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?
* * *
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.