Tuesday, December 26, 2006

A Hedgehog’s Hasbara

Last week I attended the second day of a conference on “The Media as a Theater of War, the Blogosphere, and the Global Battle for Civil Society”. (Unfortunately, I missed the first day, which actually covered a lot of the stuff I was most interested in. My immune system and assorted pathogens disagreed with my plans - and the less said about the details of the dispute, the better.) In the aftermath of the conference (and, indeed, during the conference itself), a number of my fellow blogger-attendees reacted rather negatively to much of the conference’s tone and content.

I’ve waited to set out my own thoughts on the subject, although I’ve written a bunch of long comments on Something Something - Liza wrote a pretty scathing review of the conference there, and some pointed debate (to put it mildly) followed between the liberal-blogger set (of which I appear, somehow, to have become an honorary member) and the rest. Foremost among the defenders of the conference is Richard Landes, who put the whole thing together and, as far as I’m aware, was principally responsible for selecting its panelists. Rather than repeat what Liza and Lisa and Yael wrote about the conference itself, I’ve been trying to figure out what’s really going on here: why is it that good and sincere people have such radical disagreements about a topic that - at least at first glance - should be fairly simple?

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There is one thing that all of us (or at least all of us involved in this debate) agree on: Israel’s image in the eyes of the rest of the world is abysmal. Our response has been to attempt more effective hasbara - literally, “explanation” but more accurately translated as “public diplomacy”, “public relations”, or (less delicately) “propaganda”. The problem is that Israeli public diplomacy has been monumentally unsuccessful of late: the plucky little underdog of yore is now seen as the big bad wolf, oppressing and occupying the Palestinians, offending Hezbollah (by existing, basically), insulting Iran by accusing President Ahmadinejad of all kinds of horrible things, and feeling offensively sorry for itself every time a walking bomb blows up a bus or café.

We seem to have tremendous difficulty understanding why we are perceived so negatively. Are we not a thriving democracy? Do we not mean well? Okay, we’ve had to do some rather unpalatable stuff at times, but hey, we live in a rough neighborhood, and it’s not like we enjoyed knocking all those houses down! And our adversaries include some genuinely evil people: guys who think blowing innocent women and children to bits is a good thing, as long as it happens to us and not them.

The hasbara establishment - consisting of certain individuals and agencies of the Israeli government, along with a bunch of concerned individuals and private organizations - has responded to the failures of Israeli image-making by circling the wagons, closing ranks, girding their loins, going for the jugular, and keeping their powder dry: or, in other words and without the tortured metaphors, they’ve opted to do pretty much what they’ve been doing all along, but louder and more forcefully.

Others of us believe that a more nuanced, diverse, and proactive approach is called for. For example, rather than simply reacting to events on the ground by trying to explain or justify them - the approach that is implicit in the use of the Hebrew word for “explanation” to describe public diplomacy - we believe that public-relations concerns need to be a major input into policy-making: Just as politicians get advice from security experts before making decisions with security implications, they should get advice from people who understand international journalism and public opinion before making decisions that will affect how Israel is perceived overseas.

While we “hasbara rebels” don’t have an official set of beliefs - we aren’t a cohesive, organized group, although someone recently accused us of being a “sorority” and I’ve always wanted to sneak my way into a sorority - a lot of us seem to believe that current, traditional Israeli hasbara is not only too reactive, but also too strident, too self-righteous, and too focused on the evils of our adversaries. I’m not going to repeat all our arguments (and the counter-arguments) here; go to the thread at Something Something to see what I’m talking about. (At some point I should collect everything I wrote there and edit the good parts into something. Eventually.)

At some point early in the debate, I began to realize that the people with whom I was debating - while sincere, well-meaning, intelligent, and well informed - nonetheless didn’t get it: No matter how my sorority sisters and I tried to explain our position, they didn’t understand that we could be enthusiastic Zionists, eager to see Israel positioned better in world opinion, cognizant of the genuine problems out there (including some egregious bias in news reporting, along with an awful lot of simple and not-so-simple cluelessness) - and yet strongly disagree with their approach to hasbara.

I don’t yet entirely understand why traditional hasbara practitioners have such difficulty understanding the Sorority view - it’s not exactly rocket science, after all. Since the debate began, I’ve had the refrain from a favorite song of my youth constantly running through my brain:

Oh, you know all the words, and you sung all the notes,

But you never quite learned the song.

