs in hasbara”.

The Haifa programme was called “Ambassadors in the Net”: its stated purpose was to prepare students for online Hasbara. Among other issues, the students would practice debating with anti-Israeli activists, try their hands at PR and at editing Wikipedia.

Another examples: in 2013 the Prime Minister’s Office, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, agreed to fund a hasbara organisation to disseminate propaganda on behalf of the government. The allocation of public funds, over NIS 1 million (over $250,000) in 2015, was intended to fund a joint project by the National Information Directorate and the Israeli branch of StandWithUs, an American hasbara organisation.

More recently, investigative journalists at The Seventh Eye reported that the Israeli government was paying for anti-BDS journalism. This involved spending millions of shekels placing propaganda that looked like news in Israel’s most prominent media outlets such as paying the Yediot Ahronoth media group $100,000 to publish journalistic articles and promotional videos produced by the Ministry of Strategic Affair.

The scale of government funding is now substantial. It was reported in December 2017 that Israel’s strategic affairs ministry – the remit of which is tackling efforts to “delegitimise” Israel – has been allocated $37m (£27m) to combat the BDS movement. Delegitimisation is widely defined, including, for example, the diplomatic action designed to get the UN to recognise the state of Palestine!

The ministry is headed by Gilad Erdan, and his number two is Sima Vaknin-Gil, a former military intelligence officer who told a parliamentary committee in 2016 that most of the ministry’s activities had to stay “under the radar” because of “sensitivities”. “I can’t even explain in an open forum why there are such sensitivities,” she said. The ministry’s job, she added, was to build a “community of warriors”.

The Israeli Government Press Office (the bureau that accredits journalists) plays its part, too. In October 2017 it was honoured by Israel’s association of public relations professionals for its work promoting government propaganda. Along with a Military Censor that at-least-partially redacts one in five articles that cross its desk, and out-of-control judicial gag orders that have tripled in recent years, the GPO is just one of several ways the Israeli government is able to influence what information is reported, how it is reported, and who can report it.

More threateningly, at a national conference in Israel called to opposed BDS in March 2016 Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz said that Israel should engage in “targeted civil eliminations” of BDS leaders with the help of Israeli intelligence – intentionally using language that plays on the Hebrew term for “targeted assassinations”.

All this has resulted in a relentless war against supporters of BDS. In January 2018 a blacklist of organisations banned from entering Israel was published which includes Jewish Voice for Peace and the Quaker organisation, American Friends Service Committee (which received the Nobel Peace Prize for rescuing refugees from the Nazis during the Second World War) in the US and War on Want and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in Britain

Even more insidious were the revelations in the January 2017 Al Jazeera series, The Lobby a detailed investigation into the activities of London-based Israeli diplomats. The chief culprit Shai Masot , a senior political officer at the Israeli embassy, was involved in setting up pro-Israel lobby groups inside the Labour Party; funding Israel supporting activities; and undermining the elected leaders of the Labour Party and the National Union of Students. Masot was recalled in short order and somehow presented as a rogue operator rather than a representative of a deeply embedded systematic operation which the evidence (and the subsequent suppression of an Al Jazeera follow up on the lobby in the States) would suggest. With UK government collusion, the whole scandal was simply suppressed.

Meanwhile Eitay Mack, an Israeli lawyer, has written to both ministries of Strategic Affairs and the Foreign Ministry, requesting information on Israel’s contacts and possible funding of anti-Corbyn activities by pro-Israel lobby groups in the UK. Time will tell if this produces results.

Conclusion

By its very nature it is difficult to know the extent of Israeli state institutional involvement in the activities mentioned above. State services of this kind normally operate below the radar but the large number of leaks as well as the open support for such activities from senior government ministers and officials make it clear that they are significant, well-resourced and have support at the highest levels of the Israeli state.

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Further reading

In addition to the links provide above, there is a good overview in The UK’s pro-Israel lobby in context, Tom Mills, Hilary Aked, Tom Griffin and David Miller, openDemocracyUK 2 December 2013

Jonathan Cook’s Is Israel’s hand behind the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn? Middle East Eye, 24 August 2018 is an up-to-date account, asking if Israel has been covertly fuelling claims of an “anti-Semitism crisis” in the Labour Party

A video appeared on Facebook late in August 2018 called How Israel and its partisans work to censor the Internet with this blurb: “Numerous well funded, organized projects by and for Israel work to flood social media with pro-Israel propaganda, while blocking facts Israel dislikes. The projects utilize Israeli soldiers, students, American teens and others, and range from infiltrating Wikipedia to influencing YouTube.” It appears to show footage of Israelis being trained in the art of editing online, trawling through social media etc and looks convincing – but unfortunately gives little information on what the footage actually is or how it was obtained.


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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

9. SOME KEY DEBATES

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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