November 18, 2009
by Sonja Karkar - Aqsa Journal, UK, Vol12n1 - Autumn 2009
Hasbara is the Hebrew word for "explanation" and is used by Israel and its supporters to describe their efforts to re-shape public opinion and build up Israelís image abroad. In fact, it is simply a euphemism for propaganda.
Israelís recent attacks on Gaza and the shockwaves reverberating around the world from the extent of its savagery has caused a drastic re-think in Israel of how to shape its image in the wake of such sudden uncensored exposure. There was no doubt that Israel had a public relations disaster on its hands and spokespersons appeared almost robot-like as they tried to make their carefully crafted hasbara credible against the images emblazoned on front pages, the nightly television news and the spread of YouTube videos capturing the sickening detail of the death and destruction that Israelís military arsenal rained down on the Palestinians.
Israel thought it had learned from its 2006 scorched-earth bombardment of Lebanon when it was having to explain away attacks on UNIFIL observer posts, Red Cross ambulances, TV transmitters, mosques and civilian areas. This time, it calculated, no effort or expense would be spared to anticipate criticism and challenges once the military machine rolled into Gaza. Eight months earlier, Israel had set up a National Information Directorate, which coordinated messages locally and around the globe. By the time the bombs were falling, Foreign Affairs ministry spokesman Andy David told Forward "the aim is to change the reality." (1) Such similar newspeak employed by a letter writer to The Guardian had Israeli Professor Avi Shlaim responding and calling it "truly Orwellian".(2)
It seems Israel is the victim of its own chutzpah, so used is it to believing that it can fool all of the people all of the time. The reality which Israel faces is the awakening of consciousness in a new generation increasingly used to living in multi-cultural societies in which racism is politically incorrect, if not actually eradicated. Controlling and manipulating the mainstream media is one thing, but the soft power of internet use in individual hands is almost impossible to control. Aware that it is in danger of losing public opinion, Israel is spending some of its Foreign Ministry budget this year to establish a team of talkback writers who will flood the websites with pro-Israel messages. Ilan Shturman who will supervise the "Internet Combat Campaign" says that "the internet is an arena in every way in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we must act here or otherwise we lose." (3)
Every possible method of communication has been in play with teams of spokespeople, bloggers and diplomats all relaying the same message. None of that helped though, as the number of dead rose dramatically over those three weeks in January and especially when some 40 Palestinian civilians were virtually obliterated in a school compound. Israelís hasbara became meaningless as thousands of images of human suffering flooded cyberspace. Even CNN anchors were shocked into admitting that Israel had broken the ceasefire, and the normally pro-Zionist Time magazine published a front cover showing the Star of David overlaid with barbed wire and the heading "Why Israel Canít Win".(4)
Israel had barred international journalists from the Gaza Strip, but the truth got out from that besieged stretch of land anyway. Palestinian journalists, bloggers and eyewitnesses inside Gaza found themselves inundated with requests for stories and photos and the electricity restrictions imposed by Israel on the beleaguered population only served to heighten the drama as reports were dashed off before power cuts intermittently interrupted communications.
Whatever the pros and cons of the internetís Facebook, YouTube and now Twitter, in this case, these networks had a way of exposing the truth that trumped the most artful sophistry as Israelís propagandists found out to their chagrin. For all the successes on Facebook of QassamCount which allowed some 70,000 members to get updated messages on where rockets landed in Israel (5) and the 76,000 members who joined the I support the Israel Defense Forces in Preventing Terror Attacks from Gaza group, (6) it was the appeal to users to support the Palestinians in Gaza that saw the biggest response with over 531,000 signatures. (7)
Never before has the world been more available to the Palestinians. If Israel can use Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, so too can the Palestinians and their supporters. The internet is the perfect medium for Palestinian stories, photographs and videos and the place to network a global movement against Israelís lies and disinformation. Already, the increasing acceptance of Palestinians into social circles and communities when Palestinians were once barely recognised, has Israel so worried that it has even set up an international educational organisation Ė StandWithUs.com Ė that is disseminating information in schools, universities, churches and libraries and facilitating conferences and missions to Israel.
But, people are not buying Israelís narrative like they once did out of guilt for remaining silent during Hitlerís genocide against the Jews of Europe. Nor are they attracted to the pioneering image that had Jews and non-Jews spend time on a kibbutz in search of some socialist utopia. Under-estimating peopleís intelligence and ability to make their own judgments on issues is a common error in this era of instant news and knowledge on tap. Israelís hasbara worked in the past because people generally could not be bothered looking for alternative views. This phenomenon was observed by economist and social theorist J A Hobson in the editors of jingo journals writing on the Boer War who "felt quite safe in continuing to repeat the most audacious falsehoods long after they have been exposed, simply because they knew that their readers, though perfectly aware that journals existed which gave another side, would not look at papers which opposed the war." (8)
However, information today is no longer something for which we have to go looking and it is very difficult to ignore a truth that is self-evident. That is precisely where new technology has been able to turn public opinion even amongst people who have the greatest affinity with Israel. It is why we are seeing so many Jews worldwide speaking up against Israelís apartheid policies and practices.
People who accept Israelís unbridled use of military power are being dishonest if they choose not to see the Palestinian narrative. Whether out of expediency, empathy with Israel, or still clinging to the last vestiges of imperialism, they have compromised themselves and the very way of life they claim to defend if they do not make an informed judgment.
The genie is out of the bottle and governments may try to force it back in, but instant information is too alluring for people to accept a return to life without it. No matter how sophisticated Israelís information technology or how slick its public relations, Palestinians and their supporters have a chance now to even up the score in the public opinion stakes. Unlike the Israeli government-funded hasbara brigade, people advocating for Palestine do not need to be paid to defend human rights and justice. Israel may have the military power, but it is unlikely to ever control the "soft" power of truth.
1."Learning from Lebanon, Israel sets up press operation" by Nathan Jeffay, FORWARD, published 31 Dec 08, issue of 09 Jan 09
2.Professor Avi Shlaim in response to a letter by Uri Dromi "This Hamas Hallucination" (23 Jan 09), The Guardian, 26 January 2009
3.Israeli Foreign Ministry Presents: Talkbacks in the Service of State" by Dora Kishinevski, The Alternative Information Center, 16 Jul 09
4.Time Magazine Cover: "Why Israel Canít Win", 19 January 2009
5."Gaza war also being waged in cyberspace" by Shashank Bengali/ McClatchy Newspapers, 13 January 2009
8.J A Hobson, "The Psychology of Jingoism" London, 1901, p101
Sonja Karkar is the founder and president of Women for Palestine and one of the founders and co-convener of Australians for Palestine in Melbourne, Australia. She is also the editor of www.australiansforpalestine.com and contributes articles on Palestine to various publications regularly.