(from “The Hedgehog’s Song” by the Incredible String Band)

It’s rather sad, and very frustrating; I wish I could find some way to convince people who know that their approach isn’t working to think constructively about why it isn’t working and how it might be made to work better.

On the other hand, the debate has had one happy consequence: I’ve ordered CD’s of the first three albums of the Incredible String Band - the second of which includes the old favorite that I’ve had running through my head for the last week. After almost forty years, it’ll be nice to hear that music again.


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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Blogging toy of the day: WriteToMyBlog!

In the past, I've used Microsoft Word to write most of my blog posts; I like its spell-checking and formatting (as opposed to the primitive capabilities of Blogger.com's built-in editor), and I especially like the "smart quotes" feature, which automatically inserts “real” quotes (like the preceding) instead of the tacky "telegraph-style" quotes you get otherwise. It also puts in genuine apostrophes: I don't like the ones like the preceding, while I can’t help loving the real ones.

The problem, however, is this: how does one get what one has written from Word to one's blog?

The new Word 2007 is supposed to have blog integration built in; nice thought, but it doesn't help those of us who don't have (and can't afford) Word 2007. I've been using a Word add-in (from Google, the owner of Blogger.com and much else of the universe) called Blogger for Word; this allowed me to manage blog posts and send new ones to my blogs, right from Word. Only two problems: First, it doesn't work on my office PC, where I do most of my writing; and second, it doesn't support the new version of Blogger, which I'm now (perforce, more or less) using. Good-bye, Blogger for Word.

So what to do? After some frantic Googling, I've discovered a new tool that shows some promise: WriteToMyBlog. It's a free, Web-based editor that allows you to manage posts, write and post new ones, insert pictures (using a range of hosting options), and do all sorts of other cute stuff. So far, the only feature I don't see that I really want is the "smart quotes" (along with "smart apostrophe" and automatic N-dashes) - so you're probably seeing this with a bunch of non-smart quotes. Sorry sorry sorry. If it actually works, it looks like a pretty decent tool - and if you can read this, it worked!

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Lines and Inanity*

Among the many odd bits of education I’ve picked up here and there, I’ve had the pleasure of receiving some very useful training in General Semantics – a rather obscure discipline that is very difficult to define, but which can be described as a system for promoting accuracy of thought and feeling. (One of my principle teachers was Robert Pula, who I just found out – thanks to Wikipedia’s wonderfully rich cross-referencing system – died two years ago. Rest in peace, Bob.) A good bit of my rather annoying analytical style can probably be attributed to my exposure to General Semantics almost thirty years ago.

One of the fundamental concepts of General Semantics is that the map is not the territory; the word is not the thing – meaning that our verbal and non-verbal representations of reality are, at best, just representations, and not reality itself.

If we want to think accurately, we need to be aware that it’s all too easy to use these representations in ways that radically distort our understanding of the world. For example, I frequently see some of my fellow Zionists saying and writing things like, “The Palestinians don’t want peace; they just want to destroy Israel.” The problem here is that there is no such “thing” as “the Palestinians”; several million people can be classified (more or less accurately) as Palestinians, and they lack even a means of expressing a majority opinion on this or any other subject. To talk about “the Palestinians” as if they were a unitary object with a single opinion on Israel – or, for that matter, on anything else – is non-sense. (I’ve written in this vein before; see the second paragraph of my response to A____ in “Strategic assets and white elephants”.)

Since – with our limited and imperfect senses – we can never perceive reality entire, all we have is representations: words, maps, and other abstractions from the reality that is “out there” but which remains forever inaccessible to us. If we want to get along well with the universe, we should seek the most accurate representations we can get: Someone trying to understand the Middle East can no more afford to think in terms of what “the Palestinians” think than an American long-distance bus driver can afford to use a map that shows New Jersey next to Idaho. Successful navigation requires maps that fit the territory.

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All of this brings me to one of this month’s existential crises in Israel: Yuli Tamir, our Minister of Education, has come under a barrage of criticism from the Right for her decision to order the inclusion of the “Green Line” (Israel’s pre-1967 de facto border, which was in fact an armistice line recognized by neither Israel nor its Arab neighbors as a legal border) in maps to be included in new elementary-school geography textbooks. According to some (but by no means all) Israeli Rightists and their supporters overseas, including the Green Line in our children’s maps will somehow turn them all into raging members of Peace Now and otherwise sap and impurify all of their precious bodily fluids.

