This blog post is the second in the IJV Rabble blog series “Debunking Hasbara”.
“Hasbara” in Hebrew literally means “explanation.” But when it features in current Israeli politics, it is nothing short of state propaganda masquerading as enlightened teaching. A public relations project, Hasbara serves to whitewash the Israeli state’s image. Applied as a daily makeover or a facelift for a sagging international profile, it is also a form of damage control in times of national crisis. After a 48-year-old occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel’s public image has lost its once lustrous aura as the “glorious” homeland of the “chosen people.” A military superpower, backed politically and financially by the U.S., and wreaking enormous human destruction with every one of its military incursions, Israel is increasingly the object of world criticism and resentment. With such sentiment on the rise, the proponents of Hasbara can scarcely play the card of self-celebration. Instead, they couple the rhetoric of extreme victimhood with the language of emotional blackmail.
Don’t pick on us or else!
Persistently, then, communication strategists sound a plaintive cry: the “Israeli state is the target of world-wide bullying, singled out for condemnation when other regimes (e.g., Syria and Iran) are far worse.” In the same thrust, these propagandists play the part of formidable judges, labeling as anti-Semitic all those who dare criticize Israel’s state policies. Far from enlightened reason, Hasbara is a double-tongued discourse, voicing self-pity in one breath and moral terror in another.
The pot that calls the kettle black…
At its most extreme, Hasbara presents the Israeli state as a sacred cow — beyond reproach. The slightest criticism is equated with hate speech, deemed abusive; legitimate protest is stamped as criminal. Contrary to its pretended neutrality, the language of Hasbara is suffused with myths and moral slurs, leaving little room for civil debate. Advocates of this propaganda thrive on verbal warfare, labeling Jewish dissenters “self-hating Jews” and non-Jews anti-Semites. Such insults are themselves forms of moral abuse.
Singular but not singled out? You can’t have it both ways.
But if Hasbara appears monolithic, it is also contradictory. Some proponents such as Irwin Cotler have supposedly allowed for criticism of Israel and argued that it is not “anti-Semitic, and saying so is wrong. But singling Israel out for selective condemnation and opprobrium…is discriminatory and hateful, and not saying so is dishonest.”
Clearly, as former Minister of Justice, Cotler’s aim is to defend his position with balance. But his assumed impartiality is compromised by an entrenched sense of Jewish victimhood. The victimization of the Jewish people, he argues, is exceptional. And this exceptional treatment offends him. Yet he fails to see that the apparent singling out of Israel for condemnation can garner little public pity when the Israeli state exploits the historic persecution of Jews as the carte blanche to violate the rights of others. One cannot be at once exceptional victim and exceptional victor. Pathos and triumphalist domination don’t mix well — except in the case of schoolyard bullies. Nor does public opinion take kindly to hypocrisy: e.g., Israel claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East but acts above the law when it flouts UN resolutions and Geneva conventions. Unfazed by global disapproval when it transgresses international law, and expecting preferential treatment, it is horrified when caught red handed.
Heralding itself as exceptionally victimized, exceptionally victorious, and exceptionally moral, Israel necessarily elicits close scrutiny and condemnation from its critics. For, with ostentation the stakes grow higher and the expectations greater. However way you slice it, exceptionalism can be a double-edged sword.
Birds of a feather flock together…
But if, by Irwin Cotler’s logic, the Israeli state is not to be singled out as a reprehensible regime, it must necessarily be assessed in a comparative light, along with others, and situated beside those that it deems worse than itself. How shall it fare then in the company of the world’s most oppressive states? No better than if it is selectively targeted. For comparison with other immoral regimes will not erase Israel’s own record of atrocities. On the contrary, it will bring those misdeeds under the microscope, as was the case when Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter identified Israel’s “roads for Jews only” (and more besides) as indicative of apartheid. Leaders in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa have even identified Israel’s regime of apartheid as “far worse” than apartheid South Africa.
People in glass houses…
The aim of Hasbara is to exonerate Israel for its military hostilities, its illegal expansionism, and its human rights violations. Assuming the role of arbitrary judge, such propaganda condemns “rogue” states as global perils while allowing Israel, with its arsenal of military and nuclear weaponry, to walk free. Hasbara is thus not rational “explanation,’”but emotionally coercive justification. It plucks the public’s heartstrings with pathos — conjuring up the spectres of anti-Semitism from the Second World War — and “excommunicates” Jewish dissenters from the Judaic fold. But by laying the blame exclusively on the “Other,” Hasbara’s strategy of demonizing Israel’s adversaries can only backfire. Not only is the rhetorical ploy a caricature, it is also a double standard. Consider how Israel indicts the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement for its pressure tactics while imposing the most draconian economic sanctions on Gaza and the West Bank. These sanctions have brought many Palestinians to the brink of starvation. Still, in the face of such humanitarian disaster, Israel persists in affirming its moral rectitude. It fails miserably at practising what it preaches.
Michelle Weinroth is a member of Independent Jewish Voices – Canada.