The Lie of Hasbara

22 Nov

by Yonatan Silverman

Image courtesy of ceeby.com

Considering that governments are systems composed of human beings it is possible to analyze government actions and behavior through the lens of psychology.

The same holds true for political movements like Zionism. There is no question that the origin of Zionism is not solely a political phenomenon: personal psychology and the psychology of the Jewish nation also played major roles in launching the movement.

Let us begin with Herzl’s horror over the outrage and affront to justice in the Dreyfus Affair. As a result of his own psychological trauma in response to the case, he made a political leap, coming to see the event through the lens of Jewish nationalism. And he acted upon this.

The other major psychological element in the origins of Zionism was the plague of pogroms in Russia. The Jewish people there felt threatened and persecuted, and the instinct for personal and Jewish survival caused them to aim their feet to Palestine – even before the First Zionist Congress took place.

Palestine also represented a psychological, as well as physical, refuge for the Jewish people. At least in theory. In some unfortunate respects we have exchanged Russian Christian persecution for Arab Islamic persecution. But at least in Eretz Yisrael we have taken effective measures to fight back. Eretz Yisrael is Jewish land after all, whereas Jews were never at home in Russia. The feeling that Eretz Yisrael is our ultimate home in the world is a psychological phenomenon. Since it is the Biblical Land of Israel many would say this feeling of being at home is also a religious phenomenon.

From a national political movement with ambitious aims, the Zionist movement developed and flourished into the State of Israel, which is controlled by a sophisticated modern government with numerous departments and ministries. But psychology still plays a role in its actions and behavior. This is especially true in regard to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose stock in trade is diplomacy and the government of Israel’s relations with other governments throughout the world.

Which offices does the Ministry of Foreign Affairs encompass?

Its most important component consists of the missions that represent the State of Israel in 162 countries around the world. These offices all have consular departments that help Israeli citizens with visas and passports, and so forth. The description on the Foreign Ministry website states:

The Foreign Ministry formulates, implements and presents the foreign policy of the Government of Israel. It represents the state vis-à-vis foreign governments and international organizations, explains its positions and problems throughout the world, and endeavors to promote its economic, cultural, and scientific relations…

(from http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/MFAArchive/2000_2009/2003/10/Ministry+of+Foreign+Affairs.htm)

One central office in the Foreign Ministry is the Office of Public Relations (Public Affairs) or Hasbara.

The Information and Media Division comprises six units:

•         Public Affairs Department (audiovisual aids, productions and publications, special projects)

•         Information & Internet Department (gathering information and disseminating it in real-time to missions and reporters in Israel)

•         Spokesman’s Office and Press Department (relations with the Israeli and foreign press, visiting journalists);

•         Arab Media Department

•         External Relations Department (requests from the public, friendship societies, local government, municipal organizations)

•         Management and Budget Department

It is clear from the above information that the Foreign Ministry’s Information and Media Division comprises an international information service mainly geared to foreign journalists. This is a task that every government in the world undertakes. A democratic country should disseminate information about itself to the rest of the world. This aids in attracting incoming tourism, foreign investment, and so on.

But “Hasbara” – Public Relations – is a horse of a different color. While every country operates an office of public information through its foreign ministry, only the State of Israel involves itself in public relations, as if through clever advertising a country can improve its stature and standing in the eyes of the rest of the world. But this undertaking is a disgrace and emanates from a totally erroneous inferiority complex.

Take a look at the description that follows from the Italian Foreign Ministry website:

The Office for Relations with the Public (URP) is part of the Press and Institutional Communication Service. Under Legislative Decree 29 of 3 February 1993, it handles relations between the Foreign Ministry and the public, its aim being to ensure that the ministry’s activities are as transparent as possible.

What does the URP do?

The URP supplies information on all sectors of the Foreign Ministry’s work. It publishes the website’s “Frequently Asked Questions” (FAQ) section, where you can find information on the activities and services of the Ministry and of Italy’s worldwide diplomatic and consular network.

More specifically, the Office can answer your questions on:

•           The Italian diplomatic–consular network abroad

•           Consular services and the protection of Italian citizens abroad

•           Visas for visitors to Italy

•           Safe travel abroad

•           The promotion of the Italian language and culture abroad

•           Schools and education abroad

•           The recognition of academic qualifications

•           Study grants for Italian citizens

•           Study grants for foreign nationals

•           Internships and competitive exams for employment at the Ministry

•           Support for businesses wishing to internationalize

The office is open to the public Monday to Friday from 9:00 to 13:00.

(from http://www.esteri.it/MAE/EN/Ministero/Servizi/Sportello_Info/)

Firstly, it is obvious that the Italian URP is aimed mainly towards Italian citizens. They obviously need a whole series of services and information from the Italian Foreign Ministry. But clearly, this office also provides services and information to needy foreigners. What it does not do though, is prostrate itself before the world and act as a lobbying arm of the government, in an attempt to persuade other governments that there is nothing inferior in the country of Italy. Nor does it obsequiously explain issues and matters to foreigners and foreign governments for the purpose of winning acceptance or approbation. That is, however, the superfluous and wasteful mission of the Israel office of Hasbara.

In Yiddish, which was the eastern European Diaspora Jewish language for a thousand years, the word “nebbish” refers to someone who has an inferiority complex:

nebbish: an insignificant, pitiful person; a nonentity (from Yiddish interjection נעבעך nebekh ‘poor thing!’ (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nebbish)

One of the most famous entertainers who always plays the nebbish is Woody Allen. His humor is self-deprecating because he always presents himself as the image of the loser. He never wins the girl. He never gets promoted at work. If he runs in a race he comes in last. Woody Allen has made a career out of playing the nebbish.

The word nebbish is not generally employed to characterize countries, however, only individuals. Unfortunately, and inexplicably, the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs has adopted Woody Allen’s inferiority complex as a source for producing self-deprecating hasbara. It is almost as if the sovereign state of Israel is the image par excellence of the loser.

Yonatan Silverman is the author of For The World To See – The Life Of Margaret Bourke-White. He publishes opinion articles on local Israeli websites.

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2 Responses to “The Lie of Hasbara”

  1. David Zohar November 25, 2011 at 7:30 pm #

    The aim of Hasbara is to win friends and influence people. Meaning presenting Israel’s case before the court of world public opinion where Israel is usually outnumbered and often outgunned. As a retired Israeli diplomat I can reassure the writer that Woody Allen never served as any sort of role model in our work . Israeli Hasbara encompasses all continents except Antarctica and is designed to speak to multiple audiences in many languages taking into account a variety of religious, ethnic and cultural traditions, not to speak of varied political viewpoints , ideologies and preconceptions.
    Facing us is an array of often hostile voices that can come from the far left and the far right, from religious animosities both Moslem and Christian in origin, and fuelled by
    powerful oil interests that tie their fate to the Arab side.
    Today Israeli representatives are finding it difficult to represent a government that is methodically destroying Israel’s democratic character. Under such circumstances Hasbara indeed becomes very difficult.

  2. Fred Schlomka November 29, 2011 at 4:44 pm #

    I tend to agree with Mr. Silverman. Israeli Hasbara is regarded worldwide as a form of state propaganda, and as such is dismissed by everyone except Israel’s friends. These friends are also increasingly skeptical as the public relations efforts of the Foreign Ministry is increasingly at odds with the reality of what Israel has become. In this I agree with the final paragraph of the previous poster, Mr. Zohar.

    The image of any state emerges from its ideology, policies, actions and behavior both at home and abroad. Israel is not much different that any other state in this regard.

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