This controversy highlights one of the more surreal absurdities in a region that possesses over 60% of the world’s proven absurdity reserves: Although the Green Line is a significant factor in our lives, it is entirely absent from most of our maps. Since a November 1967 government decision decreed that Israeli maps should show only the post-Six-Day-War cease-fire lines and not the previous borders, the Green Line has achieved a kind of massive, intrusive invisibility.

This might make some kind of sense if the Green Line were in fact irrelevant; but it isn’t. Not only is it still a major part of Israel’s history and a constant point of reference in the debate about an eventual settlement of the Israeli/Arab conflict; it’s also a significant influence on the day-to-day lives of many Israelis:

  • Until about six years ago, Israelis living across the Green Line received reductions in their income taxes. Many Israelis think we still do, and resent us for it.

  • People living across the Green Line (myself included) have an easier time obtaining gun licenses than otherwise-similar people living inside “Israel proper”.

  • Many banks will not give mortgage loans on houses across the Green Line, or else will finance a lower percentage of a home’s purchase price than they would inside pre-1967 Israel.

  • People living across the Green Line know that they can be evicted from their homes by their government, as a result of an eventual agreement with our Arab neighbors or else as part of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal. (When we bought our house, Vaguely Sinister Wife and I had to sign papers acknowledging this; in fact, according to what we signed the government can, at least in theory, evict us without compensation for the loss of our home.)

  • As soon as you cross the Green Line from pre-1967 Israel, you come under military rather than civilian legal jurisdiction. This is easily forgotten, since Israelis living in the West Bank are normally dealt with by the Israeli legal system just as other Israelis are; but this is a privilege extended as a courtesy, and can be revoked at the government’s will. This means that if the government should decide to evict us from our homes, and should we decide to protest this decision, we could quickly find ourselves without the civil rights we normally take for granted; martial law is already in place, merely held in abeyance for us as long as it’s not needed.

  • Stuff grown or manufactured by Jews across the Green Line is apt to be boycotted by members of the Enlightened Public overseas, and even by some Israelis.

  • The Green Line features prominently in our social lives. Many people won’t visit me at home since I live on the “wrong” side of the Line by a couple of kilometers. (Others, of course, avoid me because they’re allergic to cat fluff, or simply because they don’t like me.)

In short, the Green Line is important – historically, politically, legally, economically, and socially. So where the hell is it? An awful lot of Israelis have no idea.

By eliminating the Green Line from Israeli maps, our government did not eliminate the Green Line; all it accomplished was to create a lot of inaccurate maps and ignorant Israelis. If we intend to navigate our future successfully, we need to know where the Green Line is and what the Green Line is. So let the maps be reprinted; let the Green Line show forth in all its wriggly and impractical glory! And when, eventually, it really does become merely a fact of history, let it enjoy an honorable, dignified – and visible – retirement.

* This is a rather wretched play on the title of the seminal – and rather impenetrable – textbook of General Semantics, Science and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski. I apologize abjectly – although I suspect that Korzybski would have approved of it.

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Watching a watchdog: HonestReporting veers off course

On 8 December, media watchdog HonestReporting came out with a special report on the new – and already discredited – United Nations Human Rights Council. The report is worth a read, although there’s not much there to surprise anyone who follows the United Nations and its relationship with Israel.

As I dutifully read through the report, slightly bored and mildly depressed, if not astonished, by the hypocrisy of the U.N.’s supposed human-rights establishment, I came across the following sentence:

On November 15, 19 Palestinian civilians were killed when an Israeli artillery shell veered off course, missing its intended military target.

Alarm bells began to ring. My boredom vanished. I suddenly felt that old familiar tingle in my typing fingers (all ten of them). Wasn’t HonestReporting going a bit beyond the facts here?

I very recently wrote about the Beit Hanoun tragedy, although in writing that essay I didn’t investigate the details of how Israeli artillery managed to be off-target by several hundred meters. (I was more interested in the applicability of “international law” to the incident, rather than the technical aspect of what went wrong.) Still, I remembered enough about the incident to be suspicious: HonestReporting’s description didn’t ring quite true.

The first problem here was the word “veered”. (The immediate picture that came to my mind when reading that “an Israeli artillery shell veered off course” was an ancient cartoon sequence of some guy firing off a rocket, which then, predictably, did a loop-the-loop and hit him in the butt.) If the tragedy happened because a shell “veered off course”, we are meant to assume that it had been aimed correctly and somehow took a wrong turn in mid-flight. Now this might indeed happen with a primitive rocket, and it nearly always happens when I hit a golf ball; but it doesn’t generally happen with artillery shells.

And indeed, some very quick research revealed that it didn’t happen. According to the IDF itself as well as to other reports, the shells flew straight enough, but were aimed inaccurately because of a malfunction in one circuit card of the artillery battery’s “Shilem” targeting system. The “Shilem” apparatus for this battery had been replaced five days before the Beit Hanoun tragedy; and according to at least one report, it had not been given a live-fire test before being used in the Beit Hanoun bombardment. The final report of the IDF investigation into the incident has not been released, so we don’t yet know why this particular device malfunctioned; the “Shilem” system has been in use for about 30 years and has an excellent record for reliability, which may have (perversely) contributed to the tragedy by allowing the system to be deployed with minimal post-installation testing before real-world use.

According to both the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz, seven shells were fired off-target, not just one. So even though a hardware failure was responsible for the death of nineteen innocent civilians, the operational procedures in use that day failed to correct the problem in an appropriately timely manner. (Apparently, part of the problem was that the same system that had made the mistake in the first place was also in charge of tracking where the shells hit – and it thought it was doing just fine.)

So: It was seven shells, not one. The shells didn’t change their minds in midair; they were aimed wrong by a defective system, under circumstances that remain unclear. And what about the “intended military target” of the shelling?

Here I was on firmer ground, since I had already written about the targeting of the Beit Hanoun bombardment. The actual target of the shelling was an open area that had been used on the previous day for launching Kassam rockets at Israel. Without repeating a long discussion of the targeting issue, I will only say that blithely referring to an open field as a “military target” is, at best, something of an exaggeration. The impression conveyed by the phrase “military target” is of something substantial – a weapons factory, a troop formation, or the like – rather than an open field that had been used for a military purpose on the previous day but might well be hosting a soccer game today. Even if the IDF had a more or less valid military intention in firing these shells at Beit Hanoun, the target was hardly an impressively military one.

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All of this may seem like a lot of bother about one sentence in an otherwise unobjectionable report written by an organization of whose goals I approve. But I think that this sentence highlights an important problem with many of the individuals and organizations that support Israel in the public sphere: the tendency to be just a little bit too convinced of Israeli righteousness, to be too fast to gloss over our own side’s transgressions, and thus to lose the trust of a skeptical world.

Organizations like HonestReporting bill themselves as guardians of the truth – in HonestReporting’s own words, “Promoting fairness. Ensuring accuracy. Effecting change.” If these organizations want to achieve anything, they need to be seen as more than just pro-Israel propaganda mouthpieces. It’s fine to be pro-Israel – many people, myself included, are immediately suspicious of anyone who claims complete neutrality – but if you’re billing yourself as a guardian of accuracy and an opponent of media bias, you need to be scrupulously accurate yourself and try hard not to be swayed by your own biases.

On this occasion – and, I’m afraid, on many others – HonestReporting has let its sympathy for Israel overrule its professed dedication to accuracy, and thus has damaged its own effectiveness.

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

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Monday, December 04, 2006

The Son Also Rises

According to the Jerusalem Post, Ariel Katsav – son and purported alibi witness of Israel’s embattled President Moshe Katsav, who has been accused of multiple counts of sexual harassment and rape – has now himself been accused of sexual harassment by a fellow employee of Israel Railways, where the younger Katsav is Director of the Customer Service Department.

Presumably Ariel Katsav, wishing to carry on the family tradition of hands-on management, misunderstood the meaning of the word “service” in his job description.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Haveil Havalim #96 has arrived!

Soccer Dad has done it again – another great edition of Haveil Havalim (the Jewish/Israeli blog carnival) is off the virtual presses. This edition is extra-special, since it includes a post from You’ll Come for the Terrorism; of course, there’s lots of other great stuff to read, too. Enjoy!

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